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Women House Staff

An organisation as large as the BBC required an army of service staff to maintain it, in particular offices and studios needed to be cleaned, cloakrooms staffed and refreshments and meals prepared and served. This predominantly was work for women, their recruitment and their day- to-day working lives the responsibility of the House Superintendent, H.L. Chilman. While Savoy Hill required only a small team, by 1939, Chilman’s empire at Broadcasting House encompassed many hundreds of manual staff. Jobs were gendered. Commissaries, studio attendants, kitchen porters and store staff were positions held exclusively by men. Women were employed as lavatory attendants, kitchen cashiers and counter-hands as well as waitresses and charwomen. A rare job that was open to both women and men was that of ‘chef’.[1]

Reminiscing, in 1937, on her time at the Corporation, the former BBC accompanist-turned-music star, Jean Melville, posed the question:

Do you know the two women to whom I think I was the most deeply grateful during my time at the BBC? They were Mrs Dubarry and the late Mrs Hudson—and their job was a very simple but important one. They have looked after the BBC canteen since Savoy Hill days.[2]

The BBC’s restaurants and canteens were significant places for BBC staff. Not only were they a crucial part of the Corporation’s welfare provision but they were also an attractive place to meet and share news and gossip. When Wilfred Goatman toured the restaurant in 1938 for his guidebook to Broadcasting House he noted that the 86 day-staff employed in the restaurant worked three different shifts and provided thousands of meals each week.[3] He also proudly depicted the state-of-the-art kitchen with its ‘four electric ovens, two large grills, pastry oven, steamer, four fryers, a large electric carver and refrigeration plant’.

In 1937, under the supervision of A.E. Mason the Head of the Catering Section, were three chefs, two second chefs, two assistant chefs, a com- mis chef, a patissiere and a cook-chargehand. All were women, except for one of the chefs and an additional night chef. To be a cook or a chef in interwar Britain was a respected position which would have entailed training, either at college or on-the-job. In her 1935 careers guide, Ray Strachey discussed the availability of full-time courses at Domestic Science Colleges and private cookery schools along with day and evening classes at Polytechnics and other further education colleges. Salaries for non-resident cooks, she estimated, averaged ?100 to ?150 per annum, with kitchen superintendents possibly earning as much as ?220.[4] How the BBC’s chefs and cooks were trained is not known but in 1939, Mrs Broughton, the 52-year-old Head Chef at Broadcasting House, earned the highest wage of all the catering staff, an exceptional ?5.18s 9d a week, equivalent to around ?300 a year.

Waitresses were the largest single group of BBC catering staff and again, their conditions of service appear to be good. Goatman wrote whimsically about the ‘little room where the waitresses have their meals in comfort and are themselves waited upon by a girl employed solely for that purpose’.[5] This impression is in stark contrast to Joan Beauchamp’s portrayal of the miserable working conditions of a waitress in one of the largest teashop firms in the UK (presumably J. Lyons). The work was tiring, the changing room ‘an old cellar, damp and horrible and far too small’ and if a girl felt ill, there was nowhere to sit down.[6] A later study into J. Lyons, the home of the iconic ‘nippy’, confirmed low pay and a ruthless management style which could lead to instant dismissal for flouting one of many petty rules.[7]

At the BBC a model letter of appointment, probably from 1938, shows a starting wage of ?1.10s per week and free meals. 1 18 Discussions on whether the BBC should abide by the 1913 Shops Act (it did) clarified that waitresses were eligible to three weeks’ holiday a year, two weeks more than the statutory minimum.[8] [9] Questioned in 1934 as to whether a sufficiently good wage was being paid to attract ‘a decent class of girl’, Ralph Wade, the Director of Office Administration, was adamant they were; the BBC paid 30s a week as compared to the 27s 6d paid by Lyons.[10] In addition, BBC girls had meals of better quality and quantity, were provided with uniforms, including shoes and stockings, and were offered free laundry.[11] There was camaraderie too, as Ariel reported in June 1936:

If your tea at Broadcasting House and Maida Vale tasted salty in the afternoon on Monday, May 18 it must have been because all the girls of the kitchen and restaurant staff had had a day out at Margate the day before, in charge of Mrs Cox and Mrs Dubarry. They filled two charabancs arriving there at midday for a blow-out in a big hotel...[12]

Kitchen staff appear to have held a higher status than waitresses. Whereas the former might be considered for the BBC pension scheme waitresses ‘should not be eligible in any circumstances’.[13] [14] This differentiation was probably linked to the high turnover of waitresses whose average length of service at the BBC was three years.

