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Being Salaried at the BBC

Although many of the BBC’s waged women would have seen their work in terms of a career, it was within the salaried ranks that this was fully acknowledged. As a member of the ‘officer’ class conditions of employment were superior, earnings increased far more rapidly and the possibilities of mobility, advancement and autonomy were greatly enhanced. A handful of salaried women worked in areas of work that were designated ‘Essentially a Woman’s Job’ such as the Registry and Duplicating Supervisors, the Women’s Staff Administrator and her Assistant, the Matron and the Women’s Press Representative (all held by women who had started their BBC careers in the waged ranks).[1] Other positions saw women predominate, such as the role of Children’s Hour Organiser and those of the Photographic and Display Section. In other departments, such as School Broadcasting and Publications, men and women worked alongside. None of this is surprising at a time when work connected with children and visual arts was considered suitable female employment. However, a significant number of women worked in sections where they were either isolated (or perhaps with one other woman) in jobs that could equally, or more usually, have been held by men; such as a Talks Assistant, a Variety Producer, in Music Contracts or as a News Librarian.

Whether male or female, the lowest starting rate for a salaried position at the BBC was usually ?260 per annum, this at a time when ?250 was viewed as the minimum necessary for a middle-class life-style.[2] As Virginia Woolf emphasised in Three Guineas, ?250 was seen as a good salary for women.[3] Quite a few BBC women earned upwards of ?500, which gained them the enhanced perks of senior status. Although there were often complaints about the low salaries paid to BBC men, those of women compared well to other interwar careers.[4] In 1934, the Junior Executive grades of the Civil Service, where most salaried women were clustered, offered in the region of ?152-?396 per year.[5] The average woman teacher’s salary was ?265 per annum while nurses earned far lower. In 1937 the maximum salary paid by a local authority hospital was ?63.17s a year.[6] More generous salaries were recorded in ‘newer’ professions. For example, a buyer in a West End store earned between ?400 and ?600 a year whilst an advertising copywriter could earn up to ?750.[7] [8]

As was the case with its waged-women staff, the unconventional nature of the BBC set it apart from most traditional professions in terms of recruitment. Teaching, the Civil Service and nursing all had formal entry requirements with young women entering straight from school, training college or university. The BBC was more akin to journalism with ‘a thousand and one ways’ of learning the game, or advertising which a woman could ‘enter at many points’.2 5 The John Lewis Partnership took a considered decision, in 1918, to employ experienced women. Under its Learnership Scheme, women from the theatre, the arts and even archaeology were enticed to work at the store where their diverse backgrounds were seen as an enhancement to the sales team.[9] Likewise at the BBC, it was unusual to be recruited directly to a salaried position without some form of wider work experience so, for instance, Olive Shapley had been a Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) lecturer and trainee nursery teacher at the Rachel Macmillan School; Janet Quigley had worked in publishing and for the Empire Marketing Board and Ursula Eason had held a secretarial position at the Times Book Club.

Both Quigley and Eason had come to the BBC through connections. Quigley had been proposed as the perfect colleague by her flatmate Isa Benzie (then an Assistant in the Foreign Department). Eason (who was recruited as Northern Ireland Children’s Hour Organiser) was supported by her cousin, the Variety Producer, C.H. Brewer.[10] Equally, Isabel Shields, who joined the BBC as Reith’s secretary in January 1923, had been suggested by Frances Stevenson, private secretary to Lloyd George.2 8 As well as commendation, the two other main ways that the BBC recruited to salaried posts was from amongst those who wrote to the Company/ Corporation and through word of mouth. John Reith might even put in a good word for selected individuals; for example, he recorded in his diary ‘Sir Samuel Instone to see me about a job for his daughter’. Anna Instone joined the Recorded Programmes Department in December 1933.[11] [12] [13]

In 1934, following an independent report into the recruitment of staff (which noted ‘a good proportion of women to men on the staff’) it was agreed that Appointment Boards should be introduced and advertising more widely used. Prior to the mid-1930s, advertisements were only used for specialised positions. This was because of concerns that the glamour ascribed to the organisation could result in hundreds, if not thousands, of applications, all of which would have to be scrutinised and sorted. 2 0 Advertising, however, was seen as especially important to reach the ‘full potential of female applicants’ who were generally ‘so few and so scattered’ they could only effectively be reached this way. One of those who responded to an advertisement was Olive Shapley whose mother had seen the job of Northern Children’s Hour Organiser advertised in the Daily Telegraph.[14] Shapley recalled that she had worn a double-breasted navy blue gabardine coat with a navy blue tricorn hat to the interview, which gave her future boss the impression that she was a midwife, but nevertheless she got the job.

