‘Miss Sprott (of the BBC) takes Lunch in Hull’ trumpeted the Daily Mail on 31 March 1939.1 The venue for the BBC’s Women’s Press Representative, the local paper informed its readers, was the Women’s Luncheon Club and her lecture on ‘Broadcasting of Today and Tomorrow’ had attracted a large audience. As an avid motorist, Elise Sprott would have invariably driven from London (avoiding main roads wherever possible) perhaps taking with her the MBE she had been awarded for services to broadcasting the previous year.2

Ever since I first came across the beguilingly named Elise Sprott in 2002, I have been captivated by her.3 She was a BBC stalwart. Her first association with the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then called, was in June 1924, when she came before the microphone to give a short talk on ‘Continental Fashions in Food’. The following year she was offered a ?3.15s a week staff job as an Assistant in the Talks Department, where she would make her mark developing household programmes for women. Moved to the role of Women’s Press Representative in 1931, she would spend the rest of her BBC career promoting the Corporation, informing women about its work (as she did in Hull) as well as telling the world about the women who worked for the BBC.

  • 1 Hull Daily Mail, 31 March 1939.
  • 2 News Chronicle, 29 July 1939.
  • 3 Kate Murphy (2002) Women in the BBC: A History 1922-2002, BBC Internal Report.

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 1

K. Murphy, Behind the Wireless,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-49173-2_1

There is much about Miss Sprott that encapsulates women at the BBC in the interwar years—the subject of this book. An indomitable woman, she was in the vanguard of those whose lives had been transformed by the First World War. She started her BBC career at Savoy Hill (Head Office until the move to Broadcasting House in 1932), and then worked her way up the ranks to the senior salaried grades commanding by 1939 the generous salary of ?600 a year. Without her, it is doubtful this book could have been written, or certainly much of the colour would be gone. It was her intrepidity that ensured, from late 1931, that a constant stream of features and news stories about ‘The Silent Women of the BBC’ appeared in the British press.[1] The hundreds of cuttings she generated, carefully catalogued at the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham, have provided a vital part of the jigsaw puzzle of research.[2]

Yet despite Miss Sprott’s best efforts to put women in the picture, they have largely been left out of the historiography of the BBC. In fact it was a tantalising paragraph in the second volume of Asa Briggs’ monumental History of Broadcasting in the UK that whetted my appetite for this project.[3] Here, in a few lines, Briggs touched on the ‘key part’ women played in the daily running of the organisation before the Second World War, including a fleeting reference to Elise Sprott.[4] Briggs was right, women worked in the interwar BBC at all levels, apart from the very top: as charwomen and kitchen hands; as secretaries and clerks; as drama producers, press officers, advertising canvassers and Children’s Hour Organisers. They headed the Reference Library and the Registry; they ran the Duplicating Section and the Telephone Exchange, and, in the role of BBC Cashier, ensured wages were paid. Three women held Director-level posts: Hilda Matheson (Director of

Talks, 1927-1932), Mary Somerville (Director of School Broadcasting, 1931-1947) and Isa Benzie (Foreign Director, 1933-1938) while Gweneth Freeman (always known as Miss Freeman) had responsibility for all female secretarial and clerical staff. Women were everywhere: at the staff dance, on the netball court and in the restaurant queue; their shingled hair, smart clothes and lipstick smiles a symbol of the modernity of the BBC.[5]

The BBC had been established in 1922, an auspicious time for women. The vote had been won in 1918 (or at least the partial vote, for those aged over 30) and the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act had enabled entry to most professions. The First World War had changed the landscape in terms of women’s employment and the climate of the times was one of new opportunities, particularly for the middle classes. The BBC tapped into this fresh resource. Most of the BBC’s female staff were London- based (though not necessarily London-born) and those who worked at Savoy Hill/Broadcasting House are predominately the ones we shall meet in this book. After the First World War, the metropolis became the centre of Britain’s economic growth and home to countless new industries, including the BBC.[6] As Sally Alexander, Selina Todd and others have shown, young women were the main beneficiaries of these industrial changes, with the middle classes now joining their working-class sisters in the labour force looking for employment that was appropriate and respectable, particularly work that was office-based.[7] The BBC with its central location, good pay and good working conditions, touched by both celebrity and grandeur, was a highly desirable place to be, at least from the mid-1920s once its status was assured. It meant, too, that the BBC could pick and choose female staff.

