Home' Greymouth Star : January 20th 2018 Contents Saturday AAfternoon
Saturday, January 20, 2018 - 7
6 - Saturday, January 20, 2018
t was the Postmaster General of the day, Michael Moohan, who got to
dial up the first call from the brand new telephone exchange building
situated behind what was then known as the ornate Greymouth Chief
Post Office in Tainui Street.
The Greymouth manual exchange which I joined at age 17 had 65
operators, and ran almost the full length of the old Post Office building. It gave
continuous 24-hour service to the subscribers connected.
We had eight manual boards (used to connect local calls) and four toll
boards, with eight lines to Hokitika, eight to Westport, three to Wellington,
two to Blenheim, three to Kumara, six to Reefton, one each to Fox Glacier and
Franz Josef, and 12 to Christchurch. All were at that time connected by one
cord plugged into the particular circuit and the operator using a ringing key to
In outlying areas we had small rural automatic exchanges in Ahaura,
Moana and Rotomanu. These were each connected to subscribers in those
areas with a dial by which they could call one another by dialling a three-digit
number. As the years went by they were loaded on to party lines, which meant
that the ring went through all ‘parties’ connected on to a particular line and
each could make contact by ringing their respective codes using the side handle
located on the side of their telephone.
Many of these subscribers, probably because of where they lived, often had
long periods when their telephone was out of order due to the extreme weather
conditions — lightning, heavy rain etc — so it was not surprising that at long
last the government of the time made the announcement that a new telephone
exchange in which to house all its equipment was to be built in Greymouth on
an empty site opposite Dixon Park. This was the very site sold years later to the
Anglican community, who rebuilt their church there.
The government statement released to the public did not say exactly where
the exchange was being built, but two years later once plans had been released
the builders engaged to build it advised the chief postmaster in Greymouth
that the site was too small, so a new site was chosen at the back of the Chief
Post Office (CPO), and after many more years’ delay the building began.
All this posed a big problem for the technical group in Greymouth as the
CPO was full and there was no room for further expansion, along with the
time factor which meant the proposed opening of the new exchange was now
delayed some years.
So what happened in the old manual exchange? Well, walls had to be
removed and new second-hand, but new for us, boards were installed, firstly to
take the increased toll traffic, which had been building up.
Greymouth was also a ‘switching exchange’, which meant that Hokitika,
Kumara, Westport, Reefton and all toll calls lodged by Greymouth subscribers
had to be diverted to us so in order to be connected. Monday to Friday
from 6pm until almost 10.30pm for the next few years had the Greymouth
toll section on huge delays to all regions throughout New Zealand as we
endeavoured to connect, and often reconnect, disconnected calls for not only
our own subscribers but also for other exchanges to whom we ‘switched’.
None of this was actually our fault but the fact was that in those years
there were insufficient circuits from Grey to most other centres around New
During this time the technical team was out and about installing in every
home on the Coast new automatic telephones. Although they received the
rings and you could hear the conversation, you could not use the new telephone
to speak. If you already had a table telephone then that stayed, as did your old
wall model, with the new automatic one beside it until after cutover.
A great range of colours were on offer to choose from, as well as the
standard black. At the same time, although delayed by 12 months, changes
‘Number please?’ ‘1097K.’ ‘Sorry, that
number is engaged’. ‘Where’s the fire?’
‘What’s the time?’ ‘Can you please
ring me at 6am, I have to start work
at 7am?’ ... all very familiar to anyone
who grew up with a manual telephone
exchange, such as the one that served
Hokitika right up till the mid 1980s.
For Greymouth, though, the switch to
an automatic phone system happened
years earlier — at 9.25pm on Friday,
January 21, 1959, to be precise. TERRY
KENNEDY, now of Timaru, recalls
working as an operator at the time the
Greymouth exchange ‘went auto’.
were made to the coin box located in mobile phone boxes. You paid for your call with
a penny, but the new apparatus now had room for a sixpence, and shilling initially, plus
two buttons — one to press when told by the operator connecting your call. Button A
and Button B to obtain your money back in the event the call could not be connected.
It proved difficult for those who used all types of ‘Nonsense’ so as to fool the
operator that they had put the correct money in. Special tones exclusively for toll staff
soon stopped this tomfoolery!
Party lines became the norm for many, many folk prior to cutover. The same
problem was happening with our local subscribers.
Hundreds had individual lines but were now having to accept, even if they did not
want to, party lines with between six and eight subscribers to share the same line, each
having a letter of the alphabet added, e.g. S, M, D, H etc. To top it off, having to learn
what your ring code was (three short, two longs etc) was very frustrating for not only
the elderly of that time.
