Catherine Stanners (known as Kate) was born in Little Gaddesden and baptised in the church there on 9th October 1859. Her father, James, a watchman, was born in Little Gaddesden but her mother, Eliza, came from the Willesden area of London. From the 1861 census we learn that there were several older siblings.
Ten years later they were still living in Little Gaddesden and James was still a watchman, her mother, Eliza and also Catherine, were straw plaiters. By the time of the 1881 census the family is living in Peacock Lodge, Nettleden and Catherine, now 21, is listed as an unemployed domestic servant. She could well have been between jobs since on 29th May 1882 she married William Partridge at the church of St Philip Kensington, London. He was a native of Witheridge in Devonshire. It seems likely that they were both in service, having come to London to find work.
The young couple settled in Willesden, possibly close to where there were relations living, since Catherine’s mother Eliza had been born in Willesden. The first two sons were born in London. From the 1891 census we learn that William was a turncock, working for a waterworks. Sometime between 1894 and 1898 the family moved to Berkhamsted. What brought the family to Berkhamsted, so that Catherine was nearer her roots, we do not know, but it is possible that Catherine left London so that she could look after an elderly aunt, Sarah Stanners, aged 75, who lived with them for several years. On arriving in Berkhamsted William obtained a job as caretaker at the newly established telephone exchange at No.5 Chapel Street. The exchange was in the front room of the house and passers-by were intrigued to witness this new technology in operation.
Unfortunately, William Partridge passed away on 17th April 1908 at the young age of 53. His role as caretaker of the telephone exchange was taken over by his wife who worked as telephone operator for 28 years. Percy Birtchnell recalls seeing her in operation through her front window on his way to and from Chapel Street Infants School.
Catherine, like many another Berkhamsted family, lost a son in WWI. John Stanners Partridge, the third of her four sons, enlisted as a driver at Watford early in the war. He was killed in action on Friday 6th April 1917, on his 19th birthday. For his services his mother received posthumously three medals – the Victory, the British War and the Star. Later, she also received his effects, amounting to £7 3s 5d. John is buried far from home in the Anzin-St Aubin British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France (Grave Reference II.A.6). Catherine was determined he should be remembered in his home town too and on her husband’s grave in Rectory Lane Cemetery are the words ‘And of John 3rd son of the above (William Partridge) born on April 6th1898 killed in action April 6th 1917. A young life laid down.’ Ironically, it was Catherine who received the news of the Armistice in 1918 and the first person she told was a soldier on leave from France who was in the office at the time.
Catherine Partridge died on 25th March 1926. ‘She was familiar to very many by reason of the able and excellent manner in which for 28 years she carried out her duties at the telephone exchange.’ What sort of person was Catherine who was known to so many from all walks of life? From the lengthy obituary in the Berkhamsted Gazette we learn more and see from those who attended her funeral or left floral tributes how very respected she was by all the community.
Catherine was keenly interested in the work of the Wesleyan church, of which she was a member. Her funeral took place at the Congregational Church and was conducted by the Rev. McCullagh of the Berkhamsted Wesleyan Church. He also officiated at the Cemetery afterwards. The chief mourners were her three sons and grandchildren, sisters and brothers-in-law and cousins from London.
As well as close family and friends, members of the Cooper family were well represented among the floral tributes; Sir Richard and Lady Cooper and family, Brigadier General and Mrs Foot and Mr and Mrs F.E. Priestland. Next door neighbours in Chapel Street, ‘With deepest sympathy from all at No.6. and Castle Street Mothers’ Meeting left their tribute ‘in affectionate memory of a fellow member.’ It seemed as if the whole community was there to pay their respects to Catherine of the Telephone Exchange.