In July 1982, Southern reporter Colin Wight and photographer Gordon Lockie paid a visit to the only fully-manned telephone exchange in the Borders – a concrete jungle housing high banks of equipment and miles of cable, tucked between High Street and Bridge Street in Galashiels.
Their mission was to meet the day shift of four women who operated Directory Enquiries – the 24-hour cover was completed by a nightshift of male operators. The teams answered the 192 call and often had to cope with exasperated and, at times, angry callers.
In 1982 operator Isobel had already clocked up 22 years of experience.
She told Colin: “It does get frustrating. The thing is the public can’t see what is going on. They think you are knitting or something. But as Colin wrote: “Nothing could be further from the truth, for with anything up to nine calls awaiting the attention of each of the enquiry girls and an average of 30 seconds per call, it is no wonder that Buzby’s feathers often look ruffled.”
Buzby was a yellow – and later orange – talking cartoon bird, launched in 1976 as part of a marketing campaign by the then Post Office Telecommunications, which later became British Telecommunications (BT). The colourful character was often seen perched on telephone wires encouraging people to: “Make someone happy with a phone call”.
At one time enquiry operators relied on lines of trolleys bearing heavy directories and taking up a massive amount of floor space. But when TheSouthern called 30 years ago the information had been transferred onto microfiche with a single sheet displaying more than 300 pages of information. And telephone exchanges had been rapidly switching to direct dial (STD) which was introduced to Britain in 1968.
By 1982 all 59 formerly manned exchanges in the Borders had become fully automatic. Anne Young, an operator at Galashiels for 15 years, told Colin that only a handful of staff were left dealing with transfer charge and credit card calls, as well dealing with people experiencing dialling problems.
Exchange superintendent Bill Paterson predicted that it would not be long before the skilled Directory Enquiries operators would no longer exist, brushed aside, he said, by new technology in the onward march for an even faster service.
Our photographs from almost three decades ago show Anne Young connecting a caller, while technical officer Gordon Paterson undertakes routine maintenance amongst a myriad of equipment.
– compiled by Bob Burgess