David Rooney introduces the first voice of the speaking clock, Ethel Cain
How did Ethel Cain, a 26-year-old telephone operator from Croydon, become the most listened-to voice in 1930s Britain? David Rooney reveals how Ethel won a nationwide competition to become the first ever voice of the speaking clock.
Hello, I’m Natasha Waterson.
And I’m David Rooney, the Curator of Timekeeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Now, David, over the last few episodes you’ve been telling us about Ruth Belleville, the Greenwich Time Lady, who sold time from her 18th-century pocket watch called Arnold. Today you’re going to talk about another female time provider who took over from Ruth in the 1930s. Tell us more.
I’m going to talk about Ethel Cain, who won a speaking competition in the 1930s and became literally the most listened-to voice in Britain. Imagine it’s 1935 and you’re sitting at a cunningly disguised billiard table listening to a telephone operator talk through a golden telephone handset.
You’re sitting with Britain’s poet laureate, the chief announcer of the BBC, a newspaper magnate, and an actress. And through your telephone, you hear a woman read these words, ‘And at my window, bid good morrow, through the sweet briar, or the vine, or the twisted eglantine.’
Then Stuart Hibberd, the chief announcer of the BBC pipes up. He says, ‘What do you think of that voice, Miss Thorndyke?’ And Sybil Thorndyke replies, ‘I think it’s a charming voice. Beautiful tone, a sense of rhythm. I should like to hear it with time sentences.’
And so Ethel Cain, a 26-year-old telephone operator from Croydon starts a new sentence: ‘At the third stroke, it’ll be 4:33 and 40 seconds.’ A voice that launched a thousand rush hours, one of Britain’s most well-loved institutions, the speaking clock, dispensing Greenwich Time at the third stroke since 24 July, 1936, precisely.
Of course the speaking clock is still in existence today, but how did it come about?
Well, back in the 1930s, Britain’s hundreds of telephone exchanges were full of women connecting calls manually using jack plugs and leads and switches.
There were over 15,000 exchange operators, almost all of them young women aged from about 18 to 28. They were all very busy making all of these connections, but the problem was every month, they had to answer thousands of calls from subscribers who just wanted to know the time of day.
Now these operators had a very precise script to stick to. They’d say, ‘The time by the Exchange clock is…’ and then give the time. Carefully worded because, in the words of one post office writer, ‘No guarantee is given that the time is accurate.’
So, a better system seemed the right thing to do. In the 1930s, the post office, who ran the telephones back then, decided to go the modern way and build a talking clock.
How would that work?
It would contain a recording of all the time in the world, and they’d stick 200 telephone lines into it and let people call a special number to get Greenwich Time to a fraction of a second.
But a clock that talks needs a voice in the first place, and the post office decided to hold a nationwide competition amongst their telephone exchange operators to find the “girl with the golden voice.”
In the end, the field was whittled down from 15,000 to just nine women, and they were whisked up to London to take part in the final on 21 June 1935. And that’s where the poet laureate and Sybil Thorndyke and the other judges were sitting listening to the nine finalists reading Milton poetry through their golden telephone handsets, and Ethel Cain won the competition.
Tell us a bit more about Ethel. Where did she come from?
Well, Ethel went on to become the most famous voice in 1930s Britain, but she was a Croydon girl through and through. Her family lived for years in a modest semi in the Mitcham Road of West Croydon and
Ethel went to work for the post office, first in the Croydon phone exchange, before she moved to the large and very prestigious Victoria Exchange in town, which back in the 1930s was one of the biggest in London, handling more than 375,000 calls every week.
Now when Ethel won the Golden Voice competition, she was catapulted to stardom. Her face was in all the newspapers, you could watch her perform in a Pathe newsreel, she even ended up on a cigarette card that year. Quite the celebrity, but here’s the irony.
1935 is when the original Greenwich Time Lady, Ruth Belville, was thinking about retiring after a lifetime in the time supply business. And here was this young upstart, 26-year-old Ethel Cain, providing the voice of the speaking clock that would have put Ruth out of business if she wasn’t looking to retire anyway.
So Ruth retired in 1940, four year after the speaking clock was switched on. But out of all the 15,000 exchange operators across the hugeness of the British Isles who could have won the competition, it was Ethel.
And as I researched the story for my book on Ruth Belville, I discovered that Ethel and Ruth lived just a short walk away from each other in West Croydon. It’s a small world for the sellers of Greenwich Time.
David, thank you very much for yet another fascinating Time tale.