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Mary Somerville (1897-1963)

At some point in 1927, Mary Somerville wrote a letter to Valentine Goldsmith, the BBC’s Head of Administration.[1] Addressing him as ‘Dear Val’ she laid bare the dire financial situation she found herself in. The Kent Experiment into school broadcasting, she explained, had involved her driving 10,000 miles, necessitating a new car (for which she had taken out a BBC loan), and one that now needed a complete overhaul with ‘new clutch, self-starter, re-varnishing etc.’ As a result of the intense workload, she had also been unable to earn a ‘ha’penny’ extra, unlike the ?95 she had added to her salary the previous year through writing. Her ‘present screw’ of ?500 meant that she did not have enough to ‘run a car, live suitably and keep out of debt’. A supplementary note cheekily berated the BBC for allowing ‘a poor defenceless female work more than you let her earn’.

These private communiques hint at the nature and character of Mary Somerville. Throughout her BBC career she would always be forthright in her views, she would always overwork, she would always maintain her links with the literary world and she would always be short of cash. The car was also important. Because of diabetes and other health problems, it was essential for her to drive. Her note to Goldsmith also reveals Somerville’s situation and state of mind at a turning point in her BBC career. After two years in the Education Department, the gruelling Kent Experiment she fronted, as will be revealed, changed her perception of school broadcasting and cemented her position as its driving force.

It was while she was at Oxford, in April 1924, that Somerville recalled hearing her first radio broadcast. On a visit to a country schoolhouse, she shared two pairs of earphones with a schoolmistress and three pupils to listen ‘by chance’ to a BBC talk on music by Sir Walford Davies.[2] It was an early trial broadcast for schools and Somerville wrote of the profound effect it had on all five listeners. The impact was ‘tremendous’, they were ‘exalted’ and Somerville realised then ‘what this brave new medium of communication might mean for schools’.[3] Within a week, she had arranged a meeting with John Reith who recorded in his diary a visit from ‘a very clever and self-confident young lady’, recommended by a mutual friend.[4] Reith later recalled how she had ‘in effect told me that she was joining the BBC and the sooner the better’. He advised her to return to Oxford to finish her degree.[5] In February 1925, Somerville again wrote to Reith proposing that she join the BBC as an Assistant to the Director of Education, J.C. Stobart.3[6] Stobart was keen on the idea. Somerville was expected to get a First; she had good contacts within the literary world; she had an attractive voice and the growth of school work meant she would be an asset to his department.[7] After some deliberations over start date and salary, Somerville joined the BBC in July 1925.

When Somerville arrived at Savoy Hill, broadcasts to schools were rudimentary.[8] [9] Since October 1924, five weekday talks were scheduled at 3.15 pm. These were half-hours on, for example, Dickens, British Plants or Music which were given by experts, such as Walford Davies, and by BBC staff. Somerville herself was soon broadcasting (hence Stobart’s reference to her attractive voice), excelling in literary topics such as Modern Poetry, Shakespeare’s Heroines and English Composition. As well as giving talks, Somerville was soon overseeing all transmissions to schools: suggesting subjects and lecturers; testing voices; advising new speakers on broadcast techniques; overseeing studios; planning teaching notes; conducting correspondence with teachers and educationists; visiting schools and preparing articles for educational papers.4 0 However, the Education Section faced a very real problem. Few schools were listening hampered by the amateurishness of most wireless equipment and the style of the talks. There were also very real fears that, not only might broadcasting supplant teaching, but also that the BBC could potentially influence the educational agenda. In 1924, 220 schools were listening to school broadcasts; by 1927 this had risen to around 3,000.

The Kent Experiment changed all this.[10] Funding had been provided for good quality receiving equipment to be installed in a selection of schools in the county.[11] Somerville’s eight-month secondment to the Experiment saw her visiting these schools, watching lessons and talking to teachers and pupils about their experience of school broadcasts. It quickly became clear that programmes were failing because producers and broadcasters were unaware of how children learnt: they used too many complex words; they spoke too fast; they patronised; in effect, they failed to captivate and inspire.[12] Commenting about the Kent Experiment in 1954, Somerville recalled that she had found ‘poor, patient children sitting in rooms being bored ... It wasn’t that the programmes were bad ... but they were not produced or given by people who knew children in their bones’.[13] As Hilda Matheson also quickly realised, talks needed to be written specifically for broadcast. When it came to schools, careful scripting and editing was even more important to win over teachers and pupils to the new medium of radio.

