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The BBC ‘Secretary’

Maurice Gorham, the Editor of Radio Times from 1926, was unequivocal about the importance of the BBC secretary. When seeking information for forthcoming programmes, he professed, he preferred to liaise with the secretary rather than her producer. ‘They were clever ... did the work of two men ... not only was it more pleasant, but she would probably know more too.’ 5 5 Radio Pictorial left no doubt as to the significance of the ‘twenty silent women’, the producers’ secretaries, upon whose ‘unobtrusive efficiency’ BBC drama and variety productions depended. ‘She must be able to spot any letter which might promise something original ... she must be able to keep a secret . she must know how to handle artistes . she must be able to discover the names of composers and publishers.’[1] [2] Secretaries also prompted effusive tributes in the memoirs of BBC men. Roger Eckersley, who ran the Programmes Department from 1924 before becoming Director of Entertainment, gushed about his ‘perfect secretary’ Miss Jockel, personally thanking her ‘for the crises through which she has held my hand, for her tact with unwanted visitors, and for her technique in rescuing me from callers who would not leave’.[3] Robert Silvey, who established BBC Listener Research in 1936, was certain that ‘no one could have been more loyal, conscientious or efficient’ than his secretary Miss Press.[4] Hilda Matheson frequently voiced her reliance on her secretary Miss Barry, marvelling at her perspicacity, welcoming her providential return after a bout of illness and praising her ability for ‘taking things in hand and calming [me] down’.[5] John Reith would end Broadcasting over Britain with a dedication to his secretary Miss Shields.[6]

The position of personal secretary in the interwar years was highly prized, a very different role to that of a typist. Originally a job for men (hence the continuation of the term ‘Secretary’ in Government departments and the Civil Service) as early as 1909 there were female private secretaries earning more than ?200 a year.[7] By the 1930s the average salary for a ‘good private secretary’, according to J.A.R. Cairns in Careers for Girls, was between ?5 and ?10 a week although it was ‘usually at the lower end’.[8] The job was the pinnacle of the secretarial promotional chain. As the private secretary Daisy Lansbury advised, it was essential not to hanker after a career of one’s own.[9] In 1935, the Radio Times women’s page included an article by Rose Rosenberg CBE, personal private secretary of 12 years standing to the former prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Here she described the instinctive skills for the job as ‘assurance, dignity, powers of conversation, mental alertness, a real sense of value, a quick perception of people’s reactions, and ... a sense of humour, which is so frequently a saving grace’.[10] The status of the secretary was always intrinsically linked to the status of her boss, indeed, to warrant a personal secretary was an emblem of prestige.[11]

At the BBC, apart from the handful who were salaried, personal secretaries rarely earned more than ?5 a week. But the work was as varied as the individual she worked for: seeking out facts and information, arranging meetings, dealing with correspondence, prioritising workloads, above all understanding the BBC, her department, her boss and their different whims and needs. The relationship was often an intense one. Roger Eckersley described how Miss Jockel had stayed with him ‘through fair or foul, thick or thin, for twenty long years’ gratified that their ‘partnership or “marriage” as master and secretary lasted longer than any other like combination in the Corporation’.[12] While secretaries at the BBC in the 1920s and 30s displayed some facets of ‘office wife’ there were also maternal elements to their interactions, clearly seen in a series of Radio Pictorial interviews with BBC secretaries in 1936.

For six consecutive weeks the daily working lives of seven secretaries were candidly revealed (two were joint secretaries), the motherly relationship with their managers manifest. Dorothy Knight described her boss, Eric Maschwitz, the Variety Director as being ‘utterly careless of himself in every way’. She told of her horror at realising she had let him leave the office on a cold day without his heavy Ulster coat, his scarf and his hat.[13] Pamela Argent was secretary to two BBC variety producers. One of them, Bryan Michie, was an ‘uncared-for-bachelor’. If she did not remind him, she claimed, ‘he would always forget to send his things to the laundry and I make him swear solemnly that he will not put on anything not previously aired...’.[14] Cynthia Pughe undertook to be the memory of Val Gielgud, the Director of Drama, even phoning him at home if he needed to be in the office early, to make sure he was awake.[15] Dorothy Harrison and Ada Julian described themselves as ‘the girls who “direct” Henry Hall and tell him whether he is coming or going. If we didn’t he frequently wouldn’t know.’[16] Henry Hall headed the BBC Dance Orchestra. These accounts provide an intriguing counterpoint to the heady creativeness of these senior officials of the Variety and Drama Departments, as evoked by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff in their social history of the BBC.[17] [18]