The introduction of Appointment Boards in May 1934 may actually have hindered women’s entry into salaried positions at the BBC but even if they did not necessarily improve women’s chances of getting in, they did establish an element of transparency.[15]

The Staff Training School, established in October 1936, was another way of introducing an element of consistency into the BBC’s recruitment and promotion procedures. While it was expected that new arrivals to the salaried staff would attend, ‘veterans’ were also encouraged to apply. The 12-week course, run internally by the BBC, gave an overview of the Corporation’s organisation and activities; offered opportunities to study programme, administrative and engineering practice and tested the abilities of staff seeking advancement.3 3 The twenty staff who attended the Summer Course in 1939, for instance, included four women. Amongst them were Kathleen Lines, the long-serving Head of the Photographic Section, but also Eileen Molony and Gwen Parry Jones, both newly recruited as Children’s Hour Organisers for Bristol and Cardiff respectively.

Miss Freeman, the WSA, sat on Appointment Boards when women were being interviewed, occasionally chairing the session. Although her role at the BBC was predominantly associated with the weekly paid grades, she certainly championed at least two separate initiatives to improve the recruitment of salaried female staff. One was by making links with the Women’s Appointment Boards at upward of fifteen universities which included Oxford and Cambridge, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.З4 Ursula Eason, for instance, was notified by the University of London about the Children’s Hour vacancy.[16] [17] [18] Another was by affiliating, in May 1935, to the Women’s Employment Federation which operated as a clearing-house for employers.[19] On at least three occasions they were approached by the BBC with requests for assistance in securing senior female staff.[20]

The BBC’s salaried women were widely dispersed within Administration, Programmes and Public Relations, sometimes in traditional roles, often in positions that had been created or developed specifically for the new medium of broadcasting. The one division in which they were not utilised was Engineering. Areas of the BBC that, post-war, would become increasingly hostile to salaried women, such as News, Outside Broadcasts and Light Entertainment, did employ small numbers. The careers of the Corporation’s four highest-earning women, Hilda Matheson, Mary Somerville, Isa Benzie and Mary Adams are explored in the next chapter. Here, the spotlight is thrown on a selection of women who also held significant roles, offering brief insights into their BBC work.


In July 1958, on the occasion of her farewell tea party, Florence Milnes was lauded by the Director General, Ian Jacob, as a ‘practical visionary’ who had grasped that a first-class library would be essential to the BBC.[21] As Head Librarian for more than thirty years, Milnes had indeed built up the service from scratch, her Reference Section one of a sextet of Head Office libraries that were developed in the interwar years. Libraries were fundamental to the BBC. They were the repositories of the sheet music, orchestral scores, gramophone records and play scripts that were at the core of entertainment; they housed the stockpiles of photographs that were necessary for illustration and promotion; they provided the reference books and press cuttings crucial for information and accuracy and they became the receptacle for selected sound recordings. Women were key to them all and not simply in terms of filing or cataloguing. Several were experts who managed the collections, who had ambition for their expansion and who became supremely knowledgeable in their specialisms. Kathleen Lines, like Milnes, originated her section, the Photographic Section. Anna Instone and Marie Slocombe, who joined the BBC in the mid-1930s, were in at the birth of the Gramophone Library and the Sound Archive respectively. Alice Wright, as Deputy Music Librarian and Miss Shiel as Play Librarian, also held important roles.

By the 1930s librarianship had become an acceptable career for women, with the possibility of advancement via a Diploma, although appointments to senior posts were still rare.[22] The libraries at the BBC were, however, far from conventional. None of the BBC women had been schooled in librarianship although Anna Instone had trained at the Royal College of Music and Kathleen Lines had purportedly run a commercial arts studio. All but Lines joined the BBC as weekly paid staff with no indication that they would progress to significant roles.

