Elise Sprott and Hilda Matheson, ‘Household Talks’/‘Morning Talks’

It seems that from the start Matheson was apprehensive about working with Sprott, whom she had not originally considered as Fitzgerald’s replacement. Although there is little within surviving BBC documents to suggest that the two women had an uncongenial relationship (indeed it always appears to have been professional), Matheson’s letters to Vita Sackville-West intimate otherwise. While Lionel Fielden and Joe Ackerley, Matheson’s ‘young men’, are frequently lauded, Sprott is only mentioned once, described as ‘fat Miss Sprott’. 4 0 Ultimately, tensions between the two would lead to Sprott being moved out of the Talks Department in 1931. Yet, despite the discomfort of their partnership, the four years they worked together would be critical to the development of women’s talks, largely because their temperaments, and in turn what they brought to the programmes, were so different. Matheson was sophisticated, urbane and undoubtedly progressive in her views. Sprott, three years older, while enthusiastic and hard-working, was decidedly not an intellectual. She also appears to have been politically naive. Where Sprott’s interests lay predominantly in homecraft and the domestic sphere, Matheson was committed to widening the output, in particular enlightening women as citizens and, like many of her contemporaries, was an enthusiastic advocate of adult education.[1] These two approaches complemented each other: although the BBC had an important role to play informing women about the wider world, it was a fact that the majority of daytime listeners were domestically orientated. Sprott and Matheson represented these two different needs.

Within days of Matheson becoming Director of Talks, the afternoons were revitalised with a new regular slot for women, Household Talks which was overseen by Sprott and was very probably her idea.[2] The scope of Household Talks was modest but practical. Broadcast on Mondays at 5.00 pm, the first few weeks included decorating a small flat, making a lampshade and luncheon and pancake recipes. Sprott ensured the talks were given by appropriate experts including Mrs Cottington Taylor, the Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute and Mrs Clifton Reynolds, an expert in household appliances whose own home was ‘equipped with every modern convenience and labour-saving device’.[3] By the close of 1927, Radio Times was confident to report that there were ‘few more regular audiences than those attracted by the Household Talks, for they are specially designed to be of practical value to their particular constituency’.[4]

Alongside Household Talks a second experiment was initiated in January 1927, a weekly schedule of programmes made in conjunction with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) which Matheson had agreed to support.[5] Lady Denman, as Chairman, gave the introductory talk at 3.45 pm on Wednesday 12 January which introduced Rhoda Power’s series Village Life in Olden Times. The NFWI collaboration continued throughout the year with several other series: Citizenship in Practice, Health and Common Sense, Village Life in Other Lands and How to Improve our Villages. A symbiotic relationship existed between the BBC and the NFWI at this time, with both institutions eager to promote education and citizenship amongst women.[6] Many Women’s Institutes, for example, had installed wireless sets in their local village halls.[7] The NFWI supported the BBC’s Listening Groups, part of the Corporation’s Adult Education policy whereby numbers of like-minded people gathered together to listen to and discuss specially designated output which was supported with book lists and reading material.[8] In turn, for several years, the BBC covered the NFWI’s national conference and the organisation would also be a source of listener feedback and opinion.[9]

Besides these two established strands, other more general women’s talks continued in the afternoons, including a number of long-running series, which would become a hallmark of Matheson’s regime. For instance, in the autumn of 1927, the six-part series The Growing Generation included talks by eminent individuals such as Margaret Macmillan, originator of the nursery school movement Dame Janet Campbell, Senior Medical Officer to the Ministry of Health and the physiologist, Professor V.H. Motram. Part of Matheson’s vision for radio was its role in democratising society and she was committed to bringing the most authoritative and prestigious speakers into the home. For instance, in 1928 Matheson approached Margaret Bondfield MP to kick off a new series A Woman’s Day which profiled women in important civic roles.[10] Dame Katherine Furse who spoke about Jury Service on 28 November 1928 was a good friend of Matheson’s, one of many who would grace the airwaves. The original intention had been to include a housewife and a factory worker amongst the speakers (Bondfield put the machinery of the Women’s Section of the National Union of General Workers at her disposal for this) but as was the case with most of the talks Matheson produced, it was the expert voice that ultimately was aired.