Matheson’s relationship with her secretary appears to have been more personal than was the case with a male manager. For instance, she was deeply concerned for Eileen Barry’s welfare when her relationship with Derek McCulloch (then a BBC announcer) was jeopardised by his transfer to Belfast.62 Barry also appears to have been aware, and supportive, of Matheson’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West, ‘beaming’ when asked how she had guessed that Matheson was staying at Sissinghurst and going

‘quite pink’ when Vita personally sent her lupins.[19] Whereas Matheson, in her letters, was only ever highly complimentary about Barry she was less than polite about ‘the DG’s secretary’, Elizabeth Nash, describing her as an ‘uppish young woman with an exaggerated sense of her own importance’.[20] As a rare BBC secretary who was on the salaried staff it is perhaps not surprising that Miss Nash considered herself superior. In 1928, when she took over the ‘No. 1’ job she earned ?300, when she left in 1936, this had risen to ?600 a year.

Nash was at the pinnacle of the BBC’s secretarial chain. In 1935, at the insistence of the new Controller of Programmes Cecil Graves (largely to benefit his own secretary Margaret Hope Simpson) it was agreed that the four Controllers’ secretaries would also be salaried.[21] For a BBC woman whose ambition was a secretarial career it was anticipated that, if she remained on the staff and performed well, she would rise up the hierarchical chain from copy typist or shorthand typist, to ‘isolated’ shorthand typist and ultimately, secretary. This expectation was not limited to the BBC. Writing in Careers for Girls in 1928, the ‘secretary to the editor of a leading London newspaper’, observed that once beyond the role of ‘machine’ (albeit a superb one, the writer stressed, with speed and accuracy that made her a reliable and valuable typist) ‘all sorts of horizons became visible’.[22]

The designation ‘secretary’ is significant. For many years there was incongruity within the BBC’s secretarial ranks which typifies its complex and bizarre hierarchical structure. Until 1937 only a woman who worked for a senior executive was officially a ‘secretary’. A shorthand typist might effectively be a secretary but if her boss was not high-ranking she could not be referred to as such. This is clearly seen in the 1937 Staff List. The top official in each department has a personal secretary; senior managers a designated shorthand typist; while for those in more junior management positions, the shorthand typist might be shared. Freeman freely admitted that the designation was a misnomer as ‘all these girls are referred to— quite naturally—as secretaries’.[23] The situation was finally rectified in that year’s Salary Review which clarified that all ‘isolated’ shorthand typists would be redesignate secretaries, a truer reflection of their role.[24] It was made clear, however, that while there might be a change of name, it did not bring with it any rise in pay. Rather, it was hoped the new designation would ‘do away with the present dissatisfaction caused by the existing “hierarchy” system’. Salaried secretaries were in future to be called ‘senior secretaries’.[25] [26]

The secretary-boss relationship has long been associated with sex, indeed Maurice Gorham claimed of the BBC that he ‘never knew an office where sex played so large a part, where so many people lived with their secretaries, where the hunters and the hunted were so conspicuous as they went about their sport’.8 0 He was convinced that while people dressed respectably they did not behave respectably. There were certainly marriages between secretarial staff and senior BBC officials. Valentine Goldsmith, the Head of Administration was ‘ragged’ at Control Board about his impending wedding to Miss Fawkes in June 1927 who Reith described in his diaries as ‘one of the junior typists, rather well-known for her irresponsibility’.[27]Although couched in ambiguity, it seems almost certain that the marriage, which took place in September, was prompted by Fawkes’ pregnancy. The tragedy of her death shortly afterwards from ‘electrical treatment to stop this’ and Goldsmith’s evident distress (according to Reith he had known nothing about it) was ‘a dreadful business’, painfully recorded in the diary entry for 22 November 1927.8[28] Goldsmith’s marriage was evidently harrowing. Others were more joyful affairs as was the case with, for example, Eileen Barry and Derek McCulloch, who married in 1931.

