Hilda Matheson (1888-1940)

‘I am happier than anyone could believe possible’, Hilda Matheson declared in June 1929, ‘I have an ideal job and a very good screw and nice people to work with’.[1] Matheson’s journey to the BBC had begun in May 1924 when, at the recommendation of Mary Somerville, she met John Reith.[2] He was evidently impressed by her abilities and the entree that she might give the BBC to London’s political and cultural circles, finally enticing her to the Company in September 1926 on a salary of ?600.[3] According to Nancy Astor, Matheson was at first reluctant to take the post but Astor had insisted as ‘hers was too good a brain to be kept only for my work’.[4] Matheson’s initial BBC post, as an Assistant in Education, might sound unprepossessing but at this time the Education Department was responsible not only for school broadcasts, adult education and Children’s Hour but also for religion, talks and news. Matheson joined at a propitious moment. Reith was in the process of reorganisation and a separate Talks Department was being formed, which came into operation in January 1927.[5] Whether Reith had earmarked Matheson as his Director of Talks is uncertain, Matheson clearly believed it had been Roger Eckersley’s idea.[6] Eckersley, Director of Programmes and Matheson’s direct boss, remained a great supporter of hers until the difficulties of the early 1930s led to friction and, ultimately, to her resignation in January 1932.

Matheson approached the job of Director of Talks with alacrity. The section she inherited was bland, timid and amateurish, she created a department that was vibrant, challenging and professional.[7] For Matheson, broadcasting was about ‘enlarging the frontiers of human interest ... widening personal experience and shrinking the earth’s surface’. It was also about expanding democracy and fitting men and women ‘for the complicated world of tomorrow’.[8] Matheson was committed to extending the scope of talks and bringing in the best speakers.8[9] In 1927 a fledgling News Section was set up within the department, a response to the more flexible approach to news reporting instigated by the first BBC Charter.[10] She was in charge when the ban on controversial broadcasting was lifted in March 1928 which enabled the development of opinion pieces and more radical programming. For instance, in early 1928 listeners were introduced to Vernon Bartlett’s The Way of the World, the first international series on the BBC. She also instigated broadcasts from the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, the first time this had been attempted.[11] Matheson broadened the range of literary and critical talks and professionalised the way broadcast talks were given, insisting on careful scripting, lengthy rehearsal and tailored delivery^[12] She also greatly strengthened women’s programming and brought increasing numbers of women broadcasters to the airwaves, as Chaps. 7 and 8 will show.

Matheson’s approach to Talks reflected her liberal and progressive viewpoint. As part of London’s cultural and intellectual elite her friends included not only the Astors but high-powered professional women such as the historian Marjorie Graves (also a Conservative member of Holborn Borough Council), the haematologist and radiobiologist Janet Vaughan (then at the start of her career) and Dame Rachel Crowdy (who headed the social questions section of the League of Nations). The most significant relationship of her BBC years was with Vita Sackville-West who she first met in December 1928 when Vita took part in a broadcast talk on ‘The Position of Women Today’.[13] The encounter kicked off a two-year love affair, several months of which are documented in a series of evocative letters which paint a vivid portrait of life at the BBC.[14] The affair with Vita enhanced Matheson’s confidence at work. She knew Reith would disapprove and she enjoyed the frisson it added to her daily life.[15] She was known to be unconventional. Eckersley wrote that she was the only person in the BBC allowed to bring a dog into the office and get away with it.[16] She also conducted meetings on the floor around her fire which ‘shocks the great who may come in terribly’, she told Vita.[17] How far these peccadilloes were indulged because she was a woman is difficult to say, but she enjoyed being different.

One of those whom Matheson wrote affectionately about in her letters to Vita was Lionel Fielden, whom she had personally appointed to the post of Talks Assistant in 1927.[18] In his memoir, Fielden wrote how initially he was uncertain that he could work under a woman, but he soon changed his mind commenting that:

Hilda was never preoccupied by power, never lectured, never laid down the

law. She ran her department on a loose rein, encouraging, helping, sympathising and yet keeping herself firmly in the saddle.[19]

He also described her as ‘one of those people who are made of pure gold all the way through’. Matheson was held in high regard by most of those she worked with. Richard Lambert claimed that, if it had not been for her, he would never have accepted the job at the BBC.[20] [21] Under Matheson’s leadership, he believed, the Talks Department entered a ‘golden age’. 1 01 The one person who was dismissive was Lance Sieveking who described her as a ‘busy little governess of a woman’. Sieveking, however, claimed that he was initially offered the post of Director of Talks only to have it rescinded in Matheson’s favour, so this may well have coloured his view. [22] [23]

