The forgotten story of Scotland’s first ever female telephone exchange operator

If it’s true that millennials don’t like to talk to people on the phone, they might want to spare a thought for the generations before them.

Women who worked at manual telephone exchanges became known as "hello girls."
Women who worked at manual telephone exchanges became known as "hello girls."

Once upon a time, before mobile phones, landlines and even rotary dialling, those of more advanced years will remember having to call an operator - stationed at a manual telephone exchange - who would connect them to the person they were trying to reach.

In the early to mid 20th century, manual telephone exchanges across the UK were instrumental in creating new job opportunities for women, who formed social communities around the exchanges.

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For Bella Sinclair, on the small island of Sanday, Orkney, however, the social side of this job was less pertinent. Not only was Bella the only operator working in the only telephone exchange for Orkney and the entire North Isles, but she was also said to be the UK’s first ever woman on the job.

The Belsair, Orkney, where the UK's first female switchboard operator Bella Sinclair worked.

The history of telephone exchanges

That’s not, of course, Scotland’s only connection to the history of telephone technology. Alexander Graham Bell - the inventor of the first telephone - was Scottish by birth.

It was Bell himself who demonstrated the telephone for the first time in Britain in 1878, making calls from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight with Queen Victoria present.

Just a year later in 1879, Scotland continued to make telephone history when the first manual telephone exchange opened in Glasgow.

Alexander Graham Bell, of Scottish origins, invented the first telephone.

Private phones were still rare in the UK, so members of the public would have to go to “public call offices” - set up in places like railway stations and general stores - to make a phone call.

Inside the telephone exchanges themselves, an operator receiving a call would ask the caller what number they were trying to reach.

If the number was on the operator’s switchboard, they would remove and insert jack plugs to connect the call. If not, they’d have to transfer the caller to another exchange to connect the call.

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These “call offices” would later evolve into the UK’s ubiquitous red phone boxes as more and more people invited telephones into their homes.

‘Hello Girls’

Initially, in both Britain and America, switchboard operators were male. However, those in charge of the exchanges soon became dismayed by the lack of patience, pranks and cursing exhibited by the male operators over the phone.

On both sides of the Atlantic, it was found that callers preferred the “calming” demeanor of female operators - and what’s more, they were cheaper to hire.

When larger manual exchanges opened as the 20th century progressed, being a switchboard operator was an attractive role for women who might otherwise have worked in factories or sweatshops.

These women became known as “Hello Girls” and a strong culture of female camaraderie developed around the profession - so much so that sitcom “The Hello Girls” about switchboard operators in the Fifties and Sixties was aired by the BBC in the late 1990s.

Bella Sinclair and early telephone exchanges

However, long before these huge manual telephone exchanges, the early years of telephones saw single operators working at a single switchboard in the local post office.

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This was the case for Bella Sinclair, who was born on Sandhay, Orkney in 1889. She was the second of six daughters of Kenneth Sinclair, who ran the local post office.

Sandhay’s post office doubled up as a manual phone exchange, and was the only one servicing Orkney and the North Isles. When she came of age, Bella became Britain’s first woman to service an exchange.

Despite her Orkney origins, it’s likely that Bella would have spoken in “Queen’s English” over the phone. Along with having to be a certain height to reach the jack cables, having non-accented English was often a requirement of the job.

Though it was forbidden in theory, operators also had the capability to listen in on everyone’s calls, and it’s reported that they often knew everyone’s business. As the sole operator for such a wide area, Bella might well have known intimate details about all of Orkney’s inhabitants.

She may, however, have been too busy to listen in - it’s known that she never married and looked after many children in her family, as well as helping out with other duties in the Post Office.

Even as large manual exchanges replaced these smaller arrangements across the UK, rural communities hung on to simple arrangements like that on Sandhay for a long time.

In 1976, Scotland came full circle after opening the first manual telephone exchange in Glasgow. At Portree on the Isle of Skye, the last manual telephone exchange in the UK closed in 1976 - just a few years after Bella’s death in 1972.

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In place of Sanday’s old Post Office today is the Belsair hotel.

Its name, an amalgamation of “Bella Sinclair” is perhaps, as the hotel’s website states, the only evidence left of “what an important role The Belsair, a little pub on a small island, played in technology and equality all those years ago”.