According to Florence Milnes, it was her transference to the quickly conceived News Unit during the 1926 General Strike that convinced her that the BBC needed a proper library.[23] She had joined the Company the previous year, aged thirty two, as a ?3.10s a week Information Assistant, much of her job gathering background research for programmes. In April 1927, she was given full charge of the Library, along with a pay rise and promotion to the salaried grades. What began as a handful of books and loose press-cuttings had, by 1932, grown into a collection of around 1500 volumes; the press-cuttings now pasted into large card-indexed albums for ease of access.[24] The purpose-built facilities at Broadcasting House were widely used. The Radio Times in 1934 was impressed by the scope of visitors: a member of its staff checking a last-minute reference; a producer looking up historical details for a period play; someone from the Talks department ransacking the poetry shelves.[25] Milnes spent much of her day answering queries, a light-hearted Radio Pictorial article revealing a stream of oddities she was asked.[26] She was a BBC ‘personality’, highly distinctive with her trademark suit and Eton crop. Evidently formidable, she was an awkward woman. Her annual reports expose not only her zeal but her bad manners, her cryptic ways, her temper, and her disgruntlement.[27] Milnes believed she was underpaid and her 1939 salary of ?525 compared poorly with other women in similarly responsible BBC roles.

Kathleen Lines, conversely, earned ?720 in 1939. Two years older than Milnes, she joined the BBC in 1924 as secretary to the Director of Education, Stobartd [28] Amongst her assorted jobs prior to the BBC were (according the newspapers) accountancy, work on an Australian pineapple farm and managing a sizeable munitions department during the ward[29] How she became responsible for photographs is unclear but by April 1925 she had assumed this role. Her Photographic Section, as it came to be known, provided photographs and illustrations for BBC publications such as Radio Times and Ariel, for its yearbooks and handbooks and for the pamphlets that supported Talks programmes, Adult Education and School Broadcasts. It also supplied national and international newspapers and journals with images of the BBC: from posed staff portraits, to studio action shots, to ‘all the complicated gear at the transmitter stations’.[30]

The rich pictorial record of the early BBC that exists today is largely because Lines arranged for specific photographs to be taken. By 1933 the Section housed an estimated 6,000 images. Lines worked closely with Richard Lambert, Editor of The Listener who saw her as integral to the paper’s success. He believed that as a large, well administered and self-supporting section, it would ‘long ago have been elevated to the deserved dignity of a Department’ had it not been largely staffed by women.[31] It is impossible to know if Lambert’s assertion was correct because of the confused nature of the BBC’s management structure, but he nevertheless sensed an injustice.

Anna Instone and Marie Slocombe, who would come to hold substantial positions within the BBC (as Head of Gramophone Programmes and Sound Archives Librarian) were, in the mid-1930s, at the start of their lengthy careers. Instone arrived in the brand new Sound Record Section in 1933, as a Gramophone Programmes Assistant, Slocombe as a summer-relief secretary in Recorded Programmes in 1937.[32] Already by 1939, both women were committed to raising the profile of their sections. Slocombe had quickly realised the importance of preserving the BBC’s sound recordings, helping to accumulate 2,000 discs including the voices of H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Churchill and J.B. Priestley. The year after Instone’s arrival had seen a sizeable jump in the use of gramophone records on the BBC. Although not directly a ‘librarian’, as usage grew she was part of the small team that contemplated with how these new programmes should be developed.[33] By 1936, the Morning Post was reporting on the 50,000 gramophone records in her library, an index system assisting the onerous task of compiling programmes on a diversity of themes.[34]

To work in a BBC library was an important role and one with a far wider brief than was usually associated with the position. While some activities would have been recognisable in the 1920s and 30s, such as the functions of the Reference Library and the Photographic Section (something similar to which would have existed within newspapers) other areas such as Recorded Sound and Gramophones were innovative and new. A number of men were employed in this BBC work, most notably Frank Hook who ran the Music Library from the start. But these were roles largely grabbed and expanded by determined women, who saw the potential to make their mark.


Amongst the posed photographs that survive from Kathleen Lines’ collections are several of Cecil Dixon (that is the correct spelling of her name), the BBC’s first staff accompanist. Music was at the heart of the BBC; three-quarters of what was broadcast.[35] Almost all musicians were on contract but a handful were staff ‘accompanists’, pianists who could play all styles of music and who were available to ‘fill-in’ at any given time. This was particularly pertinent in the early days when programme planning was in its infancy and long interludes on air were frequent. Around a dozen individuals would work at Head Office in this capacity during the interwar years, while a handful of others were employed in the regions. Three London-based women, Cecil Dixon, Jean Melville and Doris Arnold, would become celebrated radio stars.

