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The Women’s Staff Administrator

‘Meet, as the Americans say, Miss Freeman’ was the invitation from Woman’s Own to its readers; ‘She Rules the Roost in Broadcasting House’, proclaimed the Daily Express while the Daily Mirror asserted, ‘She’s behind the girls behind the programmes!’2 7 As these headlines attest,

Freeman, the WSA, was critical to women’s work at the BBC. According to the Morning Post, it was her ‘shrewd judgement in selecting women staff’ that had helped towards ‘women’s success in wireless’.[1] The position had existed since February 1923 when Caroline Banks was appointed Women’s Staff Supervisor to oversee the General Office at Magnet House. Banks held the position until her marriage in 1931 when she was replaced by Freeman who retained the post until 1942.

The employment of a senior woman to oversee female staff, especially in terms of welfare, was not uncommon in interwar Britain. Lever Brothers, Boots and Sainsbury’s, for instance, all had women staff supervisors.[2] [3] At the Bank of England, the Superintendent of Women Clerks dealt with ‘discipline and all feminine matters including dress, medical affairs, report cards, resignations and marriage gratuities’. Olga Collett, who held this position at ICI, described in a radio talk her responsibility for the care and control of 650 women as ‘a blend of mother, schoolmistress, employers’ representative and Hand of Fate’. She acknowledged that she had the ‘rather terrifying power to influence and decide the course of many young lives’, a description that could equally have been applied to Freeman.3 0 The position of woman supervisor was the legacy of the feminisation of clerical work. When women first entered offices as clerks and secretaries in the late nineteenth century it was seen as prudent for them to be accommodated separately from men. Not only were they physically segregated but they were usually employed on specific tasks considered suitable for their sex.[4] In consequence, organisations such as banks and the Civil Service developed the role of female supervisor to oversee women-only offices and areas of work.[5] At the BBC the position would develop into one of immense authority although it was never acknowledged with the title of department head.

Why Reith opted to recruit a Women’s Staff Supervisor in 1923 is unknown, but the importance attached to the position is observable in

Caroline Banks’ interview; she was quizzed by three senior managers including Reith.[6] Little is known of Banks’ background apart from her age, 26, and that she lived with other career women in Russell Square.[7] Neither is it known whether she had supervised female staff before. What is certain is that she was initially employed to oversee a dozen female staff. When she left on marriage in 1931, she was responsible for around 200 women. Her income had also risen considerably. From a weekly wage of ?3.5s, she was promoted to the salaried staff in April 1925 on ?260 a year. By her resignation this had risen to ?425 per annum.[8] Reith wrote a heartfelt valedictory applauding her role in the selection, training and promotion of women clerical staff and her responsibility for their working conditions and efficiency.[9] Through her work, Reith emphasised, she had made ‘a material contribution ... to the establishment of the BBC’.

Bank’s duties were never explicitly written down so her exact role is unclear. However, it included interviewing and appointing women staff, making decisions about their placements, overseeing their annual reports, influencing their wage rises, sanctioning their wedding leave and ensuring their general well-being.[10] As part of the Administrative team Banks worked closely with the Assistant Controller Valentine Goldsmith and, from 1928, with the Personnel Executive, Douglas Clarke, both of whom were responsible for general staffing issues. Clarke, in particular, oversaw the recruitment of male clerical staff.

More is known about Banks’ replacement, Gweneth Freeman (although her first name was never used). Freeman initially joined the BBC in 1924, aged 24, as secretary to Goldsmith but resigned in 1927 when ‘the Call O’ the Wild’ prompted a move to Canada (why is not known).[11] It may be that she was tempted back to the BBC in 1931 by Goldsmith, her friendship with him and her knowledge of the Administrative Department making her ideal for the supervisory role.

In 1933, the post was re-designated Women’s Staff Administrator as part of Reith’s restructuring of the BBC. However, the new title did not confer higher status, rather it formalised Freeman’s position in the administrative hierarchy. The position was well paid. In April 1939 Freeman’s salary was recorded as ?720 per annum, making her one of the highest earning women in the BBC.

In terms of BBC hierarchy, Freeman was arguably the most powerful woman on the staff because her decisions had repercussions for hundreds of BBC employees (630 women came within her domain in 1939). However, the role was never designated ‘Director’ probably because of its association with women’s work. Yet despite the lack of executive standing, she worked closely with every manager in the BBC whose team included female secretarial or clerical staff, in effect most offices. All concerns about new postings, transfers, competences, ill-health, holiday leave and so on, were discussed with the WSA. Freeman was also consulted on general issues that affected women house staff and monthly paid staff, for example, she sat on the appointment boards for female salaried posts and was party to discussions on charwomen’s maternity pay. She was also vital to the workings of the BBC marriage bar, as Chapter 4 will show.

