Written by Helen Solomons
In 1879, my great grandfather, Mortimer Cashman Corliss, was promoted to head telegraphist in Christchurch’s newly built Post and Telegraph Office in Cathedral Square. He had been employed as a telegraphist at the Dunedin Telegraph Office since its inception. He and his wife Ellen and their two daughters, Beatrice and Florence, moved up to Christchurch and into their new home on North Belt (Bealey Avenue).
The huge advances that were being made in communication technology offered Mortimer, exciting prospects, higher wages and status. Telegraphists might be described as the first computer technicians of a new age. However, the Christchurch Post and Telegraph Department was soon to embrace an even newer invention – the telephone. In 1881, the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department became a state monopoly preventing an American antecedent of Ameritech and Bell Atlantic opening a telephone exchange here.
Christchurch’s Post and Telegraph Office was the first to open a manual exchange with battery operated transmitters. A phone wire network began to be strung across New Zealand and thirty subscribers signed up to use it. Soon other centres followed and overhead cables began appearing across the country as communities and businesses connected up.
In America, operators were trainee boys but due to their lack of patience and good manners, the Boston Telephone Exchange began to employ women in 1878. Their patience, pleasant voices and manners far outweighed the boys, who were put back to work in telegraph offices.
Mortimer and Ellen’s went on to have three more children:- Ellen in 1882, Alice in 1883 and a son, Francis in 1884. Sadly, four days after giving birth to Francis, twenty seven year old Ellen succumbed to puerperal fever and died. Mortimer was left with five children under the age of five. Fortunately, his mother-in-law, Bridget Noonan was able to live in their home and care for the children while he continued to work at the Post and Telegraph Department.
By 1892, New Zealand was following the trend to employ women as telephone operators. Even though they were paid less than men and were strictly supervised, the position of an operator was highly sought after, compared to the mundane jobs available, such as domestic maid, factory labourer, shop assistant, nurse or teacher. However there were tight restrictions when applying – she had to be unmarried, between the age of seventeen and twenty six, have a prim and proper look and arms long enough to reach the top of the high switchboard.
Wages were low, for the period around 1900. They were required to work a ten or eleven hour day, six days a week. If necessary, she would be expected to work nights and holidays. To many wealthy householders using the service, the operator was just an extension of their household servants.
The operator was the heart of the telephone system, watching over the switchboard which could contain up to two hundred lines. The operators sat in rows, wore a clunky metal headset and connected calls by inserting a plug into a socket relating to the number called. Telephone subscribers rang the exchange to speak to an operator and ask to be transferred to their chosen caller. Sometimes telephonists were expected to be an information service – providing customers with weather forecasts, train times, election results etc. even though conversations with customers was highly frowned upon.
They were supervised constantly and treated like children to prevent rules being broken – they were even expected to ask permission to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water.
Mortimer’s daughter (my grandmother) Ellen (Nellie) Corliss, who was born in 1882 in Christchurch first worked as a household maid and then shop assistant in the lace department of Armstrong’s Department Store before being old enough to apply for a position as an operator at the Post and Telegraph Exchange in the Cathedral Square c. 1900.
In the photograph Nellie is stands on the far left end of the line of Christchurch telephonists. Nellie and her work colleagues shared a strong camaraderie in their posts. They also proved to society, that women were able to handle more demanding and technical jobs with skill and confidence. Their employment in a technological service, broke down barriers and forged the way forwards for the women’s movement and feminism as well as contributing to the growth of the telephone business.
In the photograph below, twenty eight year old Nellie stands in the back row, third from left of the larger group of telephonists. The woman sitting in the centre holds a teddy bear mascot. It is interesting to note how fashion was becoming more masculine with the adoption of men’s ties worn over the dainty white blouses.
Nellie’s uncle, Edward Cashman Corliss was also employed as a telegraphist in Oamaru. A talented singer and actor, he later left New Zealand to become a famous actor in Australia. He composed this amusing poem about Nellie and wrote it in her autograph book.
The Telephone Girl
The telephone girl sits still in her chair,
And listens to voices from everywhere,
She knows all the gossip, she knows all the news,
She knows who is happy and who has the blues,
She knows all our sorrows, she knows all our joys,
She knows all “the girls who are chasing the boys.”
She knows all our troubles, she knows of our strife,
She knows every man who talks mean to his wife,
She knows every time we are out with the girls,
She knows the excuses each fellow employs.
If the telephone girl told half that she knows,
It would turn all our friends to bitterest foes,
She would sow a small wind that would soon be a gale,
And engulf us in trouble and land us in gaol.
She would start forth a story, which gaining in force,
Would cause half our wives to sue for divorce.
She could get all our churches mixed up in a fight,
And turn our bright days into sorrowing nights.
In fact she could keep the whole world in a stew,
If she told but one tenth of the things that she knew,
Say kid, but doesn’t it make your head whirl,
When you think what you owe to the Telephone girl.
by E.C.C., 1909
Nellie worked as a telephonist up until her marriage to Jack Gregan – the son of Irish settlers who had farmed in Pleasant Valley, Geraldine before retiring in Christchurch. The couple were married by Bishop Grimes in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, on Barbados Street in April, 1914.
After their wedding, Nellie left Christchurch to live on a farm in Hororata where Jack worked as a water race contractor. After working for many years, Jack was dream was to purchase a farm of his own. He went into a land ballot and won the option to purchase a farm at Teschmakers, which lay at the base of the Hunter Hills in South Canterbury.
For a woman who had been an independent working woman in a ‘modern’ city, marrying a farmer and moving to the primitive and isolated conditions of their new farm would have been such a contrast to her former life. Becoming a mother, having to break in unpastured land, sleep in a whare and cooking on a camp fire all before their house was built, must have been challenging.
Nellie and Jack went on to have eight children (one of the youngest being my mother, Nancy who was born in 1924). Unfortunately, their farm was a poor producer due to the lack of lime in the soil (not known at the time) and low meat and wool prices. However they worked hard and although watching many neighbours forced to walk off the land, they managed to keep the first farm (most likely through both of them having worked hard and saved much of their wages prior to their marriage) and were also able to buy a second more profitable farm nearby.
They lived through very hard times, and they only managed to keep going by leading a frugal and practical life. With little of life’s comforts they never went on a holiday, had no modern plumbing, no electricity (until a supply came to their area in the 1950’s). In many ways, their lives were as hard as they had been for the early settlers fifty years before. However the Gregans were strong Catholics who lead lives devoted to the family, the church and following Christian values in doing good for others and they never gave up what they believed in.
The children eventually grew up and moved away to the city to train in differing careers. Their youngest son, Dan remained at home and after Jack passed away at the age of 70, in 1952, their two sons, Des and Dan took over a farm each while Nellie moved back to Christchurch with her unmarried daughter Patricia and invalided son, Bill.
What did she think after returning to Christchurch fifty years later? She lived fifty years in isolation and letters and a radio as her only form of contact with the world outside Teschmakers. Life must have felt like a vacuum. However, Nellie was an extraordinary woman who was energetic, intelligent, optimistic, gracious and much loved woman and she took the move, all in her stride.
Nellie passed away in 1966, at the age of eighty five years in Calvary Hospital (Southern Cross Hospital site), just a few houses away from the small Victorian villa she was born in on North Belt. She was buried at the Timaru Cemetery beside her husband.
- One Photograph, 16 x 21 cm, 0452, CCL PhotoCD 14, IMG0026
- Corliss Family Collection
- Corliss Family Collection (permission required for use).
- Photographer Frederick George Radcliffe, 1910-1919. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R343.