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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC
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Promotion to the Salaried Grades

In 1937 Beatrice Hart, a weekly paid secretary in the Supplementary Publications Department, was recommended by her line-manager for promotion to the monthly paid grades. This was endorsed by the head of department, who agreed that ‘the stage has been reached when Miss Hart should be graded as a junior assistant’.[1] The possibility of promotion to a salaried position, where the conditions of service were far superior, was an important aspect of work at the BBC and set the Corporation apart from many office-based jobs in the interwar years which could be notoriously dead-end. The Civil Service was also seen as a good place for advancement. Young women who joined the Manipulative Grades as weekly paid Writing Assistants or as Typists were eligible to enter the examination for the salaried Clerical Grade. However, the competitive nature of the examination, the over-achievement of men and the many years it took to reach an appropriate level to apply for promotion to the Clerical Grades meant this could take many years. GPO records show for some women it took 20 years or more to gain promotion.[2]

Opportunities for self-advancement were a crucial element of the work ethic in the 1920s and 30s and highly pertinent in British society where social class was still so important.[3] The chance to ‘get on’ was always a focus of career guides, where ‘character’ and ‘personality’ were seen to be as critical as ambition. Dorothy Hughes was certain that while nearly all occupational doors were now open to women ‘ability and character decide in each case how wide open and how far the individual will go’.[4] This was echoed by Vrywny Biscoe who rejoiced that the ‘infinite variety of opportunities at hand’ for the college girl were also available to the non-college girl ‘given, of course, that she has that in her which makes for “character”’.[5] How much ‘character’ a young woman might have depended largely on her upbringing and education; a 14-year-old elementary school leaver would always be at a disadvantage to those who remained at school until 16 or 18.[6] The chance of promotion, though, was mostly dependent on the type of workplace one was in. However much ‘character’ and ambition a young woman might have, if there was no mechanism for advancement, she would find herself stuck.

At the BBC, for the brightest and most ambitious waged women, those who from the start showed themselves to be capable of greater responsibilities, the route to the salaried grades could be quick and easy. For others, as was the case in the Civil Service, the process could be painfully slow. It took Beatrice Hart ten years to reach the salaried grades; for Alice Wright in the Music Library the process took 14. In the case of Miss Wright, her personal file shows that the problem lay not with her direct manager, the Music Librarian, who for many years advocated her promotion to the salaried grades but with his seniors.[7] This lack of uniformity and transparency was endemic at the BBC. Promotion and mobility were largely at the whim of the manager, or managers, concerned. Clare Lawson Dick, for example, was convinced that Miss Freeman looked upon those who tried to move upwards as ‘conceited or even rebellious’. She recalled being summoned to the WSA’s office to be told that she had ‘insulted’ her seniors by applying for the position of play-reader in the Drama Department in the incorrect manner, she should have sought permission from Freeman first (Lawson Dick had performed well at the interview but did not get the post).[8] Although this vindictive attitude is not borne out in the extant personal files of those who did gain promotion to salaried positions, where Freeman is shown to be supportive, it is eminently possible that she held back those she disliked. Lawson Dick also told the story of Josephine Plummer (who rose to be Assistant Head of Children’s Hour) who saw a note in her file written by Freeman which read ‘will need to be ridden with a tight rein’.

Aside from those who applied for a monthly paid post or who were plucked out for one, it is unclear how, when, or why weekly paid individuals were considered suitable for salaried status jobs within the BBC. For some, the fact of reaching ?5 a week, the ‘roof’ for most weekly waged positions (and the equivalent of ?260 a year), seems to have prompted a redesignation of role, with an accompanying move to the salaried grades. For others whose wage rose to ?5 a week, there might be a switch to monthly pay but with no change of title. Still others who earned ?5 remained on weekly wages, often for long periods, as was the case with Alice Wright. It is not known how many other women continued on their ?5 ‘roof’ without ever gaining a salaried position, as only those who were promoted to the monthly paid grades were recorded in the Salary Information Files.

There were a number of ‘rags-to-riches’ success stories at the BBC, as mirrored in the popular books and films of the day. To have a meteoric career rise was not unheard of in the 1920s and 30s. As Elsie Lang averred in her book British Women in the Twentieth Century, ‘the majority of the great business women today have climbed into positions of ?1,000 a year and even more by means of shorthand and typing’.[9] The wealthy industrialist Lady Rhondda advised aspiring young businesswomen to start as shorthand typists in an environment where there was no prejudice against women and where, by making herself useful, she might rise to a position of power.[10] In her 1936 guide Careers for our Daughters, Dorothy Hughes enthused about the university and secondary school girls who had ‘qualified for executive responsibility’ at the BBC pinpointing three women who had started as secretaries and others who used their training as musicians or as a drama student to move into lucrative and important positions within the Corporation. Almost certainly one of the ‘musicians’ was Doris Arnold, a BBC shorthand typist who became a variety star. Her BBC career and that of Mary Hope Allen, who rose from cataloguer to drama producer, are considered in Chapter 5.