At long last it was announced as a prelude to Greymouth going auto that sub-
exchanges were being installed prior to the cutover and would immediately be
Operative UAX (Unit Automatic Exchanges) to be installed initially in Dobson,
Runanga, Ngahere and, upon cutover, in Paroa, Kumara, Barrytown and Otira.
Included in the last batch was also the complete dismantling of all RAX exchanges
on the Coast, with those subscribers to be linked to new exchanges in Ahaura, Moana
More years passed and eventually new automatic exchanges were opened at
Dobson and then Runanga, taking pressure with the manual numbers from these
subscribers being released for use in Greymouth. The only problem for those working
in the manual exchange was more toll boards to handle both new exchanges. While
subscribers could dial anywhere in their defined area they had to dial 0 and be ‘ticketed’
at sixpence a call and talk as long as you like, if they wished to contact Greymouth
All of this disappeared at 9.15pm on Friday, January 21, 1959, when at long
last ‘Number please?’ became a thing of the past in Greymouth. A large part of the
West Coast, including Reefton, became toll free upon the opening of their automatic
exchange, along with the new areas.
From a staff of 65 in the manual exchange, the new toll room employed a staff
of 19 from opening day. I must pay tribute to all the switchboard operators who
worked the manual exchange and who are no longer with us. Some staff decided to
retire the night we went auto and others sought redeployment while still staying
at the CPO. Quite a few transferred to Christchurch and various other toll rooms
around New Zealand.
One of the hardest changes to educate people on was that we no longer had
‘Information’, where you could obtain a new listing or check a number with the dial
directory service (which in those years was 17 toll, charges 10).
What did we miss? Being able to ‘live chat’ as we connected our local calls, and
the presents we received from the business community at Christmas time. Most of this
gifting fell away once we went auto.
On the positive side, gone were the nightly delays to connect toll calls. We had so
many options now. If all circuits were engaged one could dial (as all subscribers can
now do from their own telephone or mobile) a prefix on a Wellington or Blenheim line
and connect to any sub anywhere in New Zealand whose instrument was connected to
an automatic exchange. It was telephone exchange ‘heaven’.
However, as exchanges were converted from manual to automatic all over the
country, operators had no idea of the next move still to come . . .
In mid-1970s the government announced that they would begin rolling out (STD)
subscriber toll dialling, adding for example, to call Greymouth 027 5152 and slowly but
surely the number of calls coming to and from the Greymouth toll room began to fall.
Later followed re-grouping of all the automatic telephone numbers throughout
New Zealand, adding an additional number to some.
For those who were still working in the industry it was a very sad day and within a
couple of years the Greymouth toll room was no more.
When I look back I note that Greymouth has one of the biggest areas in all of
New Zealand where subscribers have free calling, from Otira right up to just past
Punakaiki and almost to Inangahua Junction, and including Reefton and out to Blacks
Point. This did not just happen but was set in place by past members of what was then
called the Post Office Association, and we should all be grateful that such is the case,
even though Telecom did try some years back to alter the boundaries.
I would like to pay tribute to all the linesmen, ‘mechanicans’ (as they were called),
cable and duct workers, phone installers and all those who, despite the weather, worked
all hours to keep the lines of communication open in those years, and still continue to
And what about now? There is a toll suite in Auckland and there was one in
Wellington and Palmerston North. Most others have long been dismantled, along with
manual boards, all consigned to pages past. In some places such as Geraldine, heritage
groups have a working model manual exchange restored by locals to give visitors an
idea of what it was like in the 1950s to use the phone.
In conclusion, this is how manual exchanges contacted the local fire brigade in
the middle of the night in times of need. One section of the manual board would have
the firemen’s homes plugged into their numbers. The exchange would be contacted by
someone in authority at the fire station and a ruler was placed across all the ringing
keys of these numbers, enabling the operator on duty to give one long ring across all of
the lines. If any were on party lines then sadly their household would also be woken.
The operator was allowed one minute to speak to the entire fire crew, stating:
“The fire is at (20 Smith Street, for example),” repeat same again and immediately
disconnect all lines. We did not have 111 in those early years and from what I
remember it was very successful for all parties.
Who would have thought that now in 2018 people can dial anywhere in the world
directly from their home phone? What’s next?
They were the good old days — and no one had ever heard of the word ‘internet’.
“All of this disappeared at
9.15pm on Friday,
January 21, 1959, when
at long last ‘Number
please?’ became a thing of
the past in Greymouth.”
Greymouth Toll Room
Greymouth Toll Room
Greymouth Telephone Exchange
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