Charwomen, on the other hand, might stay with the BBC for many years, even decades. The pay was good, the hours of work fair and, attached to the job was glamour and cachet. A photograph in Radio Pictorial from 1934 showing the BBC’s charwomen leaving Broadcasting House at the end of their shift, is captioned ‘a happy band of cleaners’. 1 24 And they do look both happy and respectable. To be a charlady at the BBC was a sought-after position. Chilman reported in 1936 that he had 2,000 on his waiting list compiled from individual applications as well as from recommendations from Governors, members of the staff and ‘all sorts of eminent people in all walks of life’. When vacancies occurred interviews were in strict order of application, he explained, at that time he was dealing with women who had applied in January 1935.[15] In 1939 there were 214 charwomen working in London and 86 in the Regions.[16] [17]

Once in the job it was obviously one to keep, as demonstrated by longevity of service. For instance, Ariel in 1948 congratulated Mrs E. Simpson, a Charwoman in Edinburgh on the completion of 21 years’ service and, in 1954, Mrs Mary Leonard, a Senior Cleaner in Belfast for 30 years with the BBC. The ten-year’s service of the Forewoman Cleaner and her three Assistant Forewoman Cleaners at Broadcasting House was celebrated in Ariel in 1937. The four had started work at the BBC (it would have then been based at Savoy Hill) on the same day in November 1926, suggesting a high level of friendship. 1 27 A hint at the duties of the BBC’s charwomen was given in a 1935 Radio Pictorial article which calculated that in London each day they polished 107 mirrors, filled 131 soap bottles and used 500 gallons of soap. The reporter fantasised about sauntering into Broadcasting House when the charwomen arrived at 7.30 am, watching their names being ticked off in a huge ledger and then dispersing to their duties. Some were mothers, some were grandmothers, some were war widows, he claimed, ‘It does not signify. All that matters is—the power in the


Almost all the BBC’s charwomen were married. At a time when married women’s employment was discouraged, cleaning and charring were the most acceptable way to bring extra income into the working-class home.[19] [20] Sylvia Anthony, writing in 1932, estimated that the normal rate for a London charwoman was 9d to 1s an hour. 1 30 Details of the wages paid to BBC’s charwomen are unavailable. However, in May 1937 a Mrs G. Saunders was retired from service owing to ill health and was paid ?39, purportedly a year’s wages. 1 31 This would have made her earnings 15s a week for two-and-a-half hours’ work each morning, above the rate suggested by Anthony. That charwomen were viewed differently from other female staff is clear from the deliberations on the marriage bar: they were exempt from the start because they were ‘traditionally married women’.[21] [22] In June 1938, at the discretion of the Corporation, they were granted maternity leave including an ex gratia payment equivalent to four weeks’ wages.[23] The practice was formalised in 1939 with eligibility being clarified as a minimum of one year’s service, a good report and the declared intention of continuing with the Corporation after the birth.[24] There were also moves at this time to admit charwomen to the BBC pension scheme.

The charwomen’s smart appearance and the orderliness of the waitress in her laundered uniform were in line with an organisation that wanted to project probity and decorum. The BBC was keen to employ reputable staff. Although the status of house staff was lower than that of the BBC’s office-based employees, those with long service were viewed as part of the BBC family, for instance their photographs and signatures were included in the book commemorating Ten Years’ Service which would have involved a congratulatory meeting with Reith. Yet house staff, presumably because of their association with manual labour, were never eligible for salaried status. Even those in supervisory roles whose pay might rise to be the equivalent of ?260 a year or more were denied this reward. To be salaried was a privilege open only to office-based staff, and only then to those deemed suitable.[25]

  • [1] BBC Staff List, 1937.
  • [2] Radio Pictorial, 25 June 1937, ‘BBC from the Inside’ by Jean Melville.
  • [3] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC, p. 49.
  • [4] Strachey, Careers and Openings, pp. 217-18.
  • [5] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC, p. 51.
  • [6] Beauchamp, Women Who Work, p. 49.
  • [7] Glucksmann, Women Assemble, pp. 129-30. A 1929 Inquiry into the Catering Tradeconfirmed that hours were long and wages low, Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 112.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R49/73/1: Catering Staff: Conditions of Service, Catering Manager,Letter of Appointment, 1938.
  • [9] Catering Manager’s Statement, 10 March 1938.
  • [10] According to Routh the average wage for a waitress was ?113. Guy Routh (1965)Occupation and Pay in Great Britain 1906—1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)p. 95.
  • [11] BBC/WAC:R49/73/1, Wade to Nicolls, 11 January 1934.
  • [12] Ariel, June 1936.
  • [13] BBC/WAC:R49/74: Catering Staff: Wages, Clarke to Wade, 20 September 1933.
  • [14] Radio Pictorial, 28 March 1934.
  • [15] BBC/WAC:R49/56/1: Recruitment of Staff:1, Chilman to Clarke, 26 November1936.
  • [16] BBC/WAC:R/49/178/16: Staff Policy: Establishments: 1 July 1939.
  • [17] Ariel, June 1937.
  • [18] Radio Pictorial, 28 June 1935.
  • [19] Ray Strachey estimated there were 39,000 married women who earned money throughcasual domestic work, charring and office cleaning, Ray Strachey ed. (1936) Our Freedomand its Results by Five Women (London: Hogarth Press) p. 148. At the BBC, according to theBBC Staff List 1937, out of 83 charwomen employed at the Regional offices, 73 weremarried.
  • [20] Sylvia Anthony (1932) Women’s Place in Industry and Home (London: GeorgeRoutledge) p. 27.
  • [21] BBC/WAC:R3/3/12: Control Board Minutes, 1937.
  • [22] BBC/WAC:R49/371/1: Married Women Policy: 1, Goldsmith to All RegionalDirectors, 20 october 1932.
  • [23] BBC/WAC:R49/326/1: Maternity and Grants, Clarke to Regional Directors, 7 June1938.
  • [24] Pym to Nicolls, 19 July 1939.
  • [25] The BBC’s salaried engineers were considered separately.
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