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

Being Younger, Being Older

As the morning sun shines on the noble facade of Broadcasting House at the top of Regent Street, four to five hundred smart young women push between the big bronze doors of the building and are whizzed in high-speed lifts up to six floors of offices.[1]

This image of large numbers of young women pouring into the BBC is an apt one. The UK’s female workforce in the interwar years was predominantly one of youth, predicated by women’s retirement from paid work when they married.[2] Many employers preferred young female workers who were prepared to accept lower wages, on routine tasks, in jobs with few promotional prospects, particularly pertinent for the majority of British girls who finished their elementary schooling at 14.[3] At the BBC, however, there was an expectation that waged women staff would already have experience or training and the average age of joining the Corporation was 22 with few recruited before the age of 18.[4] This was very different to the Civil Service, for example, which recruited Junior Clerks, Writing Assistants and Clerical Assistants by examination, between the ages of 15 and 18.[5]

A visitor to the BBC, being escorted to a studio or a meeting, would have immediately been aware of the employment of boys. The ‘boy’ was a time-honoured role dating back to Victorian times and at the BBC it was an established position for selected youths who had left school at 14.[6] They were supplied with milk for their health, encouraged to attend evening classes and, the BBC hoped, would qualify for junior clerical positions in the Corporation when their employment was terminated at 18.[7] Starting on a few shillings a week, office boys and pages who showed ability could—and did—rise through the BBC. W.C. Hopkins who joined as a page in 1927 (earning 15s a week), graduated to Junior Clerk, Buying Assistant and was by 1938, a Buyer on ?300 a year.[8] [9] Similarly, Wilfred Goatman who wrote a lively account of Broadcasting House in the late 1930s, started as a 12/6d ‘boy’ in Swansea in 1924. By 1939 he was earning ?450 in Overseas Intelligence.7 6 There are very occasional references to ‘office girls’ at the BBC. Two were recorded as working in the Duplicating Section in 1937 where they presumably would have been trained to become operatives.[10] However, the employment of young women under the age of 18 was uncommon.

While a man’s age or marital status was of limited significance in terms of employment as a white-collar worker in the interwar years, for a woman it was critical. Because most women left the workforce on marriage, either by choice or enforcement, the majority of older women professionals and office workers in the 1920s and 30s, including those at the BBC, were spinsters.[11] This was compounded by the large number of ‘surplus’ women, estimated in the 1921 census at one and three-quarter million, who were unable to marry because of the high male casualty rate of the First World War.[12] The feminist writer Ray Strachey stressed the potential grimness of the working lives of women aged over 30 who needed to earn their own living citing, for instance, low wages, paltry savings for a pension and the constant fear of being replaced by someone younger.8 0 Organisations such as the Over-Thirty Association (established in 1934) and the National Spinsters’ Pension Association (established in 1935) campaigned expressly for improved working conditions. The BBC, however, took a pragmatic approach towards spinsters many of whom had long careers and ultimately retired on a generous pension. Longevity of service, for instance, was rewarded with a ten-year bonus and Ariel in April 1937 listed 102 women, mostly spinsters, who had been with the BBC for a decade or more.[13] [14] Many women would remain with the Corporation for the entire duration of their working lives. For example, in the summer of 1953 Ariel bade farewell to six women recruited in the 1920s and 30s, five of whom were unmarried.[15] Isabel Mallinson, the BBC’s first Cashier, was of such value to the Corporation that she was invited to stay on past her sixtieth birthday. She was sixty-three when she retired in 1938.[8]

Concerns were sometimes expressed about the employment of older women. In 1938 the BBC’s Catering Manager showed himself to be uneasy about waitresses where the ‘inevitable march of time’ had caused ‘girls’ originally selected for their general attractiveness as well as their ability, to become ‘old and haggard in their appearance’ as well as slower in their duties.[17] Again, a realisation that the BBC’s marriage bar might create ‘compulsory spinsters’ caused reflection on the object of the marriage bar. Was it ‘to avoid having old or oldish women on the staff?’[18] While references such as these are rare at the BBC, they confirm the derogatory way in which spinsters and older women were often viewed during this period.[19]

Plainly one woman, Gwen Williams, lied about her age. In 1937 Williams, who had been employed on a contract basis as an Accompanist for many years, was appointed to the permanent staff as a Coach.[20] On her staff record she wrote her year of birth as 1893, in fact she was five years older, a detail only revealed in 1953 when she came to retire.[21] It is not known why Williams felt the need to disguise her true age. It is very doubtful that having offered her a job the BBC would have rescinded it if her true age had been known particularly as the salary she was offered, ?450 a year, was more than that paid to her male colleagues, indicating her value to the Corporation. A more probable explanation is that she feared attitudes towards a 44-year-old woman might be less positive and it also had the effect of keeping her in work until she was 65. While a largely pragmatic approach was taken to the employment of older women whose experience and maturity might be beneficial, the predominant new recruit was an educated and trained young woman, eager to work at the BBC. She would have been well turned-out with neat hair, a hat, stockings and gloves, the clothes she wore defining her as a modern working woman.

  • [1] Radio Pictorial, 27 November 1936.
  • [2] The 1921 Census showed women aged between 15 and 24 comprised 63 per cent ofthose in paid employment; in 1931, it was 69 per cent.
  • [3] Much has been written about young women in the interwar workforce, see particularlySelina Todd (2005) Young Women, Work and the Family in England 1918-1950 (Oxford:Oxford University Press).
  • [4] These figures are derived from the 59 weekly paid women staff who left the BBC for marriage between January 1938 and April 1939. BBC/WAC:R49/371/2: Married WomenPolicy:2, 28 April 1939. Only two were under 18 when they started. Twelve others were agedunder 20. The oldest new recruit was 29, with five aged 27.
  • [5] Ray Strachey (1935) Careers and Openings for Women: A Survey of Women’s Employmentand a Guide for Those Seeking Work (London: Faber and Faber) p. 2.
  • [6] See, for example, Samuel Cohn (1985) The Process of Occupational Sex-Typing. TheFeminisation of Clerical Labour in Great Britain (Philadelphia: Temple University Press)pp. 205-13.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:R49/227: Grades and Salaries, Grades ‘D’ and Weekly Paid Staff,Memorandum on the Employment of Boys, 28 April 1937.
  • [8] Salary Information Files.
  • [9] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC.
  • [10] BBC/WAC:R49/227, 19 April 1937. The girls were graded EW with a starting salaryof 17/6d a week, similar to what was then paid to ‘boys’.
  • [11] Many working-class married women continued to work; nearly all the BBC’s charwomen were older married women, see Chapter 3.
  • [12] Virginia Nicholson (2007) Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Menafter the First World War (London: Viking) p. xi.
  • [13] Ray Strachey ‘Changes in Employment’ in Ray Strachey ed. (1936) Our Freedom and itsResults by Five Women (London: Hogarth Press) p. 145.
  • [14] Ariel, April 1937.
  • [15] Ariel, Summer 1953.
  • [16] Salary Information Files.
  • [17] BBC/WAC:R49/73/1: Catering Staff, Conditions of Service, Wade to Pym, 8September 1938.
  • [18] BBC/WAC:R49/372: Married Women Policy: Tribunals, Nicolls to Carpendale, 6March 1935.
  • [19] Katherine Holden (2007) The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914-60(Manchester: Manchester University Press) pp. 4, 7, 40-1.
  • [20] BBC/WAC:L1/454: Gwendoline Williams Staff File, Dewar to Lubbock, 4 December1936.
  • [21] 11 December 1952. A perfunctory note indicates the embarrassment this caused.
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