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Children’s Hour Organiser

Children’s Hour was one of the BBC’s first regular programmes, broadcast each weekday from December 1922.[1] Locally produced, the earliest editions were amateur affairs put together by station managers in the guise of ‘Uncles’. However, at the close of 1923 each provincial station was instructed to appoint ‘one good woman of personality, education and standing’ to supervise programmes for women and children. Dorothea Barcroft in Birmingham, Ruby Barlow in Nottingham and

Kathleen Garscadden in Edinburgh were amongst those recruited, all of whom spent many years with the BBC.[2] By the mid-1920s, apart from in London, Children’s Hour would become the preserve of women staff. In an era of social maternalism, when women’s role as protectors and educators of children was venerated, the BBC viewed the job as ideal for educated women who, it was believed, were best placed to understand children’s needs.[3]

From the mid-1980s the specific post of Children’s Hour Organiser was created. One of the earliest recruits was Oxford-educated Olive Shapley who took up her post in Manchester in 1984. In her autobiography she vividly recreated the frenetic nature of the job which included overseeing at least two full-length plays a week, negotiating musical items with the BBC Northern Orchestra, organising monthly children’s auditions as well as producing competitions, poetry readings and broadcast talks.[4] Shapley also recalled that the first advice she was given, by another woman staff member, was to learn how ‘the gentlemen like their tea’.[5] In June 1985, Ruth Field, newly appointed as Children’s Hour Organiser for the Midland Region, contributed ‘A Day in my Life’ for Radio Pictorial which revealed her to be a graduate of Somerville College who lived at home with her family.[6] This particular day’s work began with a perusal of the morning’s post (supplied by her secretary). She then discussed a manuscript; organised an audition; attended a conference about plays; mused over a story with a writer and prepared for that evening’s broadcast at 5.15 pm, which involved, ahead of transmission, a rehearsal with the invited contributors. It was Field who welcomed the listeners and ultimately said “Good Night Children” at 6 o’clock. The post of Children’s Hour Organiser attracted high-calibre women. Christina Orr, recruited to Edinburgh in 1986, was another graduate of Somerville, her later experience as a novelist, dramatist and editor of a Scottish children’s magazine making her the ideal candidate. It also enabled her to negotiate the sizeable starting salary of ?500 a year.[7]

Children’s Hour in London was the exception to the all-female rule. While women such as Geraldine Elliot, Eve Russell and Barbara Sleigh worked on the programme as Assistants, they were managed by men. In 1933, the legendary Derek McCulloch was appointed London Children’s Hour Organiser, promoted to Director of Children’s Hour in 1935, with May Jenkin his second-in-command. Why Head Office continued to appoint men to London’s Children’s Hour is unclear. There was a supervisory element to the position but this fails to explain why women were not considered. Possibly the long association of the London programme with senior men defined it as a post for male managers and the tradition subsequently continued.

For a salaried BBC woman, the position of Children’s Hour Organiser was an attractive one. It was a largely autonomous role and was often the most senior post held by a woman in the Regions. It was also a position from which to aspire. Christine Orr, for example, became a Talks Assistant in 1940 and Ruth Field, a Producer in Schools Broadcasting in 1936. For others, it launched distinguished BBC careers including that of Olive Shapley who, as we shall see, went on to pioneer social documentaries and who would become a presenter of Woman’s Hour in 1949. Ursula Eason, who came to the BBC as Children’s Hour Organiser for Northern Ireland in 1933, rose to be Assistant Head of Northern Ireland Programmes in 1949 and ultimately Assistant Head of BBC Children’s Programmes in 1955.

  • [1] The history of Children’s Hour is told in Wallace Grevatt (1988) BBC Children’s Hour:A Celebration of Those Magical Years (Lewes: The Book Guild). See also Asa Briggs (1961)The Birth ofBroadcasting, The History ofBroadcasting in the United Kingdom Vol. 1 (London:Oxford University Press) pp. 253-4, 258-62.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:CO9:BBCo: Station Directors Meetings: Minutes, 11 December 1928.
  • [3] See, for example, Jane Lewis (1990) The Politics of Motherhood: Child and MaternalWelfare in England 1900—1939 (London: Croom Helm) pp. 89-102; Oram, Women Teachers,pp. 17-21.
  • [4] Shapley, Broadcasting: A Life, pp. 40-5.
  • [5] Shapley, Broadcasting: A Life, p. Э7.
  • [6] Radio Pictorial, 21 June 1985.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:L1/828/1: Christine Orr Staff File, Letter of Application, 7 October 1986.
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