Memories of the Central Telegraph Office, Durban

Graham Read --- 29 November 2012

The following is an excerpt from an entry in my family history project. The information was provided by one of my uncles, Eddie Londal (1903-1996) who joined the Post Office in Durban in 1917 when he was 14-years old, and spent his long working career "in telegraphs".

Picture courtsey Graham Read.

Eddie Londal, left, and his brother Otto on an Indian Scout Motorcycle outside their parents' home in Ridge Road.

<== Click to view enlargement.

Eddie LOndal started as a telegraph messenger at five pounds per month, using his father's old BSA bicycle to carry him over most of Durban.

After about three months he received a promotion and worked as a distributor or indoor messenger in the Central Telegraph Office (CTO). He was immediately fascinated by the Morse instruments. After 18-months he was appointed as a learner telegraphist, at one shilling and sixpence per day. Working with Morse code came naturally to him and, after passing the appropriate examinations, he was appointed to the permanent telegraph staff in April 1920 at a salary of £10 per month.

The layout of the Durban telegraph office in 1920 included a controller and a secretary in an office near the entrance and telegraphic equipment arranged on six long tables. On the first table were two Cape Town points equipped with Wheatstone transmitters and receivers plus Morse communication, on the second were two A and B quad duplex Morse sets (Durban to Johannesburg), on the third were simplex Morse sets communicating with the South Coast, North Coast and inland offices, on the fourth were duplex Morse sets to East London, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg, on the fifth were sets to branch offices and double plate sounders to Post Offices as far as Pinetown and on the sixth were telegrams for local delivery.

All the telegraph wires from the instruments terminated on a test panel on the eastern wall and extended to all the distant offices in the Union. On the western side, there were a date stamping table, sorting racks and pneumatic tubes leading to the counters, delivery section and the eastern cable office.

Breakdowns between Cape Town and Durban occurred frequently, usually as a result of severe storms. When this occurred, three manually-operated stick perforators would produce white tape for transmission. Wheatstone receivers at the distant office would then convert the transmitted white tape signal to dots and dashes on the blue tape. When communication was restored, the blue tape - usually holding press items and twelve or more telegrams in Morse code - was hung on racks.

Telegraphists often worked until midnight and later in order to clear racks before dawn. Two shillings per hour for overtime work was considered good money.

After an incident involving what Eddie remembered as "youthful audacity", when he refused to go out and buy cigarettes for his boss, he was banished to a term of punishment in the circulation branch. He quite enjoyed his stay in there, except for the split duties, some with breaks of five hours.

He resumed duty in the Central Telegraph Office in the middle of 1923 and recalled that by this time he was "a more subdued person". He found that new equipment had been introduced to replace the outdated instruments. There was a Kleinschmidt keyboard perforator which superseded the stick antiques, an electrical transmitter and a pneumatic creed receiver and printer.

He felt fortunate to secure temporary transfers to the CTO in Johannesburg in 1927 and 1929. He found the layout of that office to be "mind-boggling". It was a large hall which had been converted to accommodate a mass of noisy instruments. On the main floor were creed transmitters and receivers, electrical perforators, the multi-plex system to Cape Town and Morse duplex sets to the larger centres. The gallery, which had earlier provided seating for the public, contained Morse sets to all the Transvaal country offices.

He felt the multi-plex system was "not my cup of tea" and was reluctant to give this "monster" with the five unit perforated tape a try. However, as he had no say in the matter, he resigned himself to working with the system and, after a few weeks of struggling, he became a fair operator.

To avoid day duty, he sometimes swapped with staff members booked on night shifts who were only too happy to oblige. One particular incident stood out in his memory. The office cleaner had left at five o'clock in the afternoon and all creed transmitted perforated tape had been gathered and heaped up on the floor to form miniature mountains.

On Friday evenings, Eddie and two friends, Cecil Green and Syd Novella who had been temporarily transferred from Durban, would invite girls from the office to partner them at dances held at the Wanderer's Club. The evenings were remembered as enjoyable affairs, at thirty shillings a couple.

The Johannesburg CTO was undoubtedly the hub of the Union. It was a very active centre and the experience Eddie gained there gave him a confident view of the future.

