Chapters

Switchboard Operator

Life At The Grand

October 1st 1956 - I'm excited, but a little uneasy about my first day working at the Grand Hotel. I will have to work in shifts - one-week 7.0am till 2.0pm and one week 2.0pm till 10.0pm, and on the switchboard every other weekend.

For this, I get paid £2.3s.7d per week. It's quite a long journey from my home in Ecclesfield. I take a 20 minute bus journey, passing the Sheffield Wednesday football ground at Owlerton, along Penistone Road and West Bar, into Bridge Street bus station in Sheffield City centre, then I walk up Snigg Hill to Fargate, stopping to look in the window of Kemsley House, where the Telegraph and Star are situated - I love to see who's photograph might be on display there, (it might even be Mavis's!) and then on towards Leopold Street, pausing to look in the window of Wilson Peck (musical instruments) they are the 'posh' version of Cann's, the music shop in Dixon Lane. (After all these years, Wilson Peck finally closed down in 2001).

And so on to The Grand Hotel, in all, it takes upwards of 15 minutes, depending on how long I spend shop window gazing. The staff entrance is in Orchard Street; one goes down into the bowels of the hotel, where we have to 'clock on'. Cards with our name on, are kept in a wooden rack, with 'OUT' emblazoned across the top, on one side of the clock. We take out our card push it into a slot under the clock, which then stamps it, extremely noisily, with the time of entry. It's then placed in a rack emblazoned with 'IN', on the other side of the clock. When we leave, the whole process is reversed. Heaven help those who forget to perform this daily, and sometimes twice daily (when on 'split' shifts) ritual!

I have to be fitted for a uniform as I am going to be working on the lift, running errands, and I might even get a look at the switchboard. I have to start the day by polishing the huge mahogany table that takes up most of the vastness of the front hall. There are two enormous ashtrays on this table, which I have to keep an eye on and be constantly emptying and polishing.

The main entrance, in Barker's Pool, has two huge plate glass doors; the long reception desk is situated opposite, with the porter's desk just inside the doorway to the left, and the restaurant off to the right. Past the Porter's desk and two steps down into the main part of the hall, the switchroom, on the right, is little more than a walk-in cupboard.

The switchboard is big enough and often busy enough, for two people to work it, it is a 'dolls eye' switchboard, which means that 'lids' with a number to represent the number of the room, drops down when a phone is picked up. Many guests (and the hotel manager!) think they have to flash the cradle up and down to get our attention, this makes the 'eyelid' open and close very rapidly - making a very annoying noise, can you imagine what it would be like if everyone did that!! It's bad enough when two or three do it at once, all they need to do is pick up the phone and wait for a moment, but no, everyone seems to think that they are the only person wanting to make a phone call! (Roll on subscriber trunk dialling!!) Beside the switchroom stands a tall glass cabinet, full of paperbacks for the guests to purchase.

At weekends, when I am on the switchboard and it isn't very busy, Dennis, the nicest of the porters, will let me choose a book to read, so long as I promise to return it in good condition and not turn back the corners of the pages. A walk across the front hall towards the ballroom will bring you to the barber's shop on the left, right next to that, pushed up into a corner is my little world - the lift! Across the hall I can see into the bar which is situated between the stairs that lead up to the Manager's office, the staff dining room and the guests rooms, and the way through to the other lounge. There's also a 'secret' door that leads to the back stairs and the 'luggage' lift, which every now and again, when my lift is out of order, I have to go on. I'm appalled that the guests also have to use this horrible lift on these occasions too - or walk up several flights of stairs to get to their floor.

The front hall is also the main lounge; there are lots of easy chairs arranged in straight rows. There's another lounge by the revolving doors, which is the back entrance, but is on the main street - it all seems back to front, to me!

Even in 1956, the Grand is considered to be rather old fashioned. Is it really necessary to have a lift operator? I can only assume that it is cheaper than altering the lift's mechanism to automatic.

