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

From Magnet House to Broadcasting House

‘Pandemonium reigned!’ was how the BBC official Cecil Lewis summed up the Company’s beginnings at Magnet House in early 1923.[1] During these initial few weeks in tiny offices in Kingsway the BBC established the nuts and bolts of its working practices and the roots of a broadcasting schedule that included orchestral concerts, piano recitals, talks and debates, a General News Bulletin, Children’s Hour and live opera from

Covent Garden.[2] This meant that speakers needed to be booked, musicians rehearsed, scripts typed, contracts organised, wages paid and technical hurdles overcome. It is no surprise, then, that ‘the telephones never stopped ringing, the typewriters never stopped clicking, the duplicating machines duplicated for dear life’, and that all would have been operated by women.[3] One of the typists was Mrs Esmond who had migrated from Marconi, a founding company of the BBC; another was Dorothy Knight who joined ‘with a personal recommendation to Mr John Reith’ and who confirmed that in those early pioneer days ‘everybody was expected to take a hand with everything’.[4] Lilian Taylor, who opened this chapter, captured the informality of the early BBC which she described as ‘growing like a young giant’. She relished the way in which everyone pitched in, for instance ‘grabbing the phone’ to find replacements for performers who not infrequently dropped out.[5] This hand-to-mouth existence persisted for some time, even after the move, at the end of March 1923, to Savoy Hill.

The young BBC clearly operated in an ad hoc fashion; there was no job security and the prospect of promotions and pensions would have been an act of faith. To have embarked on a venture with an uncertain future was a gamble for all those who joined in the first months. Olive May, recruited in April 1923 to set up the telephone exchange at Savoy Hill, recalled how her friends ‘thought she was crazy’ to leave a good job at the General Electric Company to take up the position for the BBC.[6] [7] This spirit of enthrallment and dedication seems to have generated a strong sense of egalitarianism, a notion that everyone was in it together, working for the common good. Even the lowliest clerk and secretary believed they were doing an important job. The memoirs of BBC men who joined during this time are filled with their zeal and sense of community: the ‘charming, undepartmental spirit of the place’; the ‘sense of pioneering a fascinating new development’; the ‘enthusiasm everyone possessed’, a sentiment that was equally shared by women. 2 5 Richard Lambert, the future Editor of The Listener, believed that while this ambitious spirit lasted there was no limit to the devotion of BBC employees ‘many of whom gave their whole time and thought, in leisure as well as at the office, to the furtherance of the service’.[8]

It would not be long, however, before this sense of immersion fizzled out. The General Strike of May 1926 was possibly the last time that women and men came together for a single cause. Notwithstanding the highly contended viewpoints about the BBC’s role in the strike, at Savoy Hill there appears to have been a strong sense of unity amongst staff in getting broadcasts to air.[9] At least eight women volunteered for the emergency news service for which they received high commendation; Mrs Kidson’s ‘flair for journalism’ and Miss Milnes’ ‘management of routine’ were particularly noted, as was the hard work of the canteen staff.[10] But by the time Maurice Gorham joined the Radio Times in July 1926, he was alert to an atmosphere of ‘ambition, suspicion and intrigue’ emblematic of an organisation undergoing rapid growth.[11] There was unquestionably a high turnover of senior male staff. The three original employees who had been recruited alongside Reith—Burrows, Lewis and Anderson—had all moved on by the mid-1920s, as had many others, particularly those who had fallen out with Reith. Mobility was far more limited for women and competitiveness was far less, and many of those who arrived at Savoy Hill would stay with the BBC for their entire career. The change from Company to Corporation in January 1927, while constitutionally significant, had a limited impact on the daily lives of staff who carried on pretty much as before.[12] [13]

With ever burgeoning numbers, Savoy Hill as a workspace was constantly remodelled as untapped spaces, and even adjoining buildings, were requisitioned and leased.2 1 It developed higgledy-piggledy into a rabbit warren of offices, rehearsal rooms, studios, libraries, laboratories and stores. A visitor to Savoy Hill might have found actors and grandees being ferried from the foyer to the Artistes Waiting Room; office boys relaying scripts, letters and memos from the typing pool to expectant production staff; receptionists dealing with opera singers, dance troupes, cabaret stars and delivery men. There was already some single-sex accommodation such as the General Office (women) and the Research Laboratory (men), while Reith ensured that executives were housed together on the second floor, his own office enjoying ‘a leafy outlook’ across the river.[14]

Reith’s quest for a large, permanent home for the BBC had begun in early 1927 although the chosen site at Portland Place, in the little developed area of the West End to the north of Oxford Street, would take five strenuous years to come to completion. Broadcasting House when it opened in April 1932 personified the growing self-assurance and authority of the Corporation. While Magnet House and Savoy Hill were marked by amateur enthusiasm, the new building ‘typified, in steel and concrete ... a new professionalism’.[15] As the 1932 BBC Tear Book proclaimed, the home in which it had ‘spent its childhood’ had grown into ‘man’s estate’.[16] Eric Maschwitz, the BBC’s first Variety Director, described how the ‘brand- new coat-of-arms, a house-flag fluttering from its latticed mask, and a Latin inscription’ overawed the humble suitors waiting in the hall.[17]

Broadcasting House was an impressive, modernist structure with 22 studios (the interior of one, the Talks Studio 3D, designed by a woman, Mrs Dorothy Trotter), a Concert Hall, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, lounges, libraries, echo rooms, cloakrooms and scores of offices.[18] [19] However, it was confusing to navigate with nine floors of labyrinthine corridors arranged around a central column of studios. The starkness of the foyer was tempered by large vases of flowers, the decorative arrangements of Mrs Webbsmith (much-beloved of the popular press), which created a friendly atmosphere to help ‘shy arrivals, broadcasters or visitors, feel at home’. 3 7 As well as new workspaces, the iconic building offered enhanced comforts for staff. It was air-conditioned and boasted an on-site Matron, Mrs Starkey, who worked from a state-of-the-art medical room. There were also two large subsidised restaurants, one which provided a waitress service for up to 210 people at a time, the other a ‘cold’ service and the delivery of snacks.[20] The provision of medical services and cheap food were indicative of the BBC’s commitment to staff welfare. The underpaid office girl lunching on a measly cup of tea and a bun was a powerful image at this time so a reduced-price meal in comfortable surroundings was a significant benefit.[21] The restaurants were also places where staff could mingle, the chance of spotting a celebrity, a dignitary or an artiste adding an extra touch of spice.

