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Getting an Office Job at the BBC

In April 1938, Radio Pictorial ran a two-page spread, purportedly written by a ?3.10s-a-week typist, in which she described how she came to work at the BBC.[1] Before she joined the Corporation, the unnamed typist explained, she had held ‘two decent commercial jobs’, as an office junior and as a secretary in a shipping office. When a slump in the shipping world made her job precarious, she looked for another, seeing the BBC position advertised in the ‘smalls’. Aware of the need to look smart for her interview, she chose to spend ?4 of her savings on a ‘neat grey costume and a pair of 8s 11d stockings—the most I’d ever paid for stockings till then’. It was a wise decision as the impression she made was good. Questions asked by the staff committee included details of her school, her examinations, her shorthand speed and her family life, although they did not ask for references. ‘After all’, she surmised, ‘Some 2,000 secretaries have already been chosen and they get to know how to sum up a girl’.

It is probable that the ‘unnamed typist’ was recruited under an experimental scheme introduced by the Corporation in 1937 whereby advertisements were placed twice-yearly in the London and main provincial papers.[2] Prior to this the BBC had no fixed method of appointing secretarial and clerical staff. Unlike the Civil Service, with its age-specific entry examinations for female clerks and typists, the BBC used a variety of ad hoc ways to fill vacancies. The earliest recruits were almost certainly engaged through word of mouth, a method gradually augmented by casual applications and by recommendations to the WSA from secretarial training establishments and employment bureaus.

The ‘unnamed typist’ had held two commercial positions prior to her BBC appointment and the BBC undoubtedly had a preference for experienced secretarial staff. In 1936, for example, according to Ariel Mary Campbell, a filing clerk with responsibility for the Registry in Edinburgh, had spent three years at the National Library of Scotland prior to her arrival at the BBC while Nancy Lyons, a clerk in the Press Department had previously worked in a solicitor’s office.[3] Similarly, three secretaries in the Programme Department in Birmingham, Dorothy Ryland, Elsie Lewis and Margaret Hock (who spoke four languages), had respectively taught elocution and games to a class of 48 children; held the fort for a stockbroker, and carried out secretarial work at Studley Agricultural College.[4] [5] As the 1938 BBC Handbook stated in a paragraph on Staff Recruitment, ‘girls over twenty, with good experience in a previous job, are preferred to girls of eighteen or nineteen straight from their training college with no practical experience’.

While the BBC preferred experienced staff, all secretarial recruits were required to have a good general education coupled with a high standard of shorthand and typing. 1 9 This would have militated against working- class girls who left elementary school at 14, although it was possible, and encouraged, to improve oneself through attending evening classes. Because the BBC did not offer training (it was not until the Second World War that the BBC set up its own Secretarial Training School) it relied heavily on secretarial colleges which proliferated in the interwar years. In her careers advice book, Ray Strachey was adamant that parents should be very careful when selecting a training school for their daughter. Reputable establishments were costly and would only have been available to girls from well-to-do homes.[6] To give an example, an advertisement for Miss Kerr Sanders Secretarial Training College was aimed at ‘well-educated girls wishing to qualify for the higher branches of the secretarial profession’.[7] The BBC was in touch with many of the top concerns in London included Kensington College, St James Secretarial College and the Triangle Secretarial College along with agencies run by well-regarded individuals such as Mrs Hoster, Miss Kerr Sanders and Dilys Ajax.[8]

Dorothy Torry (nee Singer) and Hilary Cope Morgan joined the BBC in a secretarial capacity at this time.[9] Both were middle-class young women who had left school at seventeen and attended secretarial training school in London: Dorothy Singer at Kensington College (chosen by her parents because it was residential) and Hilary Cope Morgan at Miss Kerr Sanders (while living with her grandmother). Miss Singer, after finishing her course, worked briefly at the College and then as a secretary before, aged nineteen, she wrote to the BBC in 1936 about possible openings. She was invited for an interview and was offered a job as a typist on ?2.10s a week. Miss Cope Morgan’s BBC interview was arranged by Miss Kerr Sanders herself, who decreed she should wear a hat and gloves. Asked about her interests and background and whether she had played hockey or lacrosse at school, she was recruited, at the age of 20, as a typist in May 1939.

The BBC expected hard work and commitment from female secretarial and clerical staff. High standards of decorum were demanded, for instance first names were rarely used and strict punctuality in the morning and on the return from lunch were observed.[10] Clare Lawson Dick recalled how one girl was reprimanded for walking through the door of a popular coffee shop near the BBC, without standing back to allow a more senior secretary to go through first.[11] This emphasis on propriety extended to other personal matters such as the attitude towards boyfriends, one newspaper commenting that they were not allowed to wait in the building but lurked ‘in the shadows of the doorways of the church over the way and of Queen’s Hall’.[12] [13] How women staff felt about these rules is hard to gauge because there was no official forum for discontent, but the gentle mocking of inconsequential regulations was routine in Ariel. Behind the directives and with responsibility for the centralised control of the BBC’s female office staff, was the WSA.

  • [1] Radio Pictorial, 8 April 1938. The article explained that it was against BBC rules foremployees to write about their jobs without permission, ‘but we have received this interesting account, written by a responsible radio journalist, as told to him in various interviews andconversations, which we publish for undoubted interest’.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:R49/561/1: Recruitment of Women Clerical Staff, 10 November 1936.Selected applicants were interviewed by an Appointments Board that included the WSA orher Deputy.
  • [3] Ariel, June 1936.
  • [4] Ariel, December 1936.
  • [5] This was 120 words-per-minute shorthand and 60 words-per-minute typing, for whichthey were given a test.
  • [6] Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 141.
  • [7] Central Employment Bureau for Women and Careers Association (1931) Careers andProfessional Training: A Guide to Professions and Occupations for Educated Women and Girls(London: The Women’s Employment Publishing Company) p. xvi.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R49/31/1: Appointments Procedure: Report on Recruitment of Staff,Ernest Barker to John Reith, 8 February 1934.
  • [9] Interview with Dorothy Torry conducted by Kate Murphy, 28 June 2006; interviewwith Hilary Cope Morgan, conducted by Elizabeth McDowell, 11 November 2006.
  • [10] ‘Instructions to Women Clerical Staff’.
  • [11] The Oral History of the BBC: Clare Lawson Dick interview, 30 March 1979.
  • [12] Radio Pictorial, 8 April 1938.
  • [13] Woman’s Own, 21 January 1933; Daily Express, 31 August 1935; Daily Mirror, 11January 1936.
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