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A place in history for Bourke’s Stalky Walsh

Dedicated exchange operators Mal and Judy Howchins. Judy was the last woman to say ‘Putting you through’ from the old manual exchange. PHOTO contributed

Thirty years ago this year, the Wanaaring manual exchange closed, and the Australian telephone network became a wholly automatic, national system.

It was an important milestone in the history of telecommunications and Bourke man Stephen ‘Stalky’ Walsh played an unexpected role in the historic event.

In fact, he was there from the first days of the Wanaaring Telephone Exchange to the last, turning off the power to the very last of the old manual exchanges in Australia.

“I came to Bourke in1972 as a technician for the PMG as it was known then and did that job for almost 40 years,” Steve said.

“I was 18 when I came to Bourke for a three-year stint. I was trained in maintaining one of the first ‘Cross Bar Exchanges’ when Bourke went automatic and then I was told to look after the bush telephones and that meant I had to re-learn everything – keeping the phones going, maintaining the diesel generators that powered the exchanges, and maintaining all the telephony gear.

“They were open wire telephone lines, and my job was to maintain that in collaboration with the ‘linies’ (linesmen) to determine where the faults were,” he said.

The distances Steve had to cover in his daily work were mind-boggling, and when the system was switched over to the new DRCS system those distances were even longer.

“The party lines stopped at the transformers in most cases but when it went automatic, we would have to go to people’s houses to do repairs,” Steve said.

“We got to know people really well, but I was getting a 5,000-kilometre service every three weeks and I reckon I wore out the equivalent of eight Landcruisers in my time.

“There wasn’t any privacy on the party lines, but people devised their own codes when they wanted to contact people, based on Morse code. So they would devise whatever ring combination was easy.

“If the exchange wanted someone, they would just ring their code. The party line would come in to the house on one wire, go through the phone and then go through the earth stake.

“I’ve heard stories about people who had dogs tied up to the earth stake and the dog would yelp every time the phone rang!

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