He returned to his position in the Durban Central Telegraph Office where the Chief Superintendent had organised a few changes. A number of branch offices were handling telegrams telephonically, the staff was happy to see the disappearance of the archaic double plate-sounders and many small offices were on local Morse circuits.

In addition to his duties at the CTO, Eddie was an accomplished violinist and spent much of his spare time playing classical music with local orchestras. From time to time, he headed dance bands.

Eddie, his four brothers and his sister, lived with their parents in a house built by his father, who was a building contractor, on Ridge Road near the Overport Terminus. A friend of Eddie, from Johannesburg, boarded with the family for a year. His name was Gus Cahill and he was a keen walker who made various walking trips to coastal resorts over weekends. Several staff members from the CTO once accompanied Eddie and Gus on a memorable "foot slog" from Durban to Pinetown via the banks of the Umgeni River.

Eddie recalled that the "craziest project" Gus ever undertook, involved his decision to walk to Johannesburg in time for his wedding there. He managed the trip all right, "but whether he was able to stay awake for the whole wedding was his secret".

Towards the end of 1930, Eddie decided to spend his six-months accumulated leave overseas, visiting his relatives in Norway, and journeying about Britain and Europe with a friend from Durban. He kept a diary of his trip. On his return, he found the Durban CTO to be unusually quiet. The depression had slowed down business considerably and traffic had almost come to a standstill.

In 1932 he went on a six-month exchange to Pretoria. The CTO in Pretoria was worse off than Durban. It was an ordeal to sit at circuits with only a trickle of traffic and some of the women would knit to pass the time, while the men would either read the local newspapers or wander around aimlessly.

A five percent decrease in salaries was effected in 1932 to ease the country's ailing economy. This was a blow mainly for the less well-paid officials. More people were affected, when departments began retrenching staff.

After Eddie returned to the Durban CTO, it became evident that traffic was gradually stepping up. Direct teleprinter communication with the larger offices had been effected on the normal physical lines which worked satisfactorily provided the weather was not too rough. As South Africa's economy had greatly improved by the end of 1933, civil servants again received the five percent which had been deducted from their salaries, plus a yearly increment.

In 1933, Eddie married Edna Red from Pretoria and the following year became father to a daughter. He had reached the age of 30 and his friends and colleagues were happy to see him settled down.

A year later the number 12 Page printers to Cape Town and Johannesburg were in full swing. Electric creed receivers, transmitters and creed-tape typing units were a great improvement on the old system. Morse was still being transmitted to the country offices and it seemed unlikely that a change was to take place in the foreseeable future.

In 1935 Eddie was transferred to Pretoria. When he arrived there he found the CTO had undergone some changes: teleprinters were in operation to all the large offices and branch traffic was handled telephonically. Rissik Street post office had been moved to a new building in Jeppe Street. Exhaustive testing had been undertaken between the larger centres and everything in the telegraph sections was in good working order by 1937.

When World War Two broke out in September 1939, Eddie volunteered for active service, but due to his special skills he was recalled and posted to the repeater office in Beaufort West. During the war, Beaufort West was the point linking lines of communication to several coastal offices and had an important radio station.

His four brothers volunteered for active service and at various times served in combat units in East Africa, North Africa and Italy. In 1942 he reapplied for military service and his application was submitted to the Under Secretary for Telecommunications. A week later a telegram arrived stating that his application for a military release had been refused. He was told to give one month's notice to vacate his house and report for duty at head office in Pretoria.

He subsequently passed the Control Officers Examination and in August 1943 was transferred to Central Telegraphs in Johannesburg as an Assistant Superintendent. He was the youngest Assistant Superintendent among fifteen others on the same grade, with an operating staff from 350 to 400 men and women ranging in age between twenty and sixty years.

Eddie retired in November 1963 to a three morgan (2,569 ha) plot with a Cape Dutch gabled house at Halfway House. He developed it into a small "farm" with fruit trees, poultry and two milking Jersey cows. He had purchased the property in 1954.

After a few months of retirement, he received a call from the Assistant Postmaster at Bramley, who offered him a temporary post which he accepted. He retired for the second time in September 1976, and was able to look back with fondness on 60 years of service.

He lost his wife in 1977 after 45 years of marriage. After selling his house and property he returned to his original home town, Durban, where he died in 1996 at the age of 93-years.

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