Matheson was deeply committed to her job. In her book Broadcasting she wrote how broadcasters were never off duty and could never rest, being always on the lookout for new ideas. 1 03 This was certainly true for her; she rarely ceased working, whether it was reading manuscripts at home late into the night, rummaging through Vita’s bookshelves for inspiration for poetry readings or courting politicians at lunch engagements.[24] Her working day varied enormously. It might be a series of long meetings: for instance, a Programme Board, a board to discuss controversy, a meeting with all the Station Directors.[25] It could be a succession of interviews with potential speakers: an Afghan, a docker, a man from the Royal Horticultural Society, four bridge players, a man from the music department to discuss combining poetry and music.[15]

Of all radio output in the interwar years, Talks caused the most apprehension because of the potential for controversy or offence. Roger Eckersley, as Director of Programmes, confessed that this was the most vulnerable and difficult side of his work. He dreaded ‘the accidental passing of some statement with deep political or other implications which should have been blue pencilled and for which I should be responsible’. 1 [27] As Talks Director, Matheson had to tread a fine line between what she described as the ‘highly tendentious or the intolerably dull’. 1 [28] There is no doubt that she often showed bravado, for instance, in January 1929 she arranged the first live debate to involve all three political parties, on the De-Rating Bill.[29] Reith and Carpendale were jittery. Carpendale, in particular ‘got cold feet’ but Matheson was reassuring and eventually had him ‘wriggling on a pin’.[30] On the night of the debate itself, she rushed back to ‘calm an agitated DG’ but in the event it was a great success ‘seventy minutes of it and it honestly wasn’t dull’. 1 11 In some high-pressured situations, however, Matheson could lack self-confidence as her letters to Vita testify.[31] [32] When she was worried, she doubted herself and became defensive, apprehensive that her gender might be seen as partly to blame; that she would be viewed as ‘an unbalanced female unsuited to big jobs’.[33] The notion of inferiority, as we have seen, could be a major stumbling block for women. How different to the approach of Eckersley who, although ‘uneasily conscious’ of his limitations ‘on the talks and educational side’, always hid his weaknesses.[34]

In June 1929, Matheson reported her first major disagreement with Reith and Eckersley. She described to Vita an hour and a half’s argument, ‘hammer and tongs’ on the future development of Talks.[35] Reith expressed anxiety that Matheson was straying too far into controversial ground; Matheson scorned Reith’s opinions as those of someone ill-informed and little-read. Eckersley warned Matheson that she was getting a name for ‘unreasonable truculence’ which caused her to rail to Vita that they were ‘always so damned ready to say to any woman who disagrees with them that it is unreasonable and shows a lack of balance’.[36] Although the quarrel was patched up she became convinced that there were plans to undermine her position.[37] In this she was justified. In October 1929 Adult Education Talks, under Charles Siepmann, were absorbed into the Talks Department, with Siepmann continuing to head his section and becoming second-in-command to Matheson. Siepmann, who had joined the BBC in 1927 as an Education Assistant, had initially been viewed by Matheson as ‘a nice boy’ but promoted to the position of a rival, their relationship faltered.[38] At the same time as Siepmann’s promotion, Matheson lost control of ‘Topicality’ or Outside Broadcasts and News, which became separate departments. Topicality was an area she particularly relished and this was a further blow. In early 1931 there was another reorganisation, this time a separation of Talks and Adult Education, with Siepmann attaining equal status with Matheson. 1 19 Matheson was seen to be undermined and her self-confidence again plummeted. This coincided with the end of her relationship with Vita who had begun a new love affair with Evelyn Irons.120

It was ultimately Matheson’s relationship with Reith that was to be her undoing. Once weakened, she was unable to stand up to him and lost his respect. At first their relationship was congenial with many social occasions shared.121 However, Reith’s diary entry for 4 March 1930, recorded that he was ‘developing a great dislike for Miss Matheson and all her works’. 122 The final straw came in the autumn of 1931when Reith and Eckersley attempted to water down Matheson’s series The New Spirit in Literature presented by Vita’s husband, Harold Nicolson. Nicolson was told he could not mention D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce and he threatened to pull out, pointing out the ludicrous nature of a programme on modern literature without reference to these two defining authors. Although a compromise was reached, Matheson felt unable to support the decision that there would be no allusion to Ulysses.123 On 12 October 1931 she tendered her resignation to the BBC.124

News of Matheson’s resignation reached the press in early December 1931 with much speculation as to the reasons for her departure. The Manchester Guardian hazarded the guess that it was because of differences of opinion between two opposing schools of thought ‘one in favour of the intellectual type of talk and the other desiring a more popular note in the selection of talk topics and speakers’.125 The Evening News described the difficulties of her job, trying to appease those who saw talks as trivial and dreary with others who were offended by anything controversial.126 The headline in the News Chronicle, ‘A Woman’s Duel with the BBC’

