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‘Women Who Oil the Wheels’: Waged Women at the BBC

‘Dear Madam, I should be very glad if you could give me an interview with a view to possible employment with the BBC’, was how 21-year- old Clare Lawson Dick opened her letter to the Corporation in March 1935.[1] Brimming with optimism she went on to explain that she had always been interested in Broadcasting House and had hoped to work there one day. Her education included Channing School for Girls, the University of Grenoble, King’s College London and the LSE while her previous jobs embraced both publicity work for an MP and a brief spell in charge of the Information Bureau at Harrods. She gave a phone number and informed the BBC that she would be in London the following Tuesday and Wednesday although she could travel up to town from her home in Dorking at any convenient time.

Alas, Miss Lawson Dick was to be disappointed. The frank response from the WSA, Miss Freeman, specified that unless she was qualified secretarially, there was very little prospect of obtaining a position with the Corporation, although vacancies did occasionally occur for filing clerks in the Registry.[2] Not to be deterred, Lawson Dick showered Freeman with requests for details about jobs and, after being turned down for two positions, she accepted the post of temporary filing clerk on 10 shillings a day in May 1935.[3] A humble start for the woman who, forty years later, would become the first female Controller of BBC Radio 4.[4] Evidently well-educated (though not to graduate level), Lawson Dick was fully prepared to begin her BBC career in the weekly paid ranks.

Clare Lawson Dick’s experience of getting a foothold at Broadcasting House foregrounds many issues this chapter will address: the attraction of employment at the BBC; the self-confidence of young women and their expectations of work; the requirement for secretarial training; the possibilities of promotion and the pivotal role of the WSA. Above all it highlights the two distinct categories of female staff at the BBC, the weekly and monthly paid; waged women always far outnumbering the salaried. Men were employed in waged clerical roles but most who were on a weekly wage were engineers. In 1931, the BBC employed around 200 waged female secretarial and clerical staff. By 1939 this had risen to more than 600 in jobs that encompassed shorthand and copy typists, secretaries, clerks, duplicating operators and telephonists.[5]

As the BBC grew, so did the need for increased administrative support. Not only were there more memos to type, more contracts to issue and more copyright questions to consider but there was an ever-expanding need for bookkeepers in the Accounts Office, clerks in the Gramophone Section, telephonists in the Private Branch Exchange (PBX) exchange and shorthand typists in the School Broadcasting Department. In addition, the growing number of managers created a need for more personal secretarial assistance. Larger numbers of secretarial staff necessitated an ever more complex grading system with new levels and sub-levels introduced to differentiate between the various jobs and levels of work. Starting pay varied but most began on ?2-?3 a week. Those who performed well were entitled to an annual increment (usually 5 shillings) and the possibility of promotion to a higher grade. This meant potential earnings of ?4 or ?5

a week were within the reach of many BBC women at a time when ?3 a week was seen as a good wage.[6]

Young women took up office work in increasingly large numbers in the interwar years.[7] London in particular was a magnet to those eager for independence and excitement; sharing flats and bedsitters and seeking out decent employment that might offer opportunities to save money or finance a carefree lifestyle. For many, as Chapter 4 will show, marriage was the objective so there was little thought of a long-term career. Clare Lawson Dick wrote an article about this in The Lady in 1938 (prior to the BBC she had also attended journalism school).[8] Entitled ‘Leaving Home’ she began with a statement of how ‘thirty years ago it was a shocking thing for a girl to leave home and earn her own living’. Lawson Dick then asserted that ‘Today parents are rightly proud of a daughter who wants to fill in the time before marriage usefully’. That this was aimed at the middle-class reader is plain; working-class girls would always have worked. But it hints at the new freedoms that were available to young women. Work, for many, was about leaving the family home, doing something that comfortably passed the day, being with friends and perhaps even finding a husband.

