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

‘Growing Like a Young Giant’: The BBC as a Place to Work

Lilian Taylor’s arrival at the BBC in February 1923 was remarkably low- key. Reminiscing about the start of her career in an Ariel interview she recollected how she was shown into a small office, asked a few questions and told ‘You’ll do. Can you start now?’ Her previous job had been for a firm of accountants who believed that ‘a woman’s place was the home’ so the new job seemed very thrilling, ‘and even more exciting it turned out!’ she enthused.[1] Miss Taylor was one of the BBC’s earliest recruits. When she joined as a ?2.15s a week programmes clerk, broadcasting was little known in Britain outside the realm of military communication, amateur hobby or publicity stunt.[2] Even John Reith by his own admission had not known what the term meant when he was appointed to the post of General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company in December 1922.[3]

For the first ten weeks, the British Broadcasting Company operated out of two rooms loaned by the General Electric Company at Magnet House, which is where Lilian Taylor began. By all accounts this was a frenzied period as staff numbers swelled to more than 30 and there was great relief when more spacious accommodation was rented at the Institution of Electrical Engineers at Savoy Hill, just off the Strand. For the next nine years in these offices overlooking the Thames, the BBC would gradually expand to fill every available space; ramshackle encroachments that fitted the pioneering nature of the infant company. Then, in 1932, the opening of Broadcasting House heralded a new era for the Corporation. Around 700 staff relocated to the imposing purpose-built central headquarters of the BBC, a symbol of both authority and modernity.[4] The changing physical presence of the BBC echoed changes in the sensitivities of the workforce. At first it was a place of adventure and unpredictability, then was added glamour and prestige and finally a more sober professionalism.

During the interwar years the BBC became the pre-eminent social and cultural conduit for the nation, bringing programmes as diverse as political debates, dance band concerts and poetry readings into the home.[5] For the first time, the majority of the British people could share national events such as the FA Cup Final, the Proms and the King’s Christmas Message, the immediacy of radio ensuring the scoring of goals, the lead-violin playing of Marie Wilson and the royal words of comfort were moments that could be shared.[6] Listenership grew rapidly. Within two years more than a million licences had been sold. By early 1927 this figure had doubled. Reith estimated the average number of listeners per licence was five, ‘though for any special occasion an infinitely greater number can gather’, so within a matter of years the audience was already many millions. At the outbreak of the Second World War, licence holders were in excess of nine million, ensuring that out of a population of 44 million, most had access to the wireless.[7] As well as generating national output from London, the BBC also operated a raft of provincial and regional stations.[8] By 1935, 85 per cent of the population had a choice of two programmes, one National and one Regional, with a twelve-hour on-air schedule each day.

As a brand new organisation, the BBC started with no set practices and its structures, its hierarchies and its policies were largely constructed on the hoof. This lack of tradition was an important element of its progressiveness. In her book Careers for our Daughters, Dorothy Hughes posed the question ‘Where in the business world can women find special scope?’ The broad general answer was ‘chiefly in those businesses which are especially developments of the present century’.[9] John Reith (‘Sir’ John Reith from 1927, following his knighthood) played a crucial part in the establishment of these procedures. As Asa Briggs observed ‘Reith did not make broadcasting, but he did make the BBC’.[10] It was Reith’s vision of broadcasting and management that created and sustained the BBC throughout the interwar years. Paternalistic, dogmatic, erratic; the complexities of Reith’s character have been widely unpicked, although rarely in the context of the women he worked with.[11] He undoubtedly inspired great loyalty amongst most of his staff but the centralised control he fostered, coupled with an increasingly hierarchical management system, would gradually make the BBC a less dynamic and more ponderous place in which to work.[12]

As early as 1924, Reith had made clear his belief that broadcasting should create an informed democracy, introducing men and women to an array of issues and experiences from which they had previously been excluded.[13] Hilda Matheson was also strongly of this view, her notion of ‘uplift’ plainly evident in her role as Director of Talks. [14] To work at the BBC was to be part of an organisation committed to bringing both enlightenment and entertainment into the home. Not only was there a sense of pride in working for the BBC but also, for many, a belief that they were improving people’s lives. Throughout the interwar years, the BBC sought to project a sense amongst its staff that it was more than a workplace, that they were part of a BBC ‘family’. Reith believed strongly in staff welfare and paternalism, even dedicating a short section to the topic in his autobiography, Into the Wind.[15] [16] At the BBC, there was a sense of camaraderie, of being special, of belonging to an organisation that was exciting and new.

