David Rooney introduces Rita Atkinson, the ‘perfect telephone subscriber’
David Rooney introduces Rita Atkinson, the ‘perfect telephone subscriber’ and reveals how she helped choose the first voice of the speaking clock.
Hello, I’m Natasha.
And I’m David Rooney, the curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Now today, David, you’re telling us about the role of an unknown member of the public in the history of 20th-century timekeeping. What’s the story?
Well Natasha, the first I heard about this woman was when I was researching the history of ‘the girl with the golden voice’ competition to find the voice of the brand new telephone speaking clock in the 1930s. I told you about that in a previous episode.
So, I was watching some Pathé
newsreel footage of the competition final that was held back in 1935, and I’d watched the narrator proudly identify the members of the judging panel.
Now this included all of the broadcasting and literary luminaries that you might expect to be judging a competition to find out what was going to be the most listened-to voice in 1930s Britain.
So this was Stuart Hibberd, the chief announcer of the BBC, the actress Dame Sybil Thorndyke, poet laureate John Masefield and all of that sort of thing. But there was one woman on the panel who was described simply as Mrs Atkinson, chosen as the ‘perfect telephone subscriber’.
And this seemed a strangely democratic inclusion into this aristocratic panel of judges. So I wanted to find out more about this woman with the perfect telephone manner.
And what did you find?
Well, it was quite a neat little sideline in the history of the speaking clock as it turned out. All of the telephone exchange operators in the country – there was about 15,000 of them – were competing through 1935 to be chosen as ‘the girl with the golden voice’ for the Post Office’s new talking clock.
But as they were competing to be the voice, they were also acting as judges in their own parallel competition, which was defined ‘the perfect customer’ out of all of the telephone subscribers who called the phone exchanges every day to get their calls connected.
Now here is what the Times newspaper had to say about this separate competition. They said, ‘In every telephone exchange, certain subscribers become known to the telephonists for the helpful manner in which they transact their calls.’
Now these favoured customers apparently were being nominated up and down the country to find the final member of this judging panel.
But like the golden voice competition itself, only women were allowed to take part. So the Times went on to observe, ‘The attitude of a male subscriber to a female telephonist is not always due to telephonic considerations.’
So is this where Mrs Atkinson comes into the story?
Yeah, Mrs Rita Atkinson, she lived in Burley in Wharfedale near Leeds and she won this ‘perfect telephone subscriber’ competition. She got whisked down to London, all expenses paid, first class, for the grand final of the golden voice competition, which was held on 21 June 1935.
And then one newspaper said, ‘The perfect telephone subscriber meets the perfect telephone operator.’ And the exchange operator which was chosen by the judging panel was Ethel Cain who we met earlier in this series. But it seems that Mrs Atkinson had an additional role to play in the competition and I suspect it might have raised a few eyebrows.
Really, what did she do?
Well, after the competition was over in the morning of that finals day and Ethel had won her prize, everyone sat down to a celebratory luncheon for which I have seen the menu card. It was salmon, lamb cutlets in aspic and gooseberry fool and the postmaster general was presiding.
But then everyone trooped off to the Prince of Wales Theatre, which is just off Leicester Square in London, where according to a magazine report, Ms Cain and Mrs Atkinson addressed the audience. Now, I wondered what the audience might have come to see that day in 1935, so I looked up its programme in the newspapers.
And that summer, the Prince of Wales Theatre was showing La Revue Splendide, described as a nonstop French revue in English and that afternoon when Ethel Cain and Mrs Atkinson came on their official visit.
The audience that they had come to address were there to see the cast including the glorious girls, the boyfriends and the show ladies, singing scantily clad musical numbers such as We will show you a thing or two.
These shows were for businessmen with a couple of hours on their hand and as one reviewer put it at that time, ‘An appreciative eye for the female form.’ So Natasha, the question has to be asked – what exactly did the Post Office have in mind when it sent Rita and Ethel to address that particular audience?
Sadly, no record survives of what the two women said that afternoon, or what they wore. It seems that Mrs Atkinson, the perfect telephone subscriber, was also there, probably to act as the chaperone for the 26-year-old Ethel Cain on her first public appearance as the girl with the golden voice.
David, that’s another fascinating Time tale. Thank you.
Thank you Natasha.