Dixon’s 21-year career on the BBC staff began in January 1923, making her one of the earliest employees. Her talent was spotted by Stanton Jeffries (the future London Station Director) at the Royal College of Music and she joined the BBC ‘as a joke’.[36] One of her first roles was as ‘Aunt Sophie’ on Children’s Hour, accompanying the antics of ‘Uncle Arthur’ (Arthur Burrows), ‘Uncle Rex’ (Rex Palmer) and ‘Uncle Caractacus’ (Cecil Lewis), and she would continue to be the pianist for the London programme for many years. She was also a noted recitalist in her own right and was regularly billed in the daytime and evening schedules as a soloist. As well as her own solo concerts, Dixon’s work included playing at BBC auditions, taking part in rehearsals and accompanying soloists and musicians of national and international repute. She remained with the BBC until 1945 after which time she performed occasionally as a guest artiste.

Jean Melville, an alumna of the Royal Academy of Music, joined the BBC as an accompanist in 1927, following occasional appearances on contract. Once on the staff she played regularly with Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra (in the late 1920s, at the pinnacle of their BBC success) and then in the Vaudeville and Variety concerts that followed. She was well known for her synchronised piano playing, her opposite number always a man. Following her resignation in 1936 (because, having married, she ‘wanted a bigger salary’), Radio Pictorial ran Melville’s ‘BBC from the Inside’ series over four consecutive weeks.[37] Here she gave a glimpse of her job, in particular her pivotal role in auditions which she estimated amounted to 25,000 over the nine years. The extent of Melville’s popularity was evident from her fan mail; she sent out ‘thousands of photographs’ each year. Although no longer on the BBC staff, Melville continued to make sporadic appearances in the late 1930s and during the war, returning as a regular on the post-war programme, Workers’ Playtime.

Melville claimed to have played a crucial role in Doris Arnold’s promotion to staff accompanist in 1928.[38] Arnold’s ‘rags to riches’ story was endlessly retold in the press and indeed, from a ?2 5 s a week shorthand typist in the Stores Department she would rise to be one of the highest paid BBC women of the interwar years. 5[39] Arnold was a talented pianist who, encouraged by her managers, was trialled as a BBC accompanist.[40] [41] In 1933 her duties were extended to include musical arrangements for series such as Songs from the Shows, Music Hall and the Kentucky Minstrels. She also teamed up with a colleague, Harry S. Pepper, and the pair soon became famous for their double piano playing (they would marry in 1943). From October 1937, Arnold produced and presented The Melody Is There, followed a year later by These You Have Loved. Compiled of extracts from light and classical music gramophone records, the programmes cemented Arnold’s status as a radio star and established her as the UK’s first female disc jockey. These You Have Loved continued to be hosted by Arnold until 1963, the last 11 years on contract to the BBC. The intensity of Arnold’s workload was recognised by her managers. One commented, in 1936, that if she should fall ill, it would require three people to replace her and even then their work ‘would not be equal’ to hers.58 Despite this, she had to push to get her salary raised to a comparable rate with her male colleagues.[42] It was also eventually acknowledged that, as a woman, her expenses were greater because she was always expected to be stylishly attired (radio concerts in front of an audience required evening dress).[43]

