Home History Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC
Reconstructing BBC Women’s Lives
Women at the early BBC have not completely been left out of BBC histories. Hilda Matheson is widely celebrated, the subject of a biography as well as featuring in many academic accounts. Mary Somerville is also acknowledged as is the work of the science producer Mary Adams and the social documentary maker, Olive Shapley. Shapley, however, is the only BBC woman from the interwar era to have written an autobiography.  one of the reasons why the image of the BBC is so masculine is because of the preponderance of memoirs of former employees, all men. It is these accounts, coupled with the masculine-orientated BBC documentation, which form the backbone of most research. As Jeff Hearn points out, most books and treatises on the UK’s leading institutions are about men, even if they are not specified as such.2 5 So while BBC documents may have been scoured for evidence about its function as an institution or as a provider of programmes these have largely ignored women’s roles. In fact, there is an extraordinarily rich seam of material that exposes the depth of women’s involvement at the BBC. It is, however, widely dispersed and this book, in many ways, draws on prosopography (collective biography) to reveal the narrative of women’s lives. David Hendy has argued that biography can broaden the scope of broadcasting history; that it can be enriched by an understanding of the tastes, prejudices, talents and flaws of those who worked for the BBC, grounded in their backgrounds and life experiences. While for Hendy this consideration is largely in respect of programme makers, I believe it is also relevant to a broader understanding of women’s place at the BBC; their motivations and aspirations and the tension between this and the realities of their daily experience of work.
Elise Sprott is a prime example of a BBC woman whose life has been reconstructed through scattered fragments. Her staff file has not been retained (as is the case with many women) instead everything we know about her is gleaned from a range of disparate sources. These might be documents held at the BBC Written Archives Centre such as memos from the Talks Department, monthly reports from the Publicity Section or the minutes of Control Board meetings. She was effusively recorded in the records of the BBC Club, is occasionally mentioned in the staff journal Ariel and, most evocatively, often gave interviews to newspapers and magazines as part of her job as Women’s Press Representative. While these accounts need to be treated with caution (she may well have embellished her life to add interest or intrigue), they present a woman who is busy, cheery and committed and someone who clearly loved her work. A handful of allusions to the nickname ‘Sprottie’ add to the picture of her as an optimistic member of staff. While she is briefly referred to in Reith’s expansive diaries, more telling is her almost complete absence from the letters of Hilda Matheson, with whom she worked closely for four years, an absence which hints at their fractured relationship. Radio Times provides topics, dates and times of her early broadcasts while the contributor files of those she brought to the wireless offer intriguing glimpses into the producer-broadcaster relationship. There is even a 25 s extract of her melodic voice recorded in 1932, gold dust from an era when hardly any sound archives of women broadcasters survive. Much about Elise Sprott is still unknown or contested, even her date of birth. Her obituary in the Journal of the National Council of Women (of which she had evidently become a member once she had retired from the BBC in 1945) gives this as 1883. In fact it was 1885, as her BBC staff index card confirms.
Although there are glimpses of women in Reith’s diaries and the memoirs of BBC men, they are largely absent from other contemporary books. Much was written about women’s employment at this time, both its problems and its opportunities, and while the BBC is occasionally cited, it is rare. Mary Agnes Hamilton was one of the many who wrote about women’s work. She was also a BBC Governor (from 1932 to 1937) so it is vexing that her recollections Remembering my Good Friends, which includes an account of the Corporation, make only scant reference to women. Hilda Matheson’s Broadcasting (published in 1933, 18 months after her resignation from the BBC), vividly explores her views about the wireless as a positive force for democracy but again there is little about women’s work within the BBC, nor does she reflect personally on her own time at Savoy Hill. For this we are fortunate that a series of intense love letters she wrote to Vita Sackville-West have survived. Written in late 1928 and 1929, when their two-year affair was at its height, these divulge the minutiae of Matheson’s daily life at the BBC as she grappled with nervous politicians, recalcitrant assistants, hopeless manuscripts and absentee broadcasters. The letters, which run to around 1,000 pages, are bold in their forthright descriptions of BBC colleagues and expose the complexities of the Corporation’s hierarchies and policies.