Household Talks went from strength to strength, proving so popular that, at the request of listeners, a selection of talks were published as a BBC book, Home, Health and Garden and, from 24 August 1928, a designated women’s page (with the same name) was introduced into Radio Times. For both of these, Sprott was the point of liaison. Sprott also conceived the idea of involving the listeners themselves in Household Talks. Audience participation in terms of requests and competitions had been commonplace on the early provincial stations and was a mainstay of Children’s Hour but by the late 1920s, it was rare.[11] Sprott’s suggestion was that recipes and household hints could be contributed by listeners (which would be professionally read out on air) for which they would be paid a small fee.[12] An appeal for ‘Listeners’ Contributions’ in Radio Times solicited more than 1,300 entries and the first Listener’s Household Talk was broadcast on 24 September 1928 and monthly thereafter.[13]

In October 1928, bolstered by the success of ‘Listeners’ Contributions’ and by the sale of more than 15,000 copies of Home, Health and Garden, Sprott approached Matheson with a new venture; a daily rather than a weekly household talk.[14] ‘One weekly talk limits us very much in scope’, she insisted, enthusing that ‘there are a thousand and one subjects which present themselves’. The logical time for the new programme, Sprott believed, would be 10.45 am, ‘when housewives are about their work and it should be early enough not to interfere with the shopping’. To place talks in the morning was a risk for the BBC. Apart from the Daily Service, only weather reports and gramophone music had been experimentally trialled at this time. Nevertheless, it was agreed that Morning Talks should go ahead, Radio Times hailing the ‘new development’ for early in the New Year as ‘a special quarter of an hour for housewives and parents’.[15] On Monday 7 January 1929 ‘Law and the Home’ was the first talk to be broadcast in the morning, on the Daventry ‘Experimental’ service.[16] Matheson was quickly convinced of the efficacy of the new 10.45 am slot, informing Reith of the impressive response from listeners and confirming her belief that ‘the busy married woman who works at home’ could listen more easily at this time.[17] By May 1929, Morning Talks were being broadcast nationally and would continue to be a fixture in the schedules until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Although Sprott had suggested this significant change to women’s programming, Matheson strongly influenced the final content. Sprott had proposed conventional topics, for example on the principles of cooking, household art and the history of furniture.[18] While many of her ideas were realised, when the new service came to air, far bolder series were also scheduled, initiated by Matheson. Ray Strachey’s weekly Woman’s Commentary on social affairs, which will be examined in Chapter 8, was the first, airing on Wednesday 9 January—another example of Matheson drawing on her wide-ranging contacts in the political world. The following day, Margaret Wintringham MP introduced the 15-part series Our Boys and Girls which included such luminaries as Dr Letitia Fairfield on ‘The Child at School’ and Vera Brittain on ‘Careers’. The overtly domestic ‘Menus and Recipes’ were the themes of the Tuesday and Friday talks, while on Saturdays, talks encompassed lighter topics such as home decorating and fashions. Alison Settle, the Editor of Vogue, who kicked off Saturday mornings with ‘Who Makes the Fashions?’ promised to take listeners ‘behind the scenes of the world in which fashions are made’.[19] Although publically supportive of Morning Talks, in private Matheson was nervous, declaring to Vita Sackville-West ahead of the first broadcast, ‘I blush to think how awful you would think the whole lot of them’.[20] However, by mid-January, she was greatly cheered by ‘such nice letters ... coming from regular cottage women’, relieved that ‘they do like the best ones best’.[21]

