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


The interwar BBC was an appealing place to work. From its haphazard origins to its image as ‘the prim official with a black hat and rolled umbrella’ the BBC attracted bright, dedicated men and women, proud to be part of an organisation that reached into the heart—and homes—of Britain.[1] At its helm was John Reith, ‘the benevolent, if strict, father’ whose vision of public service broadcasting imbued the BBC with a sense of purpose and duty.[2] Although by nature a traditionalist, Reith was willing to support and promote able women who he believed were of benefit to the BBC. He also created a management framework that reflected his belief in central control. No matter how large the Corporation grew, ultimate responsibility remained in the hands of the few men at the top. As a small organisation in the mid-1920s, the decision-making process was relatively quick. But as the BBC grew and the number of management layers proliferated, the Corporation became increasingly cumbersome. In many ways, however, the increased bureaucratisation of the BBC favoured the employment of women. They were the ones who typed the memos, duplicated the forms and filed the paperwork. These were waged women and here the BBC largely conformed to the customary gender stereotyping of jobs prevalent in the interwar years. Secretaries were almost invariably female and the Duplicating Section, Registry, Telephone Exchange and General Office were women-only spaces. Yet the BBC was also a place where women and men worked side-by-side and most offices were mixed.

People chose to work at the BBC for a variety of reasons. It was undoubtedly an exciting and prestigious place to be. As wireless took hold the BBC became the voice of the nation and attracted increasingly eminent people through its doors. As a member of staff, you might catch a glimpse of, or even get to work with, a film star, a sporting personality or an MP. For many, public service was the enticement, the desire to be part of an organisation that could change and influence people’s lives. As one of the original employees, Cecil Lewis, pondered, the appeal of the BBC was the ‘opportunity to take part in the life of the nation, to hear great men speak of their country’s affairs, to become a witness of all that is said and done’. 1 58 The conditions of employment were also good. Women’s pay was above average for the times, the work environment was congenial and perks like the BBC Club offered opportunities for socialising and recreation that generated bonhomie.

In the 1920s and 30s, women flocked to the BBC. Confidently dressed and self-assured, they included mature, experienced older women as well as the contemporary young women Mary Agnes Hamilton described as having ‘the face, the brains, the general equipment’ to make the best out of life. i 59 It was these young women who were recruited to the BBC’s waged staff as bookkeepers, clerks and shorthand typists, their experience of working for the Company/Corporation the subject of Chapter 3.

  • 158 Lewis, Broadcasting from Within, p. 175.
  • 159 Hamilton, Our Freedom, pp. 233-9.

  • [1] Gorham, Sound and Fury, p. 11.
  • [2] Freddy Grisewood (1959) My Story of the BBC (London: Odhams) p. 79.
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