The General Office

The General Office (GO) was the women’s hub of the BBC. Most new recruits started here, a custom dating back to the early days of Savoy Hill. In many ways it was a ‘typing pool’ although the term was not widely used at this time. The housing of secretarial staff in one place was a response to Taylorite notions of time-saving and efficiency that were becoming commonplace in the 1920s and 30s.[1] The journalist and novelist Ethel Mannin, who worked as a shorthand typist in London just prior to the 1920s, described the horror of the ‘American system of one large general office’ where one had to be on one’s best behaviour all day and gossip was not allowed.[2] The General Office at the BBC was run on similarly strict lines, although the surroundings were agreeable. A description from 1938 evoked a room of about 50 girls, their desks divided into two groups of orderly rows. Careful consideration had been given to the environment under which the typists worked. The ceiling was specially soundproofed, complaints of bad lighting or faulty ventilation were few and a break was allowed for morning coffee with afternoon tea served at desks.[3] This was very different to the overcrowded, badly lit and often damp offices that many women toiled in at this time.[4]

The BBC’s General Office was a means of ensuring maximum effectiveness, the logic of accommodating all the BBC’s typists together was explained at Control Board in 1926. Here, the rule ‘insisting upon all typists being in the General Office’ was maintained ‘in order to avoid waste of typists’ time when non-employed in their particular section’, although occasional exceptions were allowed.[5] The convention that large numbers of typists should be based in the ‘GO’ continued throughout the interwar years, often a point of friction between Freeman and an aggrieved manager. By the 1930s, those based in the General Office were copy typist. Duties included typing talks, play scripts and news bulletins and addressing the thousands of envelopes needed, for example, to acknowledge applications for jobs. The office also provided a pool of secretarial cover when an ‘isolated’ girl was temporarily away. These were the shorthand typists (and occasionally copy typist) who worked for individual managers or in departmental offices and who shared the same or adjacent rooms.[6]

The General Office also crucially provided a means of assessing new staff. Many women spent their three-month probationary period here during which time their skills and aptitudes were observed. [7] The WSA would then decide whether an individual should remain in the General Office or be directed to a new role. Importantly, it was where new employees were inducted into the specific practices of the BBC. Uniformity between departments and divisions was essential to the smooth running of the BBC; by learning set secretarial procedures, these could then be applied throughout the organisation. Certainly by 1937 all new recruits were issued with the 40-page manual ‘Instructions to Women Clerical Staff’. The ‘Instructions’ including meticulous details of, for example, where to use full stops and commas, how typewriter ribbons should be requisitioned and the procedure for posting letters, as well as information on punctuality, raffles (they were not allowed) and which lavatories all but the most senior women staff were obliged to use.

Hilary Cope Morgan (who would rise to be a senior manager at Radio Times), began her BBC career in the General Office, an experience she described as ‘hell!’[8] She recalled being asked to type news scripts using eleven carbon papers, something she had never done before. At first she was ‘hopeless’, managing only two sheets at a time but she soon learned the BBC way. Dorothy Singer remembered very little of her first day except that she was directed to the ‘GO’:

.. .we were taught about the BBC and the charter and impartiality and the ethos generally, you see. And then we were farmed out to anybody who wanted extra secretarial help, to various departments, and quite early on I was sent up to the D.G.’s office, and John Reith said ‘keep her’. So that was how I started.[9]

In 1947, Miss Singer would be appointed personal secretary to William Haley, Director General of the BBC.

  • [1] Taylorism was a scientific management theory developed in the late nineteenth centurywhereby efficiency was improved by breaking jobs down into small tasks. Fiona McNally(1979) Women for Hire: A Study of the Female Office Worker (London: Macmillan) p. 79.
  • [2] Ethel Mannin (1932) All Experience (London: Jarrolds) p. 64.
  • [3] Wilfred Goatman (1938) By-Ways of the BBC (London: P.S. King) p. 25.
  • [4] See, for example, Joan Beauchamp (1937) Women Who Work (London: Lawrence andWishart) pp. 58, 61.
  • [5] BBC/WAC:R3/3/2: Control Board Minutes, 30 June 1926.
  • [6] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC, p. 26.
  • [7] All staff underwent a three-month trial period, whether waged or salaried.
  • [8] Interview with Hilary Cope Morgan.
  • [9] Interview with Dorothy Torry.
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