The BBC’s staff newsletters and journals also burst with women. At first these were duplicated newssheets, The Saveloy and The Heterodyne, which were produced from 1928, much of the content whimsy. In June 1936, the first edition of Ariel was published—a high-quality quarterly which included an array of articles such as Head Office and Regional news; details of individual achievements; notices of arrivals, departures and marriages; a letters page; extensive coverage of the BBC Club with its many sporting activities and, in each pre-war edition, ‘Department by Department’ a tour of BBC offices with vignettes of individual staff members. These, in particular, paint a vibrant portrait of life in Broadcasting
House in the mid-1980s: who sat next to whom, what they did, their hobbies and their indulgences. Photographs were an essential component and, beginning with the first issue, a series of ‘Ariel Portraits’ were commissioned which included a spectrum of BBC women from Ursula Eason, Northern Ireland’s Children’s Hour Organiser, to Miss Gibson, a Senior Duplicating Operator, and Mrs Starkey, the Matron. Although the settings are staged, the pictures provide an immediate impression of the individual— their age, their clothes, their style, their class. Radio Times, published from September 1928, occasionally included articles which touched on BBC women’s work. Radio Pictorial (which was published from 1984 to 1989) is more significant. It was established with a specific remit to appeal to women listeners and its pages spill over with gossip and snippets about the women at the BBC. 3 0 Every edition had something to report, be it Isa Benzie’s low-key wedding, Florence Milnes’ penchant for bus travel or Mary Somerville’s delight in playing with her son.
No research into early BBC history can avoid the reality that documents from the 1980s are far more prevalent than those from the 1920s. It was not until 1982 that a Written Archive was first established, reflecting awareness by the BBC that its own history was of value. Intriguingly, all the sections of the BBC connected with the retention of information were founded and headed by women. The BBC’s first archivist was Kathleen Edwin while the Registry, where official documents were filed, was established in 1927 under Agnes Mills. Along with the Reference Library (under Florence Milnes), the Sound Archive (under Marie Slocombe) and the Photographic Library (under Kathleen Lines), these resources form the basis of the BBC’s archival collections.
A further resource available to me was Broadcasting House itself. As a BBC employee for 24 years I would pass through the imposing brass doors of the original building almost every weekday. The foyer, for example, has changed little from the 1980s when it would have been bedecked by Mrs Webbsmith’s astounding floral displays; when Caroline Towler, in full evening dress, would have greeted eminent guests before accompanying them to the studios; when charwomen would have signed in at the huge ledger which noted the time they started work. To the best of my knowledge, Woman’s Hour’s (where I was a producer
80 See Julia Taylor (201Э) ‘From Sound to Print in Pre-War Britain: The Cultural and Commercial Interdependence between Broadcasters and Broadcasting Magazines in the 1980s’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of Bournemouth).
for 18 years) is currently located in what would have been home to the Talks Department. I also had the chance to see Savoy Hill as it would have been in the days when it was occupied by the BBC. As a guest of the IET (formerly the Institution of Electrical Engineers) I visited the run-of-the-mill red-brick block in a gutted state, as it awaited refurbishment. Using floor plans, I was able to locate, for instance, the Registry, the photographic library and the General Office and to venture along corridors where office boys would have taken Hilda Matheson’s dog, Torquhil, for a walk.
This book does not claim to be a fully comprehensive account of women at the early BBC. There are many gaps. For instance, women governors and those on the Advisory Committees are only mentioned sporadically. Women who worked in the Regions are not widely covered, largely because extant documentation tends to focus on London, nor are women who came before the microphone as actresses, comediennes, singers and musicians. The latter were almost always contract staff and so had a different relationship with the BBC and is also the reason why Grace Wyndham Goldie does not feature. Her lucid critiques of radio programmes for The Listener, penned in the late 1930s, were contributed as a freelancer rather than as a member of staff.
What this book aims to do, then, is to put the women of the early BBC centre stage. The 1920s and 30s in Britain were a period when there was a palpable buzz about new choices and opportunities, particularly for trained and educated women, and this is the first comprehensive study of women’s work in a modern ‘professional’ industry at this time. It casts fresh light on the ways in which women ‘oiled’ the machine of the BBC as well as their capacity to create, to innovate and to lead. It shows that women had an important role to play in the formation of one of Britain’s most influential organisations. It gives women a voice in what has, until now, largely been a history of men.
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