Possibly her most pertinent role, however, in terms of those who came under her control, was her centrality in deciding where women would be placed. One only has to read Ariel and the brief pen portraits of the scores of shorthand typists and secretaries who inhabited the myriad of BBC offices to find constant references to previous bosses. This expediency had existed from the start. Ruth Cockerton, who joined the BBC in 1924, recalled telling Miss Banks that when she was given a definite job ‘I hoped it would not be in the Engineering Department, as I hadn’t got an engineering turn of mind and didn’t understand what they were talking about’. Directly after, she was appointed secretary to Harold Bishop, then the Assistant Chief Engineer. Cockerton added that she had never held it against him (or Miss Banks) and that she had ‘enjoyed my two years as an engineer’.[12] Secretarial staff, however, were not completely without agency. For instance, Miss Peacock, a shorthand typist with the new Television service, was given the choice of moving to Alexandra Palace or transferring to another department and remaining at Broadcasting House.[13]

In 1935 the Daily Express portrayed Freeman getting to grips with the problem of how to assist those who were moving to the new Television offices in North London, as she poured over train and bus time-tables to offer advice on their journeys. Here also was described the twice -yearly gathering in the Council Chamber for all female secretarial and clerical staff at Head Office to voice their difficulties, grumbles or suggestions.[14] As well as caring for her BBC ‘girls’, Freeman was outward looking and made links with her counterparts in America and in other UK-based institutions such as Miss Stretton at the Bank of England and Olga Collett at ICI.[15] It was very probably Freeman who encouraged the BBC to become a member of the Women’s Employment Federation in 1935 and she developed a good working relationship with the Federation’s Secretary, Ray Strachey.[16] These contacts suggest that a degree of informed cooperation existed amongst high-status administrative women.

The role of WSA encapsulated the sexual division of labour at the BBC and the belief that women had specific employment needs, necessitating a distinct female line of command. At no point was the role questioned, unlike at the Civil Service. When Hilda Martindale reluctantly assumed the role of Director of Women Establishments in 1933, she made clear her belief that ‘men’s and women’s establishment problems were not as different as to require separate treatment’.[17] Admittedly, Martindale had notional responsibility for 77,000 women, as opposed to the hundreds in Freeman’s charge, however, it demonstrates that there was a divergence of views about the need to differentiate between men and women’s work. While the BBC adopted many modern employment practices, it maintained the fundamental principle that, for waged women, the control of a female administrator was essential.

The WSA’s base was the General Office. It is not known if Caroline Banks had separate accommodation at Savoy Hill, but it is likely that, as female staff numbers rose, she merited a designated room to deal with confidential issues. In Broadcasting House, the General Office was purpose- built and here Freeman could work in private. Good Housekeeping was evidently enchanted by her office and how ‘with its green carpet, cream walls and curtains, [it] makes such a pleasing setting for her own personal charm, of which an attractive smile, fair hair and a lovely complexion are not the least pleasing elements’.[18] Freeman also benefitted from a personal secretary and an immediate staff of three; an Assistant, a Junior Assistant and a General Office Supervisor. All were based in the ‘GO’.

  • [1] Morning Post, 18 May 1936.
  • [2] Elizabeth Hennessy (1992) A Domestic History of the Bank of England, 1930-1960(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 328.
  • [3] ‘Other Women’s Lives’, broadcast 29 May 1937.
  • [4] See, for example, Anderson, The White Blouse Revolution, pp. 36, 58-63.
  • [5] The position also existed in industry. See, for example, Miriam Glucksmann (1990)Women Assemble: Women Workers and the New Industries in Inter-War Britain (London:Routledge) p. 108; Clare Wightman (1999) More than Munitions: Women, Work and theEngineering Industries 1900-1950 (London: Longman) p. 155.
  • [6] Prospero, December 1967.
  • [7] Brian Hennessy (2005) The Emergence of Broadcasting in Britain (Lympstone:Southerleigh) p. 237.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R62/100/1-3: Salary Information (staff) 1923-39. Caroline Banks, nowMrs Caroline Towler, was to return to the BBC in 1933.
  • [9] The Heterodyne, March 1931.
  • [10] Janet Adam Smith, who would become Assistant Editor of The Listener., recalled herinterview with Miss Banks in 1928 describing her as ‘a very, very nice person’. The OralHistory of the BBC: Janet Adam Smith interview, 1 August 1979.
  • [11] The Heterodyne, April 1931.
  • [12] Ariel, June 1938.
  • [13] BBC/WAC:R13/436: Television: Women Staff: 1a, Peacock to Freeman, 12 August1936.
  • [14] Daily Express, 31 August 1935.
  • [15] BBC/WAC:R49/371/2: Married Women Policy: 2, Freeman to Pym, 2 November1937; 13 July 1937.
  • [16] Women’s Library/WEF Archive:6/WEF/487: Executive Minutes, 9 May 1935.
  • [17] Hilda Martindale was a former Deputy Chief Inspector of Factories. Hilda Martindale(1944) From One Generation to Another 1839—1944: A Book of Memoirs (London: GeorgeAllen and Unwin) p. 188.
  • [18] Good Housekeeping, August 1935.
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