Morning Talks were predominantly uplifting and educational, expert women, and sometimes expert men, imparting their knowledge into the home. The themes also reflected many national concerns. For instance, the series Planning the Household Budget broadcast in spring 1929, tapped into the growing concern about the health of the nation and the renewed emphasis on the mother’s role in providing a better diet for her husband and children.[22] [23] The scope of the imagined listenership to the four talks is evident in the programme’s remit.73 The first, on 8 April, considered the family who lived on ?500 a year. Mrs C.S. Peel, who presented the talk, imagined this comfortably off family of four living in a modern villa in a London suburb. Her second talk, ‘How to Live on ?300 a Year’ pictured the same family structure in a five-roomed suburban, modern labour-saving home, but without domestic help. Margaret McKillop then broadcast two talks concerning the family on a weekly wage. The great difference between a working-class and a middle-class budget, McKillop indicated, was that the former never had sufficient money to get in stores or a place to put them if they could be afforded. She highlighted bread, margarine and milk as essentials, with eggs a good substitute for meat along with cheese and pulses. She was also prepared to accept that tinned food was a necessary aid to the overworked housewife. It is difficult to know who had the guiding hand in these talks, whether it was Sprott or Matheson. Mrs Peel would have been well-known to Sprott, having been one of the original broadcasters of recipes and kitchen news on Women’s Hour, so it is probable that the programmes fell within her domain.

Hilda Matheson, on the other hand, was certainly responsible for The Week in Parliament (soon called The Week in Westminster), which began on 6 November 1929. Billed in Radio Times as, ‘a series of weekly talks on the week’s proceedings in parliament to be given by women MPs’, the programme reflected the recent enfranchisement of all adult women.[24] One of the women Matheson hoped would take part in the series was Nancy Astor. In a letter to her former boss, she explained that the ‘new experiment’ was planned for 10.45 am ‘the time when we find most busy working women can listen best, when they have their cup of tea’.[25] Informing women about politics was a priority for Matheson. During the run-up to the 1929 General Election, she ensured that women politicians representing the three major political parties were given airtime in the evening schedules.[26] She also developed the series Questions for Women Voters, broadcast fortnightly at 7.00 pm from October 1928, in which two adversaries debated contentious topics such as ‘Should Married Women Work?’, ‘Should Women be Paid as Much as Men?’ and ‘Does Protective Legislation Benefit Women Wage-earners?’-

Sprott and Matheson continued to produce a wide range of talks, both in the mornings and afternoons. The future novelist Barbara Cartland, who had made her broadcast debut in 1926 defending the ‘Youth of Today’, became a Sprott regular starting with her Morning Talk, ‘Making the Most of Oneself’.[27] Winifred Spielman’s two talks on ‘The Problems of Household Fatigue’ (planned for some time by Matheson) were groundbreaking because for the first time listeners were invited to take part in a social survey.[28] Spielman, who worked for the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, was investigating fatigue in the home and hoped responses about, for example, washing up, laundry, mending and sewing, could lead to more scientific ways to carry out tasks more efficiently.[29] The series The Future of Domestic Service broadcast from January 1930 included broadcasts by grandees Lady Emmott and Violet Markham as well as one of Matheson’s dearest friends, Kathleen Wauchope, which suggests that it was Matheson who had initiated the talks.[30] It also included the viewpoint of Miss Lizzie Willesden, a general servant, introducing a rare working-class voice to the airwaves.

In October 1930, Sprott instigated a further series aimed at homemakers, Housewives News.[31] The five-minute weekly consumer bulletin came to air in September 1931 and was both produced and presented by Sprott. However, by this time she had been moved out of the Talks Department to her new job as Women’s Press Representative and Matheson herself was to resign shortly afterwards. There is a lack of clarity about Sprott’s departure but it was undoubtedly linked to the arrival of Oxford graduate, Margery Wace. Matheson’s letters to Vita show her dream of recruiting to the Talks Department a ‘frightfully intelligent young woman of robust and excellent judgement’, someone patently different to Sprott. At one point Vita suggested an approach to Oxford University which may have been how Miss Wace was found.[32] When Wace arrived in September 1930 she was initially to be an Assistant to Sprott.[33] Nine months later, in June 1931, the Control Board minutes recorded the ousting of Miss Sprott by Miss Wace, ‘a more efficient junior’.[34] In the absence of the staff files of Sprott, Matheson and Wace it is impossible to know exactly what happened but Reith was evidently angered, commenting in his diary that there had been ‘much discussion about Miss Sprott’s case, both in general and in particular’ and that he ‘was very angry with the way she has been handled’.[35] He later added, ‘I interviewed Miss Sprott who has been going through a difficult time, mostly Miss Matheson’s fault’, his rocky relationship with Matheson by this time starkly apparent.