  • 119 Matheson was Director of Talks (General); Siepmann, Director of Adult Education (Talks); Mary Somerville, Director of Schools (Talks).
  • 120 Evelyn Irons was the Woman’s Page Editor of the Daily Mail. She had come to interview Vita on 6 March 1931. Glendinning, Vita, pp. 238-9.
  • 121 Reith Diaries, ‘Miss Matheson has joined us and is doing well’, 29 October 1926. On 1 March 1927, Reith recorded a lunch with Miss Matheson and Ernest Barker; on 13 October 1928, he went to Peaslake in Surrey with Miss Matheson to meet her family.
  • 122 Reith Diaries, 4 March 1930.
  • 123 Michael Carney drew extensively on Harold Nicolson’s diaries for his understanding of Matheson’s resignation from the BBC. Carney, Stoker, pp. 71-4.
  • 124 Reith Diaries, November 1931 (no date) Reith recorded receiving Matheson’s resignation: ‘It is her own fault that things have got to this pass, but she was quite mad about it’.
  • 125 Manchester Guardian, 4 December 1931.
  • 126 Evening News, 3 December 1931.

summed up the paper’s opinion that it was her struggle with a management of men which had led to her resignation. However, there is little to support its view that Miss Matheson ‘had pressed her views from a feminine standpoint in the face of overwhelming masculine opposition’.[39] Undoubtedly she was isolated in a man’s world but the decisions she took were nearly always from an intellectual point of view. It was only when things went wrong that her gender became an issue, the fact that she was ‘different’ appears to have added to the tensions.[40]

While Matheson’s resignation was partly personal it was also linked to the changing political climate, which viewed the BBC as increasingly left-wing.[41] A Conservative Government had been returned in 1931 and there was growing criticism of the Corporation in the right-wing press. As early as 1929, Matheson was writing to Vita about attacks on the BBC in the Daily Mail.[42] [43] [44] Whether Matheson actively promoted a ‘left-wing’ agenda has been widely debated as, by their very nature, talks by major cultural thinkers were often viewed this way. 1 31 Fielden admitted that he and Hilda attended a good many parties where intellectuals gathered. Hobnobbing with ‘progressives’, he claimed, was seen as tantamount to being a ‘Red’. 1 32 However, there is no evidence that Matheson was a supporter of the Labour Party, indeed many of her closest friends were Conservative Party activists. Nevertheless, with hostility from both press and Parliament, Reith was anxious to stamp on what he perceived as left-wing bias in Talks. Matheson was identified with this and Reith was glad to see her go. Siepmann replaced her as Talks Director in January 1932.[45]

Was Matheson edged out because she was a woman?[46] It is true that men who fell foul of Reith, rather than leave, tended to be sidelined. Differences of opinion were tempered on the golf course or at the Club, a resolution unavailable to her. But Matheson resigned over principles.

She was prohibited from carrying out her job in the way that she wanted to. Matheson never saw herself as part of the rat-race to the top of the BBC; she was not one of those pushing for power, which may have prompted her to leave rather than compromise. According to Fielden nine members of the Talks Department, including himself, were prepared to resign over her treatment, but she persuaded them otherwise.[47] We can only speculate as to where she might have ended up in the BBC hierarchy had she remained. Her successor, Siepmann, was similarly censured for being too radical (in 1935 he was transferred to the role of Director of Regional Relations), which suggests that Matheson’s difficulties and the criticisms levelled against her were due to her outlook and the nature of the job rather than her gender.[48] [49]

Following her resignation, Matheson maintained her links with broadcasting first as a radio critic for The Observer and Weekend Review, then as the author of Broadcasting, the first book to be written about the process of making radio, and ultimately as Director of the Joint Broadcasting Committee, a government-funded venture set up in 1939 which arranged for material about Britain to be broadcast by foreign radio stations.1 37 Matheson had by then been diagnosed with Graves’ disease. She did not survive an operation to remove part of her thyroid gland and died, aged 42, on 30 October 1940. At the time of her death she had lived with the poet Dorothy Wellesley for many years.[50]

