Whilst today we are used to integrated headphones with boom microphones, back in the 1940s there were a number of different ways of mounting hands-free microphones. Throat microphones were popular and the WS88 set used an integrated harness with headphones and a microphone that was held up in front of the user’s mouth. Another popular configuration was the breast microphone. This was regularly seen being worn by those in telephone exchanges and on switchboards and left the user’s hands free to operate switches and plugs etc. The microphones are very distinctive, sitting on the wearer’s sternum and with a large horn that curved up to the mouth, as seen here:
A number of different models of breast microphone were used, but this example has British Army stores codes and is typical of the type:
The most distinctive feature is the large Bakelite horn that curves upwards:
This unscrews from the base to make the microphone slightly easier to store:
The base unit is mounted on a sheet of paxolin with a control box holding the diaphragm of the microphone. This has a plug socket on the side to allow the cable from the radio or switchboard to be attached:
An adjustable neck strap is fitted, secured with a large stud on one side:
The microphone is coded in the YA Series of British Stores code, used for telephony equipment. Here is moulded into the back and repeated in stencilled white paint as YA8282 on the rear together with a manufacturing date of 1941:
The microphone was manufactured by Siemens Bothers. This company had been founded in London in 1858 as an offshoot of a German firm and specialised in producing electrical items. In World War One it was taken over by a British consortium due to being owned by enemy aliens. During World War II it was heavily involved in manufacturing electronics equipment for the military, including the emerging field of radar and its factories in London were heavily bombed. The company was taken over after the war and the factories in London shut down in the 1960s due to their outdated practices and the parent company being unwilling to modernise them.
Working on switchboards, either civilian or military, was a demanding job as recalled by Betty Catchpole who started working for the GPO in 1940:
I started in the Civil Service on my 17th birthday to train as a GPO telephonist for the London Telecommunications Service, 14/4/1940.
We had strict training from the word go. It was verbal tests, mental arithmetic, a medical examination including eyes, hearing and good teeth.
We had to be over 5’6” in our stockinged feet, right handed, English and no intonation in your speech. This was because some of the switchboards that we had to work on were extremely tall, there was a metal trim near the base of the seats which was wide enough for us to stand quickly on, to get to the plugs which were called “jacks”. If we had been any smaller it would have caused trouble having people to help you when you’re busy. In time, we had plenty of telephonists, but it was always extremely busy all the time.
Then it was on to the Burlington Arcade to sit for the Civil Service exam. When we finally got to Temple Bar/Terminus exchange (two exchanges in one) situated in the Covent Garden area it was not too far for me to walk as I lived with my parents in Guildford Street WC1 and they were caretakers for an estate agent. My brother was 20, so had been called up and was in the Army.
My training was very strict with plenty of homework. In those days everything had to be written on tickets, for each call we wrote the destination and the subscribers number and we had hundreds of calls so the destinations were in code such as HC for Hornchurch and SI for Staines. We had to memorise all the codes, but it made sense as we were so busy that if everyone knew the codes (including the clerical workers who did the statements to the subscribers) it was so much quicker. Then more pages to memorize regarding the expressions. It was all set expressions for different procedures.
We trained on dummy switchboards, then it was on to Welbeck exchange near Harley Street (just the one exchange, very nice, handy to get to by bus) to finally finish my training and receive a written card to say I was a qualified GPO telephonist.
My next exchange was Mayfair, Langham, Grosvenor and Regent , which was four exchanges in one building, quite big and near Berkeley Square. One evening I was on late duty, working to 11.00 pm, got home quite tired and as I didn’t have to go in the next day (being Sunday and my day off) decided to stay in bed a little longer than usual. I was woken by an air raid warning (war had been announced on the radio, but we completely missed it although we knew times were worrying). My father called me to get up saying “Don’t worry, but hurry, they’re here” I was trying to dress quickly, still half asleep, wondering what was up. I was very nervous; my father was busy getting flannels and was making sure they were all wet. I asked him why (he’d been gassed in the First War) and was getting the flannels for the dog. We’d already been issued with and he was thinking about the dog. Although a very strict father, he had a very caring streak. Fortunately we soon heard the “All Clear” but after that we always had clothes etc. ready for dressing quickly.