The salaries of the BBC’s women accompanists had been remarked upon from the start. In 1925 the Programme Board discussed Dixon’s inadequate remuneration. A man performing similar duties, it was agreed, would be paid at least twice the amount and her salary was immediately raised by ?119.[44] Arnold’s salary of ?660 in 1939, while above that of several male colleagues, was still considerably less than Berkeley Mason (on ?850) and Ernest Lush (on ?720). Jean Melville’s dissatisfaction with her salary is also understandable; the ?400 she earned when she left had not risen for five years. Neither was Dixon’s increased after 1934, when she reached her grade ‘roof’ of ?600. That women should be employed as accompanists by the BBC is unsurprising, piano playing was a noted feminine art. What is more unexpected, perhaps, is that they were proportionally so few. Melville and Arnold did stand out. The ubiquitous nature of broadcasting saw them thrust into the limelight and both gained the status of glitzy radio stars. Dixon, although well known, was never as dazzling as her colleagues. Her main association remained with Children’s Hour.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:R49/231/1: Grades and Salaries, Monthly (Except Grade ‘D’), 20 January1937.
  • [2] Ross McKibbin (1998) Classes and Cultures: England 1918—1951 (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press) p. 44.
  • [3] Virginia Woolf (1938/2000) Three Guineas (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p. 217.
  • [4] The Corporation did not pay excessive salaries. Reith expected staff to be motivated bypublic service, not high pay. In comparison with barristers, doctors, dentists and civil servants, most senior BBC male employees earned modestly.
  • [5] Ray Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 216; Dorothy Evans (1934) Women and the CivilService (London: Pitman) p. 133. In 1934, 744 women were employed in the Civil ServiceExecutive Grades.
  • [6] Routh, Occupation and Pay, p. 69. Brian Abel-Smith (1960) A History of the NursingProfession (London: Heinemann) p. 276.
  • [7] Cole, The Road to Success., p. 241; Vyrnwy Biscoe (1932) 300 Careers for Women(London: Lovat Dickson) p. 18.
  • [8] Cole, The Road to Success, pp. 115, 201.
  • [9] Faraday, ‘A Kind of Superior Hobby’, pp. 31-3, 51-2.
  • [10] BBC/WAC:L1/784/1: Janet Quigley Staff File, Anderson to Carpendale, 18 December1929; BBC/WAC: L1/2142/1: Ursula Eason Staff File, Brewer to Clarke, 13 November1933.
  • [11] Reith Diaries, 2 January 1923.
  • [12] Reith Diaries, 19 January 1933.
  • [13] BBC/WAC:R49/31/1: Report on Recruitment of Staff 1934 by D.B. Mair and ErnestBarker.
  • [14] Olive Shapley (1996) Broadcasting: A Life (London: Scarlet Press) p. 33.
  • [15] See BBC/WAC:R49/27/1-3: Appointment Boards: Minutes.
  • [16] BBC/WAC:R49/709/1: Internal Instruction 415, Staff Training Department, 24November 1937.
  • [17] BBC/WAC:R1/69/3: Board of Governors, DG’s Reports and Papers, Notes onProcedure in Regard to Staff Appointments for Submission to Barker and Mair, 8 November1933.
  • [18] Radio Pictorial, 12 March 1937.
  • [19] Women’s Library/Women’s Employment Federation: 6/WEF/487, Executive Minutes1933-37, 9 May 1935. WEF was founded in 1933 under the Secretaryship of Ray Strachey.
  • [20] For example, WEF: Exec Minutes, 13 June 1935, 8 October 1936.
  • [21] BBC/WAC:L1/705/1: Florence Milnes Staff File, Ian Jacob speech, 24 July 1958.
  • [22] Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 228.
  • [23] The Library World, 1959, pp. 171-5.
  • [24] BBC/WAC:R13/301: Secretariat: Library.
  • [25] Radio Times, 14 September 1934.
  • [26] Radio Pictorial, 13 March 1936.
  • [27] The creation of a separate News Information Library in 1934 under Horatio Batchelor,who had held a similar post at The Times, was a source of great disappointment to Milnes.The Oral History of the BBC: Elizabeth Barker interview, 9 May 1983. Barker was recruitedto assist Batchelor.
  • [28] Reith Diaries, 15 March, 1924.
  • [29] Evening News, 30 November 1934; Woman’s Own, 21 January 1933; Daily Dispatch, 2March 1933.
  • [30] Radio Pictorial, 21 December 1934.
  • [31] Lambert, Ariel and All his Quality, p. 137. In 1937, the staff of 16 included five salariedAssistants, five shorthand typists, five clerks and a ‘boy’: just two of the clerks were men. BBCStaff List, 1937.
  • [32] BBC/WAC:L1/2,160/1, Anna Instone Staff File; Marie Slocombe: Sound ArchivesLibrarian, available at: (accessed10 March 2015).
  • [33] Asa Briggs (1965) The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the UnitedKingdom, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press) p. 36.
  • [34] Morning Post, 18 May 1936.
  • [35] Briggs, Golden Age of Wireless, p. 35.
  • [36] Radio Times, 14 December 1934.
  • [37] Radio Pictorial, 25 June 1937 to 16 July 1937.
  • [38] Radio Pictorial, 25 June 1937. Melville’s assertion was that, because she was too busy towork on the orchestral arrangements for the BBC Wireless Chorus and Orchestra, Arnoldhad taken her place.
  • [39] Oxford Dictionary ofNational Biography, Doris Arnold, entry 105932 by Kate Murphy.
  • [40] BBC/WAC:L1/15/1 Doris Arnold Staff File (forthwith DAF), Ad.Ex. to Graves, 2April 1928; Prod.Ex. to Ad. Ex., 16 April 1928.
  • [41] DAF, Variety Ex. to Beadle, 13 January 1936.
  • [42] DAF, Arnold to Clarke, 12 September 1933; Clarke to Ed.Ex., 30 September 1933.
  • [43] DAF, Arnold to Freeman, 19 July 1935.
  • [44] BBC/WAC:R34/600/02: Programme Board Minutes, File 2, 19 January 1925. SalaryInformation.
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