Another example of a young woman pushing for change in her career is Joan Vickery. In 1935 Vickery, a shorthand typist and then a clerk in Outside Broadcasts, was keen to transfer to the fledgling Television Department. Freeman was supportive, aware that the Department would soon need ‘girls of her calibre’ and keen that she should be in ‘on the ground floor’.[11] [12] Vickery’s manager, Gerald Beadle echoed Freeman’s opinion, clear that he would not ‘stand in the way of Miss Vickery’s advancement, because I think she deserves it’. 1 47 Vickery’s transfer was agreed and within two years, she had been promoted to the salaried grades. Other weekly paid secretarial and clerical women who moved to significant posts include Winifred Baker, who ran the Manchester Orchestra; Marjorie Redman who moved from a typist in Education to Sub-Editor of The Listener and Evelyn Shepherd who, over a period of fourteen years, was promoted from a ?1 a week clerk to a ?320 a year Furniture Buyer.

There was a clear difference in the pace at which men and women were promoted to the salaried grades, men generally moved up the ladder far more quickly.[13] It is also clear that far more senior women than men began their BBC careers as weekly paid, 53 per cent of women compared to 8.5 per cent of men. A major reason is that far fewer men were employed in secretarial or clerical positions (the majority of waged male staff were engineers) but another consideration is that the BBC was less prepared to recruit women directly to ‘officer class’ posts as Chapter 5 will show. In the 1930s there was still anxiety among feminists that it was brothers, rather than sisters, who were given opportunities to go to university.[14] At the BBC it was the graduate brothers who were recruited directly to the salaried staff; their non-graduate sisters might have to be content, initially, with the weekly paid grades. A small but significant number of female graduates also joined the BBC this way.

The President of the Women’s Employment Federation, Grace Hadow, believed starting as waged could be a positive choice, claiming ‘not all university girls who take jobs as shorthand typists will have to spend the rest of their lives taking down letters. I know of many girls who deliberately seek these jobs as a stepping-stone to something better.’[15] [16] In November 1935, Freeman reported that eight ‘university girls’ were employed by the BBC in Registry work. 1 51 The following year Ariel informed its readers that eight of Edinburgh’s secretarial staff were graduates.[17] Isa Benzie, who became Foreign Director, and Cecelia Reeves, who went on to be Paris Representative, both started their BBC careers as secretaries. Elizabeth Barker, who would become Head of European Talks and English Service, had been at Oxford before joining the BBC as a clerk in 1934 while Mary Lewis, a graduate of Westfield College, started as a duplicating clerk in 1938. Her BBC career saw her rise to be Head of Pay Policy.

In 1934, an independent ‘Report into the Recruitment of Staff’ raised concerns about Cambridge and Oxford Universities being approached with regards to graduate recruitment to weekly paid posts, as these were ‘candidates whose natural entry is to the monthly-paid staff’. 1 53 The fear was that an increased number of university women in waged jobs ‘might deprive the other weekly-paid women of all chance of promotion to the monthly-paid staff’. This was also a concern of Ray Strachey who advised that the most prized secretarial posts tended to go to those who had gone to university.[18] [19] Miss Freeman, however, was adamant that this was not the case at the BBC as the ‘fact that a girl has a degree’ was a very secondary consideration; she had to have ‘many more qualifications besides’.[20] Nine out of ten recruits from universities were quite unfitted for secretarial work, Freeman claimed, but it was ‘worth interviewing the ten to get the one’. Clare Lawson Dick’s assertion that well-educated girls or graduates could be seen as problematic is evident here. But Lawson Dick did get a BBC job, and did get a promotion; persistence and ambition patently could pay off.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:L1/1698/1 Beatrice Hart staff file, Confidential Report, 1937.
  • [2] Dorothy Evans (1934) Women and the Civil Service (London: Pitman) pp. 81-93.
  • [3] Ross McKibbin (1998) Classes and Cultures: England 1918—1951 (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press) pp. 44-50.
  • [4] D.W. Hughes (1936) Careers for our Daughters (London: A&C Black) p. vi.
  • [5] Vyrnwy Biscoe (1932) 300 Careers for Women (London: Lovat Dickson) p. 7.
  • [6] McKibbin, Classes and Cultures, pp. 259-71.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:L1/7291/1: Alice Wright Staff File, Confidential Reports, 1933, 1935.
  • [8] Clare Lawson Dick interview.
  • [9] Elsie M. Lang (1929) British Women in the Twentieth Century (London: T. WernerLaurie) p. 259.
  • [10] Lady Rhondda in Ladies Field, quoted in Angela V. John (2013) Turning the Tide: TheLife of Lady Rhondda (Cardigan: Parthian) pp. 277-8.
  • [11] BBC/WAC:R13/426/1: Television Department: Women Staff, Freeman to Clarke, 10May 1935.
  • [12] Beadle to Clarke, 14 May 1935. In fact, Beadle requested that Miss Vickery’s departurebe delayed because of staffing shortages in his department. This was over-ruled.
  • [13] Salary Information Files.
  • [14] See, for example, Mary Agnes Hamilton in Strachey, Our Freedom., pp. 253-4; VeraBrittain in Paul Berry and Alan Bishop, eds. (1985) Testament of a Generation: The Journalismof Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby (London: Virago) pp. 121-2, 126. As late as 1939,only 23 per cent of university students were female, Carol Dyhouse (1995) No Distinction ofSex? Women in British Universities, 1870-1939 (London: UCL Press) p. 7.
  • [15] Press Association interview, 25 January 1934.
  • [16] BBC/WAC:R13/399: Registry Staff, Freeman to Reith, 12 November 1935.
  • [17] Ariel, June 1936.
  • [18] R49/31/1, Report on Recruitment of Staff by Ernest Barker and D.B. Mair.
  • [19] Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 138.
  • [20] R/49/561/1: Recruitment of Women Clerical Staff, Freeman to Nicolls, 16 March1934.
 
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