I worked at Mayfair exchange for six months. One evening when we were undressed and ready for bed we were aware that the bombing was especially bad. We didn’t have a shelter but did have a very thick wall in our kitchen. They say that you never hear the bomb that is meant for you, and I know it to be true. This night they were dropping basket bombs which always contained 10 bombs. We were crouching by the thick wall, heard a particular drop and were counting 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, getting closer all the time, when after counting 9 all Hell happened. I grabbed my mother and screamed, everything went black, rubble and walls crashing on us, aware of dust, smoke, gas leaking and water running somewhere. Our exit was completely blocked, but we knew that if we could get up some stairs there was another door we could get out of (which was used by the estate agent). So we felt along with our hands, not knowing what we were walking on, and eventually managed to get to some fresh air, shaking with shock and dazed by the experience. It was such a bad night for bombing that that none of the rescue people were about. Fortunately a neighbour took us in and his wife made us a strong cup of tea. Luckily I had an aunt in Doughty Street but she could only spare some chairs for us to sleep the night and didn’t have a lot of spare space, so we went to another aunt who lived in Hornchurch. There was a bungalow opposite empty for rent and we quickly moved in there.
I had a few weeks off work being treated for shock by the Doctor and eventually resumed work, travelling from Hornchurch to Mayfair each day. The train lines kept being out of order due to bombing, but the authorities were very efficient and had arranged clean Army Lorries standing outside the stations which we quickly jumped onto to get to another station along the line. Then at Charing Cross I had to dash out of the station to get a bus to Green Park, get off and dash round Berkeley square to get into Mayfair exchange by 8 o’clock. They were cross if you were late, so after a few months of this I asked for a transfer to another exchange (I knew I couldn’t get a transfer to Hornchurch as once you were in the London region they did not like to let you out, especially after all the special training) so I put in for Wood Street which would cut out the extra time getting a bus. A lovely exchange, I was there for 10 days and then London was hit by a night of incendiary bombs. We could see the sky aglow at Hornchurch in Essex, so we knew something was wrong. Next day when I went to work, the are was cordoned off (Wood Street had been bombed) and a Supervisor was standing by, ticking our names off and sending us to different exchanges. I was sent to Avenue exchange which was near the Tower of London. The firemen were there, busy putting fires out in the exchange, the blinds were on fire and all the windows shattered, but we just had to man the boards and get the calls through. Most exchanges have a generator of their own in case of power cuts and they were using this, but the small lights on the switch boards were very dim and so we used our personal torches. In those days you had switches on the board to time each long distance call, in the meantime the Supervisor was busy lighting candles on top of the switchboards to help us, which was funny to see but too serious to laugh about. We just kept doing the best we could and in the meantime the Post Office engineers were everywhere, working flat out and trying to sort out the muddle.
As time progressed a senior gentleman came into the exchange and just said “I want you, you and you (me included) out of the City area”. We were then taken to Central Control to get a central telephonist and on to an Italian bank that had been commandeered and where PO engineers had been busy putting lines in for us where the tellers normally sit and a big bell next to each position. So we had to answer as if we were in an exchange taking messages, but not any figures, in case someone in their haste might put a 0 in the wrong position. They could cause a lot of damage money wise. When we had finished taking the messages we pressed the bells and a stream of telegram boys came from below and delivered the messages on their bikes. This went on all round the city for several weeks and I must say it was excellent work by the engineers. The service was free to the subscribers, to repay them for not being able to get through to a proper exchange.
From there I was sent to Faraday Building near St Paul’s. It was the tallest building then in the whole of the city. A huge exchange, several lifts to take the telephonists to each floor and a huge restaurant at the top of the building which, if memory serves correctly was on the 9th floor. I started on the first floor, opposite the trunk telephone and I was on the City and Central boards for a while. Later, I was sent to the top floor on a PBX (Private Box Exchange) board which is not an exchange but like a private switch board. It was the engineering switchboard for the whole of Faraday, different working and we did our Sunday duties there too. Our shifts were until the night (men) telephonists came on, and then we relieved them in the morning. The bombing was still very bad and so it was decided that 500 telephonists had to sleep the night at Faraday, so there were enough staff to man the boards in the morning. It felt very strange going into the basements to sleep with a crowd of girls I didn’t know, but we were in the same boat and all fitted in with each other. There was never any trouble with anyone, quite decent girls altogether. Being PBX operators we were still GPO, but we came under another Control which was in Cannon Street. We had to ring them as soon as we staffed the board, say our name and duty, and they made a note of it. I found out later why.