Bombs, blazes and the Blitz – All in a day's work for telephonist Eileen
A retired telephonist, who didn’t allow even the bombs and blazes of the Blitz to stop her vital work of connecting emergency calls, celebrated her 95th birthday in this week - with no less than 95 very special presents.
Eileen Haynes joined the telephone service, which was then part of the Post Office, at the age of 17 when her father, James Gordon, who worked at Mount Pleasant Post Office in London, suggested she should become a telephonist.
She trained at Clerkenwell, and then moved to various telephone exchanges around West London during the next four years, including Hatch End, Harrow, and a location known as ‘Switchroom 6S’ at an exchange near St Paul’s Cathedral.
Eileen, from Chilwell, Nottingham, has countless memories of a telephone career, which began in 1940 and continued, on and off, until her retirement in 1987.
One night during the height of the Blitz was particularly memorable. She helped put out a blaze caused by an incendiary bomb next to the telephone exchange - and then promptly returned to work to continue dealing with emergency calls.
To mark her 95th birthday, her family built a mock-up of BT’s historic red phone box, containing 95 presents from her three children all of which had links to their lives from childhood to present day.
Eileen said: “It was such a lovely surprise to have all my presents together in a red phone box. BT has understandably been a big part of my life and where my career all started back in the 1940s. I have many fond memories going back decades and have been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic people, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day.”
Life was never dull in the capital during the wartime years. It was at Hatch End where Eileen was involved in the incendiary bomb incident. She was involved in fire-watching when the bomb landed by the exchange and set light to the fence. She helped to extinguish the fire and then went back to deal with all the emergency calls, regardless of the danger posed by the nightly bombing raids overhead.
She left her role in 1944 to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, because she found it difficult to deal with the emotional calls when connecting people who had received bad news, or were being reunited with missing friends or family.
When connecting callers, telephonists had a switch so that they could listen to know when a call had ended – a practical necessity at the time. She found these calls difficult as her husband, Ernest, was a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore, and she lived in constant fear of what might happen to him. He survived the war and lived into his 80s.
Eileen briefly returned to the company between 1950 and 1952, and then again as a supervisor in 1980. Based at the Uxbridge telephone exchange and then in her late 50s, this was a challenging role as she had to quickly get to grips with computers and other new technology that was being introduced. She worked there until her retirement in 1987.
Owen Moody, BT’s regional director for the east midlands, said: “It’s fascinating to hear Eileen’s many memories and of the dedication shown in maintaining the vital telephone service, particularly during harrowing experiences, such as the Blitz. On behalf of everyone at BT, I’d like to wish Eileen a very happy 95th birthday and we’ve sent some flowers to her to mark the occasion. It looks as though she’s had a great time celebrating with family and friends and we’re all really impressed with the phone box they created. It looks brilliant.”