BACK to the pre-trunk days when local communities had telephone exchanges and their own "Hello Girls".

After railwayman Jim Mercer contracted polio, he became disabled and retrained as a telephonist, and ran the exchange at Middleton St George from 1954.

The Middleton exchange was in a house on a junction near the Felix House doctors’ surgery at the top of Middleton Lane – three houses now occupy its site.

“It was in an old shop, and the paint was green and the main room overlooking the street was the telephone exchange,” remembers Jim’s daughter, Pauline Hoy, who lives in Hurworth.

A caller picked up the receiver in their house which would put them through to the local exchange where a light indicated to the telephonist that there was a call. They would say plug in, pick up and greet the caller - hence they were called "Hello Girls" - and then ask them for the number they wanted. If a local number, they put them through on the switchboard; if further afield, they routed them to the appropriate big town exchange.

“Staff came in during the day – I remember Iris Alsopp and Margaret Howard, whose dad was the village policeman – and when they left, my dad took over. He would work evenings, through the night, weekends, bank holidays and Christmas,” says Pauline. “I remember Mr McEwan, a consultant surgeon, used to come up every Christmas Day and give him a bottle of whisky.”

There were, though, few night-time or holiday calls – it was largely only emergencies that came through to the exchange, as indicated by a red light on the switchboard.

After a couple of years, the family moved to takeover the Croft exchange, which was in the front room of a Victorian terraced house on the bank in what road signs say is Hurworth Place. The exchange was opposite the former Station pub.

Automation brought an end to the need for local exchanges and in 1961, and the family moved into Darlington where they got an ordinary house without a telephone exchange in the front room.

PREVIOUS generations of Pauline’s family had also lived above the shop: her great-grandfather, Mr Kirby, was a butcher in the east end of Hurworth. His shop was on one side of the premises, the abattoir was on the other, and the family lived above.

Sadly, Mr Kirby was killed on the premises when he was gored by a bull in the abattoir.

We don’t think the scene of this tragedy still exists – it was probably in a property next to Hurworth fish and chip shop which was pulled down to extend the churchyard.

IT is great that Pauline has been able to precisely locate Middleton St George exchange because it had been baffling many people. Jean Nott, who lives in Hurworth Place, remembers that one of the telephonists at Middleton was the very appropriately named Dorothy Bell.