While the BBC’s secretarial staff were mostly female, there were times when a male typist was employed. For example, it was seen as prudent in the case of Edward Clark, the Music Director at the Newcastle Station, whose language at times of stress was ‘most unpleasant’.[29] Appropriateness was also probably the reason why, as the expansion of the BBC necessitated night work, the two typists employed in the General Office were both men.[30] The BBC was not alone in employing small numbers of male typists. Hilda Martindale noted that it might be necessary for the Civil Service to employ men in this capacity ‘in a few special departmental situations’ with all male staffs.[31] This was mirrored at the BBC. While male typists were occasionally employed in Regional offices, most were employed in areas of work that were predominantly, or exclusively, male. These were the Advertising Department, the Engineering Equipment Department and at the BBC’s nine transmitting stations. By definition these stations were in isolated parts of the country so it was seen as especially inappropriate to employ women and even the telephonists and cleaners were male.[32]

  • [1] Maurice Gorham (1948) Sound and Fury (London: Percival Marshall) p. 23.
  • [2] Radio Pictorial, 27 November 1936.
  • [3] Roger Eckersley (1946) The BBC and All That (London: Sampson Low, Marston)p. 135.
  • [4] Robert Silvey (1974) Who’s Listening? The Story of BBC Audience Research (London:George Allen and Unwin) p. 23.
  • [5] Hilda Matheson Letters (hereafter HML), 12 February 1929, 15 January 1929, 4January 1929, 27 January 1929.
  • [6] John Reith (1924) Broadcast over Britain (London: Hodder and Stoughton) p. 231.
  • [7] Anderson, The White Blouse Revolution, p. 9.
  • [8] J.A.R. Cairns (1928) Careers for Girls (London: Hutchinson and Co).
  • [9] Margaret Cole, ed. (1936) The Road to Success: 20 Essays on the Choice of Career forWomen (London: Methuen) p. 77.
  • [10] Radio Times, 15 November 1935, ‘The Making of a Private Secretary’.
  • [11] Anderson, The White Blouse Revolution, pp. 21-2; Davy, ‘Shorthand Typists in London’,p. 133.
  • [12] Eckersley, The BBC and All That, p. 57. Eckersley’s reference to his ‘marriage’ is pertinent, later studies into secretary-boss relationships openly explore this metaphor. KathleenBenet described the secretary as the ‘substitute wife’, carrying out what she defined as household duties in the office. Kathleen Benet (1972) Secretary (London: Sidgwick and Jackson)p. 70. Kanter, in her 1977 study of large American corporations, used the term ‘office wife’,stressing also the serious emotional bonds that could develop between the secretary and herboss. Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977) Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: BasicBooks) p. 89.
  • [13] Radio Pictorial, 17 January 1936.
  • [14] Radio Pictorial, 14 February 1936.
  • [15] Radio Pictorial, 7 February 1936.
  • [16] Radio Pictorial, 31 January 1936. Henry Hall was one of the UK’s foremostbandleaders.
  • [17] Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991) A Social History of British Broadcasting,1922-1939 (London: Basil Blackwood) pp. 256-73.
  • [18] HML, 22 February 1929. McCulloch would become Director of Children’s Hour. Thecouple married in 1931 at which point Barry left the BBC.
  • [19] HML, 15 January 1929, 27 May 1929. Sissinghurst was Vita’s Kent home.
  • [20] HML, 5 January 1929.
  • [21] BBC/WAC:L1/1699/1: Margaret Hope Simpson Staff File. Miss George, MissOsborne and Miss Shawyer were the other three.
  • [22] Cairns, Careers for Girls, p. 30, 39.
  • [23] BBC/WAC:R49/607: Salary Review: Women Staff, Freeman to Clarke, 6 December1937.
  • [24] BBC/WAC:R3/3/12: Control Board Minutes, 21 December 1937.
  • [25] Salary Review, Freeman to Clarke, 6 December 1937.
  • [26] Gorham, Sound and Fury, p. 20.
  • [27] Reith Diaries, 10 June, 21 June 1927. Reith described Goldsmith as ‘much embarrassedand obviously wished she had been in a different position’.
  • [28] Reith Diaries, 22 November 1927. The story was covered in the press, but Goldsmithwas not named.
  • [29] As quoted in Charlotte Higgins (2015) This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth andTroubled Life of the BBC (London: Guardian Books) p. 45.
  • [30] BBC Staff List, 1937. Protectionist legislation forbade the night employment of womenin many industries and the BBC may have been influenced by these laws.
  • [31] Hilda Martindale (1938) Women Servants of the State, 1870-1938 (London: Allen andUnwin) p. 91.
  • [32] The exception was Bournemouth which employed a female cleaner.
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