The BBC also attracted the unconventional. As a contributor to the staff journal Ariel commented, there were ‘more people to the square inch who have had queer jobs at one time and another than there are in any other organisation’.1 1 Elise Sprott was one of these. Aged 39 when she joined the BBC staff, she had been born into a Cumbrian ship-owning family and had attended private school, but not university. She then worked in motor engineering, joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment during the First World War and afterwards was appointed to the staff of Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration, European Children’s Fund.[8] [9] It was as she began broadcasting on the BBC that she changed her name from Elsie to Elise, possibly an indication of aspiration.

In their introduction to Women and Work Culture: Britain 1850-1950 Krista Cowman and Louise Jackson pinpoint ‘social aspiration’ as one of the meanings of work for women and how this could be viewed also in terms of economic necessity, self-fulfilment, vocation, duty and service, with the definition of ‘skilled’ or ‘professionalism’ adding to its status.[10] Apart from ‘duty’ all these motivators are apparent in the interwar BBC. Undoubtedly economic necessity was an imperative for most, if not all, female employees. Elise Sprott as a spinster, for example, had to support herself financially. But one of the most notable features of women’s employment in the interwar years was its transience, a trait echoed at the BBC. This was because in the 1920s and 1930s there was a widely held assumption that once married, a woman would leave the workplace, either by custom or compulsion. Alice Head, the indomitable Managing Editor of Good Housekeeping magazine (which was founded the same year as the BBC) made the stark claim that it was ‘perfectly easy to pick out’ amongst the young women who worked in their offices, ‘the ones who are filling in time until they get married, and those who are ambitious, keenly interested and anxious to make careers for themselves’.[11] At the BBC, a similar belief in ‘two classes of women’ would become an unspoken criterion for advancement as well as the stimulus behind a marriage bar that was introduced in 1932. However, unlike teaching, the Civil Service and banking (amongst many others professions and workplaces), where being single was a condition of continued employment, married ‘career’ women at the BBC were rarely forced to resign.[12] [13]

As Britain’s first broadcasting industry, the BBC’s ‘unique composition’ offered the possibility of creative, administrative and technological careers, while its rapid growth meant the potential for increased responsibilities for those with the requisite drive and skills. 1 6 Hilda Matheson wrote of how the BBC had instigated many ‘new professions’, and not just for men.[14] Whether it was Kathleen Lines’ innovations in the Photographic Library, Mary Candler’s expanding work in radio copyright, Florence Minns’ growing role as an auditioner and booker of ‘talent’ or, indeed, Elise Sprott’s originations in Morning Talks, in the early years women grabbed openings for development and advancement. While the majority of BBC women were employed in the weekly paid secretarial and clerical grades, there was always the possibility of promotion to the salaried ranks where seniority brought with it improved conditions of service as well as an observable rise in prestige. This was important at a time when there were frequent warnings from the likes of Ray Strachey, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, well-known (and prolific) feminist writers, about the dangers of ‘dead-end’ jobs.[15]

Britain was excessively class conscious in the interwar years and the BBC encapsulated the attitudes and aspirations that prevailed.[16] Because it employed women and men from all social classes it provides a backdrop from which to consider issues such as social mobility and appropriate spheres of work and to make gender comparisons. Working-class women and men at the BBC, for example, worked as cleaners, kitchen hands and house staff. All other waged positions required a good level of training and/or experience and there was an expectation that the BBC’s office- based employees would be educated at least to School Certificate level. In consequence, it was those from aspiring working-class and lower middle- class backgrounds that predominated in weekly-paid clerical, secretarial and technical roles. The salaried grades, on the other hand, were filled by those from well-educated and wealthy backgrounds. The timbre of the BBC was overwhelmingly metropolitan and middle-class. It was also undoubtedly male-dominated, but women edged their way into many key posts and areas of work, negotiating their way around the ‘public school’ atmosphere and ‘old boys’ networks that they would have found.