Although most of the offices were mixed, a tour of the building would have revealed, in some areas, a clear delineation between men and women’s work. On the first floor much of the west side was taken up by the General Office and Duplicating Section; the scripts, staff directives, daily menus and announcer duty sheets passed from the all-female copy typists to the all-female Roneo operatives. The east side was home to the Registry where the all-female staff (apart from office boys) catalogued BBC documents, filed listener correspondence and ear-marked mail for departments and individuals. The adjoining Post Room, on the other hand, was staffed only by men. A lift ride to the seventh floor would locate the Telephone Exchange buzzing with calls, the switchboard operated by a rota of female telephonists. Above them, on the eighth floor, the L-shaped Control Room was staffed by engineers and was exclusively male. These segregated offices would have come as no surprise to a visitor. Employment in the interwar years was largely shaped by gender stereotyping and separate places of work and, in its adoption of women-only/men-only spaces, the BBC was following the convention and cultural expectations of the times.[22]

Reith, now in a bespoke oak-panelled office on the third floor overlooking Regent Street, disliked the new building and by the time staff moved in, it was already too small, necessitating many departments to be housed in out-buildings.4 1 For instance, within a year the adjacent St George’s Hall had become home to the Variety Department while new studios opened at Maida Vale in 1934. A further key movement of staff came with the start of the fledgling television service at Alexandra Palace in North London in 1936. London was not, of course, the only home of the BBC, the provincial and later, regional staff had similar experiences of ad hoc offices being refurbished and rebuilt. Each had its own staff of managers, music executives, producers, clerks, secretaries, telephonists, caterers, engineers and so on, while a handful of the larger stations such as Cardiff, Edinburgh and Bristol engaged Women Staff Supervisors to oversee their female employees. Wherever they were based, BBC employees were part of an ever-changing and expanding hierarchy, which came increasingly under centralised control.

  • [1] Lewis, Broadcasting from Within, p. 27. Cecil Lewis was appointed at the same time asJohn Reith, as Assistant Director of Programmes.
  • [2] BBC Programme Content, 1922-26.
  • [3] Lewis, Broadcasting from Within, p. 27.
  • [4] Ariel July 1958, ‘Portrait of the Month: Dorothy Knight’.
  • [5] Ariel, April 1937.
  • [6] Prospero, June 1984. Prospero is the journal for BBC retired staff.
  • [7] Roger Eckersley (1946) The BBC and All That (London: Sampson Low, Marston)pp. 57-8; Peter Eckersley (1942) The Power behind the Microphone (London: The ScientificBook Club) p. 57; Arthur Burrows (1924) The Story of Broadcasting (London: Cassell) p. 72.
  • [8] Richard Lambert (1940) Ariel and All his Quality (London: Gollanz) pp. 43-4.
  • [9] See for example Asa Briggs (1985) The BBC: The First Fifty Years (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press) pp. 96-106; Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting,pp. 32-34, 108-13; Anne Perkins (2006) A Very British Strike (London: Macmillan).
  • [10] BBC/WAC:CO37: BBCo: General Strike-Staff Arrangements, Gambier Parry toGladstone Murray, 18 May 1926; Atkinson report, 18 May 1926.
  • [11] Maurice Gorham (1948) Sound and Fury (London: Percival Marshall) p. 17.
  • [12] Hines, The Story of Broadcasting House, pp. 22-34.
  • [13] Floor plans in Brian Hennessy (2005) The Emergence of Broadcasting in Britain(Lympstone: Southerleigh) pp. 394—413.
  • [14] BBC Tear Book 1932, p. 90.
  • [15] Val Gielgud (1947) Tears of the Locust (London: Nicholson and Watson) p. 90. Gielgud’sitalics.
  • [16] BBC Tear Book 1932, p. 98.
  • [17] Eric Maschwitz (1957) No Chip on my Shoulder (London: Herbert Jenkins) p. 70.
  • [18] Dorothy Warren Trotter was a qualified architect.
  • [19] Radio Pictorial, 9 October 1936.
  • [20] Wilfred Goatman (1938) By-Ways of the BBC (London: P.S. King) p. 49.
  • [21] See for example Mary Grieve (1964) Millions Made my Story (London: Gollancz)pp. 42-3.
  • [22] There are a large number of books which examine women’s employment issues; see, forexample, Sylvia Walby (1986) Patriarchy at Work: Patriarchal and Capitalist Relations inEmployment (Cambridge: Polity Press); Jane Lewis (1984) Women in England 1870-1950:Sexual Divisions and Social Change (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books); Catherine Hakim (1996)Key Issues in Women’s Work: Female Heterogeneity and the Polarisation of Women’s Employment(London: Athlone); Harriet Bradley (1989) Men’s Work, Women’s Work: A Sociological Historyof the Sexual Division of Labour in Employment (Cambridge: Polity Press); Albert J. Mills andPeta Tancred, eds. (1992) Gendering Organizational Analysis (Newbury Park: Sage).
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