Social advancement might also be the goal. As Judy Giles points out in the Parlour and the Suburb, young women were eager to distance themselves from the lifestyle of their mothers, looking to modern- style living and companionate marriages.[9] In her study of female Civil Service clerks in the interwar years Teresa Davey revealed how bright girls from working-class families, by passing the competitive entry exam, were able to achieve this social mobility to the lower middle classes. The job not only rewarded them with higher status but enabled them to ‘marry-up’.[10] The BBC, with its middle-class ethos, similarly offered the chance of social advancement to those fortunate enough to get through its doors. The feminist writer Ray Strachey, while warning of the ‘unsatisfactory and dead-end’ nature of much office work, did concede that for those who were trained and talented, there were possibilities for high wages and an interesting, challenging occupation, something evidently available at the BBC.[11]

At the BBC, while the actual job of the copy typist or duplicating operator might be monotonous, the work environment was far from dull. Talks scripts, school broadcasting pamphlets and publicity material, for instance, had an intrinsic interest, and much was confidential. Page two of the ‘Instructions to Women Clerical Staff’, for instance, included a clause about leakage of information and the dangers of passing on office gossip.[12] Production secretaries and telephonists would have been in direct contact with actors and prominent public figures; for others there might be the chance to pass a sports star or famous musician in reception areas or in lifts. Waitresses too, could be touched by celebrity although the status of catering staff, as was the case for all House Staff, was different to that of the typist or clerk.

The BBC was one of the workplaces that Strachey would have described as an ‘exceptional’ place for waged women to work. By this she meant offices where there were prospects for advancement, where pay could rise above ?3 a week and where women beyond marital age were not discriminated against.[13] As Radio Pictorial succinctly put it, ‘possibly the glamour ... attracts the women, or maybe it is just that the BBC is known to be a good employer’.[14]And because of its desirability the BBC could be selective about its female staff.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:L2/58/1: Clare Lawson Dick Staff File, Lawson Dick to Freeman, 17March 1935.
  • [2] Freeman to Lawson Dick, 26 March 1935.
  • [3] She became Controller in April 1975. See David Hendy (2007) Life on Air: A History ofRadio Four (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 134-8.
  • [4] Lawson Dick’s fortitude in applying for monthly paid posts paid off in 1942. After sixfailed interviews and two sideways moves, she was promoted to a Grade D salaried Assistantin Programme Planning.
  • [5] The BBC Staff List 1934 shows 210 shorthand typists, 35 secretaries, 24 copying typists,71 female clerks, 24 telephonists, 15 duplicating operators, 1 female book-keeper, 1 femalecheque-writer and 1 office girl.
  • [6] 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. 117.
  • [7] See, for example, Gregory Anderson, ed. (1988) The White Blouse Revolution: FemaleOffice Workers since 1870 (Manchester: Manchester University Press) pp. 11-14.
  • [8] The Lady., 19 May 1938. Lawson Dick attended the London University JournalismSchool. See Fred Hunter (2012) Hacks and Dons: Teaching at the London Journalism School1919-1939: Its Origin, Development and Influence (Colchester: Kultura Press) pp. 113, 212.She was given permission by the BBC to write the article.
  • [9] Judy Giles (2004) The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity andModernity (Oxford: Berg) pp. 47-64.
  • [10] Teresa Davy ‘Shorthand Typists in London 1900-1939’ in Leonore Davidoff andBelinda Westover, eds. (1986) Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History andWomen’s Work (London: Macmillan Education) pp. 145-59.
  • [11] Strachey, Careers and Openings, pp. 137-8. This viewpoint was also shared by VeraBrittain (1928) Women’s Work in Modern England (London: Noel Douglas) pp. 51-2.Nicholson has also written about the reassurance of a good clerical job, Virginia Nicholson(2007) Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War(London: Viking) pp. 112-13.
  • [12] ‘Instructions to Women Clerical Staff’, issued by Freeman, 6 July 1937.
  • [13] Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 118.
  • [14] Radio Pictorial, 23 April 1937.
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