Desktop version

Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC

Being Elite at the BBC

As might be expected, Mary Somerville, Hilda Matheson, Isa Benzie and Mary Adams were middle-class but none of their families were wealthy. Somerville and Matheson were both daughters of the manse, their fathers Presbyterian ministers. Benzie’s father was a chartered accountant, Adams’ a struggling farmer. It is notable that all except Adams were Scottish, which may have endeared them to Reith; in the case of Benzie, this was of great significance, as we shall see. None of the four women had been to public school, unlike the majority of the men they worked alongside. Somerville had attended Selkirk High School, although much of her education took place at home because of ill health (she was diabetic). Matheson was sent from her home in Putney to St Felix, a girls’ boarding school in Southwold when she was 14. Benzie was educated at Laurel Bank School in Glasgow, as well as at private and convent establishments in Belfast and Southern Ireland. Adams, whose father died when she was 12, won a scholarship to Godolphin School in Salisbury.

All but Adams were Oxford graduates. Matheson’s three years as an Oxford Home Student (where she studied History) reveal her to be a bright, cultured and physically active young woman, a member of the hockey team, the choir and the amateur dramatics society.[1] At Somerville College, Somerville (who read English Literature) held court at high- powered tea parties, where ‘the conversation was far ranging’, with Maisie, as she was called then, always at the centre.[2] Benzie, at Lady Margaret Hall (where she studied German), excelled at games, her popularity and gusto manifest in her selection as College Secretary, Head Student and President of the Junior Common Room. Adams, who gained a First in Natural Sciences at University College, Cardiff, then moved to Newnham College, Cambridge, as a research scholar, where she gained her MSc.

Matheson and Adams were both mature women when they came to the BBC in 1926 and 1930 respectively. Matheson’s varied pre-BBC career included a post-university stint as part-time secretary to H.A.L. Fisher and war-time work that encompassed, from 1916, the Registry of the Special Intelligence Directorate (the precursor to MI5). After the war, she worked briefly for Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian) before becoming, in 1919, Political Secretary to Nancy Astor, newly elected as MP for Plymouth (Sutton).[3] Adams, a biologist, had followed an academic career at Cambridge, during which time, in 1925, she married Vyvyan Adams who was elected Conservative MP for West Leeds in 1931. This was an intriguing match as Mary Adams was a pronounced socialist.[4] Somerville came to the BBC in 1925 directly from Oxford as did Benzie in 1927, albeit via a secretarial course at Pitman’s College.

As non-Londoners, the four women set up home in the capital. Matheson shared a large house in Kensington with two friends. Here, she had her own bedroom and sitting room and the services of a housekeeper.[5] As befitted the wife of an MP, Adams lived in grandiose Gloucester Gate while Somerville, upon her marriage in 1928, moved to St John’s Wood. Benzie, prior to her wedding in 1938, lived for many years in a Ladbroke Grove flat with her university friend Janet Quigley, who she introduced to the BBC. It was not unusual for unmarried professional women to live together in the interwar years. Eileen Power lived for a time with Karin Costelloe, Ray Strachey’s sister; Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby shared several flats while Alix Kilroy lived with her sister Mona, a Chief Buyer at John Lewis.[6] Although Matheson mused about buying her own flat, which she could easily afford, she enjoyed the company and emotional support of her house-mates.[7] [8] [9]

Adams and Somerville were consummate hostesses.2 5 As wives, and later mothers, they had strong ties to the home which became their base for networking. This was extremely important for their work, much of which relied on building and maintaining contacts. Both women were granted the concession of entertaining at the BBC’s expense; Somerville, for instance, claimed 7/6d per guest.2 6 Their male counterparts at the BBC would all have been members of at least one Club, something that was encouraged and indeed paid for by the BBC.[10] Here they would have carried out what Holtby derided as ‘oysters and champagne diplomacy’.[11]

Matheson belonged to at least one club, the Albermarle (her membership funded by the BBC), but rarely used it.[12] She preferred instead to build and maintain her contacts through intimate lunches, dinners and at house parties. Her later membership of the Women’s Provisional Club (founded in 1924 to serve high-flying business and professional women) lasted little longer than a year.[13] Benzie was also nominated as a member but her election was cancelled through lack of response.[14] Very possibly the intensity of her BBC job, as would have been the case with Matheson, militated against attendance.

Of the four women, only Adams requested a transfer to her new position in Television, all the others had ‘fallen into’ the role of Director. As closer scrutiny of their BBC careers will show, at management level their immediate contacts were with men and in many ways they were isolated within separate male spheres. Although there is some evidence of friendships, particular between Somerville and Matheson, there appears to have been little time for sharing concerns or socialising. The BBC was a demanding place to work, particularly for overtly conscientious women.

  • [1] Various Authors (1941) Hilda Matheson (Letchworth: The Hogarth Press), memories ofRuth Butler and Mrs H.A.L. Fisher, pp. 27-31, 39^2; Michael Carney (1999) Stoker: TheBiography of Hilda Matheson OBE, 1888—1940 (Llangynog: Michael Carney) pp. 6-9.
  • [2] Mary Somerville, ‘A Tribute from her Friends’, broadcast 31 May 1964, memory ofJanet Vaughan.
  • [3] Biographical details from Carney, Stoker.
  • [4] Oxford Dictionary ofNational Biography. Mary Adams, entry 30750 by Sally Adams.
  • [5] Matheson’s ‘Sumner Place Family’ were Marjorie Maxse, the future Conservative MPand Dorothy Spencer.
  • [6] Berg, A Woman in History, p. 141. Vera Brittain (1940) Testament of Friendship(London: Fontana) pp. 113, 274; Meynell, Public Servant, pp. 105, 159. See also Nicholson,Singled Out, pp. 151-7.
  • [7] HML, 2 February 1929.
  • [8] For example, Matheson went to two parties at Somerville’s new house, HML, 2 February 1929, 8 May 1929.
  • [9] BBC/WAC: Mary Somerville Staff File 2: (hereafter MSSF:2), Nicolls to Carpendale, 25May 1934. There are extensive expense files for Mary Adams, see for example BBC/WAC:S322/39/2: Correspondence, Talks Department.
  • [10] Control Board Minutes often report the payment of subscription fees for Clubs. A fewwomen profited from this. Dorothea Barcroft, Birmingham Children’s Hour Organiserjoined the Soroptimist Club in June 1928 and Kathleen Lines the Arts Theatre Club in April 1930. BBC/WAC:R3/3: Control Board Minutes, 26 June 1928, 10 April 1930.
  • [11] Winifred Holtby (1934) Women and a Changing Civilisation (London: Lane andBodley Head) p. 90.
  • [12] HML, 12 December 1928.
  • [13] Women’s Library :5/WPV/3/1:Women’s Provisional Club (WPC): ExecutiveCommittee Minutes, 29 March 1931, 31 May 1932.
  • [14] WPC: Executive Committee Minutes, 14 September 1936, 25 January 1937.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics