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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC


In September 1939, Weldon’s Ladies Journal published an article headlined ‘Women of the BBC’. 1 It took the same format as most previous press stories, with a strapline that claimed, ‘Behind the scenes at Broadcasting House are many busy women, each in her own way contributing to your enjoyment when you switch on your radio’. Ruth Maschwitz, who wrote the article, had been taken on a tour of the kitchens by the restaurant supervisor Mrs Dubarry, discussed the day-to-day work of the Drama Department with Mary Hope Allen and Barbara Burnham, stopped by the Reference Library, where Miss Milnes was constantly answering queries on the phone and marvelled with Mrs Webbsmith at the majestic flower display she had arranged in the foyer. Maschwitz ended her article with the declaration ‘away with the idea that radio is a man-run concern ... each department of this vast organisation in one way or another owes something to the energy and inspiration of the women of the BBC’.

Maschwitz’s account of the Corporation’s female employees on the brink of the Second World War captures the essence of the BBC in the 1920s and 30s. It was a place where women in all capacities from house staff to administrators to creatives could play an important role. Indeed Hilda Matheson, as Director of Talks and Mary Somerville, as Director of School Broadcasting, were pivotal to its development. The BBC was a remarkable place for women to work, an organisation where conditions of service were good and where there were possibilities to excel and achieve.

1 Weldon’s Ladies Journal, September 1939.

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 K. Murphy, Behind the Wireless,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-49173-2_9

In an era when many professional women continued to experience overt and entrenched discrimination, the BBC’s ethos of equality and its acceptance of the intrinsic value of women had a positive impact on what was broadcast on air.

The Weldon’s Ladies Journal article also testifies to the way in which BBC women were frequently utilised by the popular press and women’s magazines as a symbol of modernity. And it was the modernity of the BBC that set it apart from many British workplaces in the interwar years. It was a post-First World War industry in a brand new area of employment. Broadcasting in Britain was instituted by the BBC. It had no blueprint when it started and it developed in an ad hoc fashion creating a host of new careers in its wake. Women, like men, were part of this pioneering evolution ‘having a go at any kind of job’.[1] At the start, many of these jobs were ungendered which allowed able and ambitious women to appropriate them, the exponential growth of the Corporation then establishing them in significant roles. Women such as Florence Milnes in the Reference Library, Kathleen Lines in the Photographic Section and Elise Sprott as Woman’s Press Representative had joined the young Company in its first few years. By 1939 they were all earning in excess of ?500 a year in positions where they were held in high esteem.

Sprott and Milnes had joined as waged staff and this was another feature that set the BBC apart from other areas of women’s employment in the 1920s and 30s. Whereas much office-based work was ‘dead-end’, at the BBC the incremental grading system meant that those who remained with the Corporation could rise into salaried posts where status and conditions of service were heightened. Yet one of the reasons why significant numbers of salaried women began their BBC careers as waged was because, for them, recruitment directly to the ‘senior’ ranks was far harder. This was partly due to a deeply ingrained lack of self-confidence. As Winifred Holtby passionately declared, young women were used to being treated as second-best to their brothers and seeing only men ‘at the top of all trees’, so it was not surprising if they had doubt in their own capacities.[2] It was also because there was an acceptance that women would start this way. Ray Strachey noted that women had mostly entered new spheres of work at the bottom ‘often bringing abilities too good for the tasks they have been set to do’.[3] This was certainly the case with Elizabeth Barker. Looking back at the start of her BBC career in 1934 she recalled how in those days ‘it was so difficult for a girl to get an even modestly interesting job - even with a respectable degree and a good deal of foreign travel behind her - that I didn’t grumble, or at least not for four years’.[4]