  • [1] HML, 11 June 1929. There is a large historiography on Matheson; see, for example,Carney, Stoker; Various Authors, Hilda Matheson; Briggs, Golden Age of Wireless, especiallypp. 124-7, 141-3; Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991) A Social History of BritishBroadcasting, 1922-1939 (London: Basil Blackwood) particularly pp. 153-62. Matheson isalso the focus of Fred Hunter, ‘Hilda Matheson and the BBC, 1926-1940’ in Sybil Oldfield,ed. (1994) This Working Day World: Women’s Lives and Cultures in Britain (London: Taylor& Francis) pp. 169-74 and Charlotte Higgins (2015) This New Noise: The ExtraordinaryBirth and Troubled Life of the BBC (London: Guardian Books) pp. 17-36. Matheson alsofeatures heavily in Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Vita. Victoria Glendinning (1983)Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West (London: Penguin).
  • [2] Reith Diaries, 27 May 1924.
  • [3] See, for example, Reith Diaries, 26 March 1926, ‘Saw Miss H Matheson whom I thinkshould be in the BBC somewhere’.
  • [4] Various authors, Hilda Matheson, pp. 15-16.
  • [5] While Stobart retained responsibility for Schools and Adult Education, Mathesonbecame Director of a separate Talks Section.
  • [6] HML, 6 February 1929.
  • [7] See, for example, Hugh Chignell (2011) Public Issue Radio: Talks, News and CurrentAffairs in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) pp. 11-16.
  • [8] Hilda Matheson (1933) Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth) pp. 14, 16.
  • [9] See, for example, Todd Avery (2006) Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC,1922-1938 (Aldershot: Ashgate) pp. 45-50, 95-102.
  • [10] For an analysis of the significance of the News Section see Scannell and Cardiff, A SocialHistory of British Broadcasting pp. 113-16; Hunter, Hilda Matheson, p. 171.
  • [11] Various authors, Hilda Matheson, pp. 22-6; HML, 3 September 1929.
  • [12] See, for example, Matheson, Broadcasting, pp. 71-7.
  • [13] The talk was with Hugh Walpole.
  • [14] The most intensive period of letter-writing was between 20 December 1928 and 1March 1929, when Vita was in Berlin.
  • [15] HML, 3 January 1929.
  • [16] Eckersley, The BBC and All That, p. 100. The dog, a spaniel called Torquhil, had beena gift from Vita.
  • [17] HML, 28 January 1929.
  • [18] She also wrote effusively about another personal appointee, Joseph Ackerley. ‘Lioneland Joe are dears’, ‘Lionel and Joe have been very sweet to me’, HML, 14 January, 21January 1929. Ackerley would go on to be Literary Editor of The Listener; Fielden to beController of Broadcasting in India.
  • [19] Lionel Fielden (1960) The Natural Bent (London: Andre Deutsch) p. 114.
  • [20] Lambert, Ariel in All his Quality, p. 25.
  • [21] Lambert, p. 63.
  • [22] Sieveking, Autobiographical Sketches, p. 49. Sieveking left the Talks Department in1928 to join the Research Department.
  • [23] Matheson, Broadcasting, pp. 51-2.
  • [24] For example, HML, 6 January 1929, 16 January 1929, 5 January 1929.
  • [25] HML, 21 December 1928.
  • [26] HML, 3 January 1929.
  • [27] Eckersley, The BBC and All That, pp. 156, 124.
  • [28] Matheson, Broadcasting, p. 93.
  • [29] The De-Rating Act was intended to encourage agriculture and industry, by freeingthem from a portion of the rates.
  • [30] HML, 5 January 1929, 15 January 1929.
  • [31] HML, 22 January 1929.
  • [32] For example, she decried her ‘damned thin-skinnedness’, HML, 6 January 1929.
  • [33] HML, 20 February 1929.
  • [34] Eckersley, The BBC and All That, p. 137.
  • [35] HML, 20 June 1929. Reith commented in his diary, ‘Saw Eckersley and Miss Mathesonabout her work and there is trouble brewing there’, Reith Diaries, 20 June 1929.
  • [36] HML, 22 June 1929.
  • [37] HML, 28 June 1929.
  • [38] HML, 10 February 1929, 28 June 1929, 3 July 1929.
  • [39] News Chronicle, 3 December 1931.
  • [40] Rosabeth Moss Kanter identified this as a factor that negatively affected women managers in the 1970s. Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation, p. 214.
  • [41] Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, p. 141.
  • [42] HML, 20 December 1928, 27 December 1928.
  • [43] Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, p. 155.
  • [44] Fielden, The Natural Bent, pp. 115-16.
  • [45] For a discussion on Siepmann’s tenure as Talks Director see Scannell and Cardiff,A Social History ofBritish Broadcasting, pp. 154-61.
  • [46] Michael Carney holds this view, Carney, Stoker, p. 79.
  • [47] Fielden, The Natural Bent, p. 117.
  • [48] See Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, pp. 153-9.
  • [49] For a discussion on Matheson’s career after the BBC, see Carney, Stoker, pp. 85-137.
  • [50] See Jane Wellesley (2008) Wellington: A Journey through My Family (London:Weidenfeld & Nicolson) pp. 289-90.
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