One of the ways the BBC expressed its modernity was through an ethos of equality of opportunity. A non-gendered grading system operated from the start offering, in principle, equal pay and equal promotional chances. In April 1926 Reith robustly expressed his view that women Assistants should ‘rank on the same footing as men’.[17] The BBC’s ethos of equality appears to have existed at a handful of other forward-looking organisations in the interwar years, such as the John Lewis Partnership and the London School of Economics (LSE) and it was also apparent in professions such as advertising.[18] One of the key areas this book will address is how the newness and modernity of the BBC set it apart from traditional professions in which educated women were clustered, such as teaching and the Civil Service, where discrimination was entrenched.

This is not to say that sexual discrimination did not exist at the BBC. Practices such as the gender stereotyping of roles as well as segregation, which were the norm at this time, were evident amongst secretarial and clerical staff. For salaried women, inequalities in recruitment, discrepancies in pay and unfairness in promotion were widespread but largely hidden. This was partly because of the ad hoc way in which the Corporation developed without set systems for recruitment, salary rises and career development, although this did slowly change towards the mid-1930s. It was also because of the individualistic nature of the BBC. Each person was treated differently and women were dispersed widely throughout the organisation, often isolated amongst men.

One of the jobs created was that of ‘producer’ (although it was not termed as such at this time). The BBC’s raison d’etre was to make programmes and the vast edifice of technological and administrative positions existed to support this. A small number of women were involved in the creative process itself particularly in drama, in Children’s Hour, in music and in social documentary but, most pertinently for the female audience, in the area of women’s talks. Maggie Andrews has written about the ‘feminised’ nature of many BBC talks as the Company/Corporation wrestled with the paradox of public broadcasting entering the private sphere of the home.[19] The ‘talks aimed at women’ reveal how careful consideration was given to what was considered appropriate for listeners to hear, not only in terms of the Reithian philosophy of ‘inform, educate and entertain’ but also with regard to the domestic environment. Should talks be about housecraft or should they take women ‘out of the home’? Similar deliberations surrounded women broadcasters and their authority to speak. How far should women address women? What was considered a suitable level of expertise? In what capacity could women speak for the nation or address men?

The first five chapters of this book are about the BBC as a place for women to work. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the BBC in the 1920s and 1930s, its hierarchies and structures, the nature of men and women’s work, the conditions of employment and welfare provision and Reith’s relationships with female staff. The majority were waged women and Chapter 3 considers the particulars of working at the BBC in this capacity, with an eye to the pivotal role of the Women’s Staff Administrator and the General Office in the recruitment, training and placement of office-based staff. Chapter 4 explores the BBC Marriage Bar introduced in 1932 and the ways in which the Corporation negotiated the application of a regressive practice in a progressive organisation. In Chapter 5 the spotlight is thrown on the BBC’s salaried women and the extraordinary range of roles they occupied. Many had risen from the ranks of the weekly paid and would continue to rise into positions of authority and expertise. The BBC ethos of equality was most apparent here. Chapter 6 concentrates on the four highest-paid BBC women of the interwar years; the three Directors, Mary Somerville, Hilda Matheson, Isa Benzie and the Talks Assistant Mary Adams. Through a closer scrutiny of their backgrounds and their working lives the chapter unpicks the challenges and tensions that faced elite woman at this time. The final two chapters focus on broadcasting. Chapter 7 takes a chronological approach to the succession of four Talks Assistants, Ella Fitzgerald, Elise Sprott, Margery Wace and Janet Quigley, who had responsibility for the output ‘aimed at women’ at this time as well as highlighting the key role of Hilda Matheson in raising the profile of women’s talks. Matheson, in her capacity as Talks Director, also ensured that many more female broadcasters came before the microphone and Chapter 8 considers the role of women speakers on the BBC. Their voice and their authority to broadcast were constantly contested; their appearance on the wireless largely dependent on when they spoke, what they spoke about and who they spoke to. Finally, an Epilogue gives a brief overview of women at the BBC since 1939.