Once in the salaried grades, women had to negotiate the ‘public school’ character of the BBC. It was awash with men who had found their way to its doors through ‘influence’. ‘Old School Tie-ism run amok’ as one contemporary commentator declared.[5] Although some women arrived at the BBC through friends and family connections, this was almost always to the secretarial and clerical grades. There is, however, little evidence of overt hostility towards women. This was because they were rarely, if ever, in direct competition with men. They carved out their own specialisms and areas of work and so long as they were not seen as a threat, men were chivalrous towards them and often enthusiastic about them. Whether it was praise for Agnes Mills’ improvements in the Registry, satisfaction at Mary Candler’s enhancements to the way copyright was approached or celebration at Ursula Eason’s much heralded decision to broadcast the Christmas edition of Northern Ireland Children’s Hour from a ward in the Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, salaried women were widely acknowledged to be performing good work.[6] For those who reached top jobs, there was an appreciation of their cleverness and intellect. Hilda Matheson and Mary Somerville were undoubtedly sharp and highly intelligent. They were also pleasant to work with, and they were different, which added an extra frisson. They were also extremely diligent. They did not view their jobs as a stepping-stone to something higher, rather they wanted to perform to the best of their ability within that role.

The BBC was in the vanguard of British employers who introduced forward-looking practices in the interwar years. Whereas in teaching and the Civil Service attempts to further women’s advancement in terms of equal opportunities were fiercely opposed, in the BBC they were largely embraced, at least in principle. And while women were often disadvantaged in terms of promotion and pay, discrepancies, if realised, could be broached with management. Unlike teachers and civil servants, BBC women were not faced with indissoluble prejudicial policies. This was most evident in the application of the Corporation’s marriage bar which, in the case of the salaried, was adroitly circumvented.

The spectre of marriage shaped attitudes towards all young female employees in the interwar years. It was a reality that, for most, work was a temporary affair. This understanding led the BBC to develop the notion of ‘two classes of women’: those who intended to remain with the Corporation permanently and ‘those whose mind is not here but in their homes’, a notion that became the driving force behind the 1932 bar. While this was not specifically directed at the waged, it was here that the impact was most keenly felt. To identify the ‘exceptional’ woman was the over-riding function of the ill-fated Marriage Tribunal. It made good economic sense to retain a valuable employee and the benefit to the BBC of a dedicated, hardworking married woman was never in doubt. The BBC flew in the face of the widely held orthodoxy that matrimony and a career were impossible. In 1939, its three highest paid female employees were married, two of them mothers, a scenario unimaginable in most workplaces at this time.

The marriage bar symbolised an underlying tension that dogged the BBC throughout the interwar years, the clash between the progressive and the conventional. The BBC enjoyed its image as a modern, enlightened organisation, its acceptance of women an important element. On the other hand, it was desirous to be viewed as part of the establishment, as a revered national institution. This would become progressively more obvious in the 1930s, with the Corporation increasingly likened to the Civil Service. This straddling of the modern and the traditional was apparent in many aspects of women’s presence at the BBC, not least in how they dressed. The bespectacled librarian in her tweeds offered a very different image to the glamorous shorthand typist in her fur. Employment practices also spanned the old and the new. The long-standing custom of segregation and defined female roles, under the control of the Women’s Staff Administrator, was, for most of the BBC’s waged secretarial and clerical staff, common practice. Salaried women, conversely, worked largely as equals with men, in the same grades, with the same salary bands and to the same managers.

The tension between the modern and the traditional was also evident in the BBC’s output aimed at women. Those with the responsibility for the broadcasts deliberated on how best they should inform, educate and entertain. Because of the lower status of daytime talks, an element of experimentation was possible and new formats were trialled. Margery Wace’s series How I Keep House, for instance, was the first to use only working- class voices. Neither Ella Fitzgerald nor Elise Sprott were intellectuals, their more populist approach echoed newspaper fare. Hilda Matheson began the process of professionalisation which was extended by Oxbridge- educated Margery Wace and Janet Quigley. All were driven, however, by a deep desire to improve women’s lives whether this was through enlightening them on the role of a magistrate, diverting them with tales of a Japanese schoolgirl or advising them on how to help a stammering child.