My uniform is awful, a muddy brown colour with faded gold cord trim, it's too short, too tight, shabby and showing all too clearly that it has been worn by many others before me. I'm told we will be getting new uniforms soon, but it seems they've been saying that for years. Anyway, I don't want one; the sooner I get out of this one the better. Little do I know that for as long as I am at the Grand, the only time I am out of uniform is when I am working on the switch board at weekends and when the regular telephonists are on holiday, then I get to wear black (whoopee!).

After I have learned how to use the switchboard, I shall take over whilst Barbara, the head telephonist, is having a break. The telephonists have their break in the staff dining room, on the mezzanine floor, whereas the hoi-polloi, such as myself, have to go down into the bowels of the hotel, and find our way through long, dimly-lit corridors, where I can hear the scurry of small brown creatures, to a room that seems to be somewhat Dickensian. The food is absolutely disgusting, a horrible looking mince, full of nasty looking bits, that I do not consider fit for human consumption. I constantly make do with bread and jam, which comes in large containers and when it hasn't fermented, is full of steam flies. There are steam flies everywhere. We keep our clothes in a locker in the locker room, where I have learned to make a lot of noise before opening the door and switching on the light, in an attempt to disperse the mice into their dark little corners, before I go in. Any clothes that have been hanging in my locker are given a good shake before changing into them - those little beggars get everywhere...

The kitchen is down here too, I have to pass it on the way to the staff room, I have seen a very nice looking young man working in the kitchen, I'd be happy to get to know him... In due course, a message comes through the grapevine that this young man would like to get to know me too, and via various messages we arrange to meet after work. I write in my diary that I hope he asks me for a date - but not yet, not until we get to know each other better!! Well, we took things very, very slowly in those days......... Actually, not as slowly as I thought, as the first time Mike takes me home, after we have both being working on the late shift, I note in my diary that he kisses me 4 times! (I'm shocked!)

Friday January 18th - we arrange to go to the cinema. 'Viva Las Vegas' is on at the Paragon. Mike isn't too bothered about musicals, but I love it, I adore musicals.
The path of young love is strewn with misunderstandings, and three weeks of seeing Mike on a daily basis has proved to be too much, especially as I seem to have a rather fickle nature - when I get what I want, I don't want it. I enjoy the thrill of the chase, but soon tire of the quarry. I am meeting so many interesting people, and much as I loathe being 'the little liftgirl', it's a great way of meeting people. I met Tony Wright today and got his autograph, he looks exactly like the photo in my 'Film Star' diary, tanned and rugged, but not at all 'film-starry' - he's really nice. I keep my autograph book handy now, as I never know whom I'm going to meet. Guy Mitchell came to stay, managed to get a photograph but not an autograph - he's tall and handsome and very friendly.

Jimmy Young is appearing at the Empire this week, and staying at the Grand, got his autograph - called me darling! He rings Australia - at £10 per minute! Hilda Baker is also here, she has a very nice young man with her called Arthur, he's supposed to be her manager, but he's always going off to play golf. One of the porters gave me a funny look when I referred to Arthur as her manager, well that's what he told me, I insist, but I get another funny look, which indicates that I must have been born yesterday. I think I understand what he is getting at, but I cannot believe it. She is old enough to be his mother, and, whilst she is my favourite comedienne, and I have the utmost respect for her, she's not exactly the type that I would have thought Arthur would be interested in. (But then I was so-oo naïve!) Arthur and I are getting on famously, I really do quite fancy him...and I am really very sorry when the week is up and they move on to some other town. (Little do I know that we will soon meet again...). I note in my diary that their hotel bill comes to £70.2s.4d - equivalent to about 34 weeks wages to me!

The Platters are also here. They are all very friendly, Robi in particular, is very nice to me, gave me a kiss and a Krone as a keepsake. (Which I still discover from time to time, hidden away in those little pots that we all have somewhere, into which we pop drawing pins, foreign stamps, coins...)

Life at the Grand is quite strange really, on the one hand, I am treated like the lowest of the low, mainly by the porters, yet the 'Stars' who stay here are usually very friendly, and treat me like a fully paid up member of the human race. Sometimes, they even treat me like I'm someone special...

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