  • [1] For example, Matheson was Secretary of the Joint Committee of Inquiry intoBroadcasting and Adult Education 1926-28, chaired by Sir Henry Hadow.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:R13/419/1: Talks Section Duties, October 1927.
  • [3] Radio Times, 2 September 1927.
  • [4] Radio Times, 30 December 1927.
  • [5] BBC/WAC:LE(E)1a: Contributors: Mrs Ray Strachey: 1a, Matheson to Strachey, 6April 1927.
  • [6] For a social history of the NFWI see Maggie Andrews (1997) The Acceptable Face ofFeminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement (London: Lawrence and Wishart).
  • [7] The Crawford Committee, established by the government in 1926 to examine the statusof broadcasting, took evidence on this from the NFWI’s Chief Organiser Mrs Nugent Harris.
  • [8] See Lacey, Listening Publics, pp. 140-9.
  • [9] For example, in July 1928, Matheson approached Inez Ferguson, the General Secretaryof the NFWI, with a request that her members might ‘report back on the suitability andacceptability of the talks’. BBC/WAC:R14/88: National Federation of Women’s Institutes,Matheson to Ferguson, 11 July 1928. The NFWI annual meeting was covered on the BBCfrom 1929 to 1933.
  • [10] BBC/WAC: Margaret Bondfield Talks, 26 July 1928.
  • [11] In 1927 Matheson pioneered a late-night Prose and Verse Competition hosted byNaomi Royden Smith. See also Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting,pp. 309-11.
  • [12] BBC/WAC:R51/239: Household Talks (hereafter HT), Scheme for Special Series ofListeners’ Contributions to Household Talks, 7 July 1928.
  • [13] Radio Times, 24 August 1928, 21 September 1928.
  • [14] HT, Sprott to Matheson, 2 October 1928.
  • [15] Radio Times, 23 November 1928.
  • [16] For more information on the BBC’s transmission areas and experimental wireless, seePegg, Broadcasting and Society, pp. 18-31.
  • [17] HT, Matheson to Reith, 7 February 1929.
  • [18] HT, Sprott to Matheson, 3 October 1928.
  • [19] Radio Times, 4 January 1929.
  • [20] Hilda Matheson Letters, 5 January 1929.
  • [21] HML, 16 January 1929.
  • [22] Anne Karpf has written about how BBC talks, from the early 1920s, were seen as animportant tool for health - Anne Karpf (1988) Doctoring the Media: The Reporting of Healthand Medicine (London: Routledge) pp. 32-3. Michael Bailey also stressed the significance ofthe BBC in addressing women on issues of diet and health - Bailey, The Angel in the Ether,pp. 57-9. See also Maggie Andrews, Domesticating the Airwaves, pp. 37-45.
  • [23] The talks were published each week in The Listener, 10 April, 17 April, 24 April, 1 May1929.
  • [24] Radio Times, 1 November 1929.
  • [25] BBC/WAC: Viscountess Nancy Astor Talks:1, Matheson to Astor, 5 November 1929.
  • [26] Margaret Wintringham and Megan Lloyd George (Liberal) May 13, Margaret Bondfield(Labour) May 15 and the Duchess of Atholl (Conservative) May 17.
  • [27] 18 November 1929 to 23 December 1929.
  • [28] The outcome of the survey is unknown.
  • [29] The final talk was published in The Listener., 8 May 1929. Christine Frederick, anAmerican, was the doyenne of scientific management in the home at this time. Her book TheNew Housekeeping. Efficiency Studies in Home Management was published in 1913.
  • [30] Wauchope (referred to as ‘KW’) featured many times in Matheson’s letters. For example,Matheson wrote that she owed her ‘more than anybody else before’. HML, 30 January1929.
  • [31] BBC/WAC:R51/241:Housewives News, Sprott to Matheson, 10 October 1930.
  • [32] HML, 28 January 1929, 11 January 1929.
  • [33] BBC/WAC:R51/646:Women’s Programmes, undated document c.1931.
  • [34] BBC/WAC:R3/3/7:Control Board Minutes, 30 June 1931.
  • [35] Reith Diaries, end of June 1931 (no specific dates are given at this point in the diary).
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