In a three-page article ‘Broadcasting for Women’ published in Woman’s Magazine in October 1939 (but obviously penned before the outbreak of war) Elise Sprott pondered how to best address the topic. Should it be about the important women who had spoken during the years of broadcasting or the women who planned and produced programmes not only for women but for listeners as a whole?8 In fact, she elucidated on both, picking out Dame Henrietta Barnett, Amy Johnson and Olga Collett for special commendation before the microphone and Janet Quigley, Olive Shapley and Barbara Burnham for their production prowess behind. Without doubt, women programme makers brought women’s voices to the BBC, from Ray Strachey commentating on careers for girls and on the joys of building a house to Mrs Emerson describing the week she spent living with a miners’ family in France. Matheson, in particular, enticed to Savoy Hill a raft of female grandees, although they were always far fewer women broadcasters of evening fare. The authority to represent the voice of the nation, as an announcer, also remained problematic. The experiment with Sheila Borrett was tried and quickly dropped. Olga Collett, however, was accepted as the voice of the BBC in her commentaries showing that, provided she did not stray into the male bastion of news, a woman could be admired.

No woman at the interwar BBC ever breached the bastion of the Control Board. Reith, while accepting of able women, was not intrinsically a modern man. His comfort zone was an all-male environment. That the highest echelon of the BBC should be in the hands of men was self-evident to him, it never entered his head that it should be otherwise. But whereas in 1926, Hilda Matheson could be head-hunted and

Woman’s Magazine, October 1939.

given the job of Director of Talks and, in 1931, Mary Somerville confirmed as Director of School Broadcasting, after 1933, when Isa Benzie became Foreign Director, no other woman in the interwar BBC reached a director-level post. By the mid-1930s, ensconced at Broadcasting House and with an ever-expanding and ponderous hierarchy, the institutionalisation and professionalism of the Corporation made it far harder for women to attain a top job. Eminent academics, civil servants and former politicians, like Professor John Coatman (appointed Head of News, 1934), Sir Stephen Tallents (appointed Controller of Public Relations, 1935) or Sir Richard Maconachie (appointed Director of Talks, 1936) accepted senior executive BBC posts while elsewhere male graduates jostled for departmental supremacy.

Although it might be harder to get to the top, women who were ambitious and talented continued to thrive at the BBC. Dozens of those who joined the BBC in the interwar years would go on to have impressive careers into the 1940s and 50s: Clare Lawson Dick, Mary Lewis, Mary Candler, Anna Instone, Marie Slocombe, Ursula Eason and Elizabeth Barker, to name but a few. And what of Elise Sprott? She retired as Head of Section, Lecture and Women’s Interests in 1945. In 1939 she was at the peak of her BBC career, doing a job that she loved, that drew on her passion for public speaking, for travel, for sharing her enthusiasm for the BBC. She was not a highbrow or a high-flyer. She was a doughty, hardworking woman who grasped opportunities that came her way. A broadcaster, an administrator, a producer and a communicator, she epitomised the explosion of possibilities that were available to women in the early BBC. Sprott was neither typical nor atypical. It was the combination of the modern and the conventional and the acceptance of young and old, graduate and non-graduate, married and unmarried, glamorous and plain, that made the BBC in the 1920s and 30s such an extraordinary place for women to work.

  • [1] Prospero, December 1968, recollections of Winifred Boustead, filing clerk, Magnet Housein early 1923.
  • [2] Winifred Holtby (1934) Women and a Changing Civilisation (London: Lane and BodleyHead) pp.101-4.
  • [3] Strachey, Our Freedom, p.143.
  • [4] Prospero, December 1974.
  • [5] Garry Allighan (1938) Sir John Reith (London: Stanley Paul) p.235.
  • [6] Radio Pictorial, 18 December 1936; BBC/WAC:L1/306/1: Agnes Mills Staff File:1,Confidential Report February 1930; BBC/WAC:R13/296: Gramophone Department,Women Clerical, Fletcher to Rose Troup, 17 February 1938.
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