Women were always a very real presence at the early BBC, making up approximately a third of the established staff. The BBC always employed more men partly because there was such a large contingency of engineers, who were similarly roughly a third of staff numbers.1 6 The reasons why people chose to come to the BBC are complex, influenced by expediency, aspiration and social class. The uncommon nature of the BBC was acknowledged. Matheson described it as ‘different from the routine of the civil service and equally different from the methods of a business organisation’.[17] The individualistic nature of the Corporation’s employees was likewise a point of note with its ‘administrative and business people’ as well as ‘musicians, dramatists, educationalists, novelists, journalists and artists and some who might have been dilettanti had they not found their metier’ in the BBC.[18] While the term ‘dilettanti’ applied chiefly to men, there were also many ‘characters’ among the female staff. So how had this ‘individualistic’ organisation begun?

  • [1] Ariel, April 1937, Lilian Taylor memories.
  • [2] Unlike the USA, where women were known to have dabbled in wireless as amateurs,there is little evidence of British women participating in the pre-BBC development of radio.Michele Hilmes (1997) Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press) pp. 132-6.
  • [3] Reith Diaries, 14 December 1922, shows him to be ‘completely mystified as to what itwas all about’. For the history of broadcasting and founding of the BBC see Asa Briggs(1961) The Birth of Broadcasting: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Vol. 1(London: Oxford University Press) pp. 3-142.
  • [4] Mark Hines (2008) The Story of Broadcasting House: Home of the BBC (London: Merrell)pp. 38-42.
  • [5] Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991) A Social History of British Broadcasting,1922-1939 (London: Basil Blackwood) pp. 277-9.
  • [6] Marie Wilson, a member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, led the Proms on severaloccasions in the mid-1930s.
  • [7] Mark Pegg (1983) Broadcasting and Society 1918-1939 (London: Croom Helm) p. 7;John Reith (1924) Broadcast over Britain (London: Hodder and Stoughton) p. 80.
  • [8] The BBC was originally run provincially, with London Station the most important of thenine initial stations. The others were Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff,Belfast, Aberdeen and Bournemouth. The Regional Scheme, which began its slow introduction from July 1927, divided the country into seven regions: London Regional, Midlands,West, North, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
  • [9] D.W. Hughes (1936) Careers for our Daughters (London: A&C Black) p. 85.
  • [10] Briggs, The Birth of Broadcasting, p. 4.
  • [11] The main biographies of Reith are Ian McIntyre (1993) The Expense of Glory: A Life ofJohn Reith (London: Harper Collins); Andrew Boyle (1972) Only the Wind Will Listen: Reithof the BBC (London: Hutchinson); Maritsa Leishman (2006) My Father: Reith of the BBC(Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press).
  • [12] Asa Briggs (1965) The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the UnitedKingdom, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 454-6.
  • [13] D.L. LeMahieu has written of how the BBC invented and projected an image of bourgeois culture and tradition that was absorbed and accepted by all levels of British society.D.L. LeMahieu (1988) A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communications and the CultivatedMind in Britain between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 179-89.
  • [14] This is also apparent in Matheson’s book about broadcasting. Hilda Matheson (1933)Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth).
  • [15] Reith (1949) Into the Wind (London: Hodder and Stoughton) p. 272.
  • [16] This is very apparent from BBC Staff Lists, which were introduced in 1934.
  • [17] Matheson, Broadcasting, pp. 56-7.
  • [18] BBC/WAC:R1/66/2: Director General Reports, Joint Memorandum by ControlBoard, 27 May 1930.
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