  • [1] Everywoman’s, February 1935.
  • [2] BBC WAC: P565: Personal Publicity: Press Cuttings 1924-1939.
  • [3] Asa Briggs (1965) The Golden Age of Broadcasting: The History of Broadcasting in theUnited Kingdom, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 457-8. The five volumes ofBrigg’s History include remarkably few references to women. Seaton has addressed this inher BBC history which includes a chapter on women. Jean Seaton (2015) Pinkoes andTraitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974—1987 (London: Profile) pp. 207-31.
  • [4] Histories have been written of women in early broadcasting in the USA, Germanyand Australia. Michele Hilmes (1997) Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press); Kate Lacey (1994) Feminine Frequencies:Gender, German Radio, and the Public Sphere, 1923-1945 (Michigan: University of MichiganPress); Lesley Johnson (1988) The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio(London: Routledge).
  • [5] As Adrian Bingham has shown, the popular press used the modernity of women as anemblem of post-war progress, both for good and bad, Adrian Bingham (2004) Gender,Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • [6] See Sally Alexander (2007) ‘A New Civilisation? London Surveyed 1928-1940s’ HistoryWorkshop Journal 64, 297-316.
  • [7] See Selina Todd (2005) Young Women, Work and the Family in England 1918-1950(Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 1-2, 6-7; Sally Alexander (1995) Becoming a Womanand Other Essays in 19th and 20th Century Feminist History (New York: New York UniversityPress) pp. 203^4. See also Teresa Davy ‘Shorthand Typists in London 1900-1939’ and KaySanderson ‘Women Civil Service Clerks 1925-1939’ in Leonore Davidoff and BelindaWestover eds. (1986) Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History and Women’s Work(London: Macmillan Education) pp. 124-44, 145-60.
  • [8] Ariel, June 1936.
  • [9] Women in Council (Journal of the National Council of Women), Summer 1962, SprottObituary.
  • [10] Krista Cowman and Louise Jackson eds. (2005) Women and Work Culture in Britainc.1850-1950 (Aldershot: Ashgate) pp. 6-7.
  • [11] Alice Head (1939) It Could Never Have Happened (Kingswood: The Windmill Press)p. 194.
  • [12] There are two key studies of professional women in the interwar years that relate mostclosely to the BBC, Alison Oram on teachers and Helen Glew on women in the GPO. Theirfocus is predominantly on the discrimination women faced in terms of equal pay, maritalstatus and promotional prospects which led to impassioned political campaigning. AlisonOram (1996) Women Teachers and Feminist Politics 1900—1939 (Manchester: ManchesterUniversity Press); Helen Glew (2009) Women’s Employment in the General Post Office,1914-1939 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London). Carol Dyhouse,in her study of women academics, found similar frustrations, echoed by Kaarin Michaelsen inher investigation of female medics. Carol Dyhouse (1995) No Distinction of Sex? Womenin British Universities, 1870-1939 (London: UCL Press); Kaarin Michaelsen (2005) ‘Union IsStrength: The Medical Women’s Federation and the Politics of Professionalism, 1917-30’ inCowman and Jackson, Women and Work Culture, pp. 161-76.
  • [13] The Heterodyne, June 1930.
  • [14] Hilda Matheson (1933) Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth) pp. 45-8.
  • [15] Ray Strachey (1935) Careers and Openings for Women: A Survey of Women’s Employmentand a Guide for Those Seeking Work (London: Faber and Faber); Paul Berry and Alan Bishopeds. (1985) Testament ofa Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby(London: Virago).
  • [16] See Ross McKibbin (1998) Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press).
  • [17] BBC WAC:R49/940: Women Assistants 1926, Reith to All Station Directors, 30 April1926.
  • [18] Judy Faraday (2009) A Kind of Superior Hobby: Women Managers in the John LewisPartnership 1918-1950 (Unpublished MPhil dissertation: University of Wolverhampton);Ralf Dahrendorf (1995) A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science,1895-1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 113-14, 235-7.
  • [19] Maggie Andrews (2012) Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Domesticity andFemininity (London: Continuum).
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