Although positive about the value of school broadcasts the final Kent Report, published in 1928, indicated a number of areas for improvement, especially in the way programmes were delivered. In response, Somerville developed a range of new techniques and introduced new speakers. One of her discoveries was Rhoda Power who broadcast the first of her innovative history series that year (see Chapter 7).[14] Somerville also pioneered other new styles of broadcasting such as Ann Driver’s Music and Movement, the first to be aimed at infants.[15] The physiologist, Professor Winifred Cullis (who would become a stalwart of school broadcasting) found herself at the receiving end of Somerville’s determination to improve performance, as did Walford Davies. Prior to her first talk, Cullis was taken by Somerville to watch a school audience listen to a programme, ‘the result of which ... she made haste to revise her own talk entirely, for she had forgotten how small one is at eleven’.[16] Walford Davies was provided with a ‘watchdog’, his description of the observer employed to comment on his delivery.[17]

A second development from the Kent Experiment was the expansion of support materials with 233,000 pamphlets issued in 1927, output overseen by Somerville.[18] [19] A third was improved wireless reception in schools through specially trained BBC Education Engineers, a system also initially overseen by her. 4 0 The most significant development, however, was the inauguration of the Central Council for School Broadcasting (CCSB) with Somerville as Secretary. By the time the CCSB first met in February 1929, Somerville had become de facto Head of School Broadcasting. Stobart, whose health was poor, had increasingly taken a back seat and she was his natural successor.

The CCSB secured links between the BBC and outside bodies such as the Board of Education, Local Education Authorities and individual teachers. Six programme sub-committees, most of whose members were teachers and specialists, helped draft the school broadcasting syllabus in their subject area for the coming year. They also advised on the commissioning of scripts, edited educational pamphlets and recommended potential speakers. A vital link between the Programme Sub-Committees and the BBC Schools Department was the BBC Education Assistant. The Kent Experiment made Somerville aware of the need to employ former teachers in this capacity and a specially recruited BBC Assistant sat as secretary to each sub-committee. This link ensured the BBC, under the direction of Somerville, could implement the Committee’s recommendations. Always canny, Somerville negotiated the perk of extra leave for her Education Assistants during school holidays, in order to bring the Department more in line with school terms.[20] Richard Lambert was incredulous about this privilege, which was unknown in other departments.[21] [22]

In 1925, one 30-minute talk had been broadcast daily during term-time. By 1929 this had been extended to 1 hour and, in 1935, 2 hours of schools programmes were generally available each day. As the number of school talks increased, so did Somerville’s workload. A ‘rough sketch’ of her work in August 1933 included, amongst normal office routine: visiting schools; summarising the annual teachers’ criticism of programmes; translating the recommendations of the Programme and Pamphlet Committee; reviewing the activities of the Education Engineers and drafting the reports of Programme Sub-Committees.5 3 This was without a raft of extra duties such as attending conferences, meetings and official inquiries. Somerville also constantly battled for extra money for her department, for example there were attempts to persuade the Board of Education to fund wireless equipment in schools but with no success.[23] The pressures were immense and in September 1934, Somerville collapsed from stress, necessitating six months leave.

On her return it was decided that one way her workload could become more manageable was by restructuring the CCSB. As a result, it became a separate, autonomous public body, with a new Secretary, A.C. Cameron.[24] When Cameron took on his new duties in November 1935, his salary was ?1,500, significantly more than the ?1,100 Somerville had been paid for the dual role.[25] Somerville’s BBC salary had long been a cause of tension, the ?400 she had negotiated in 1925 viewed as ‘a very reasonable salary for a girl of her years’.[26] Unimpressed, in every subsequent year she demanded a hefty rise and had achieved ?600 by the time of her maternity leave in 1929, as Chapter 4 disclosed.[27] Following her return to the BBC after the birth of her son, Somerville’s salary rose to ?750 in January 1930.[28]

Initially content, Somerville then learned that her colleague Charles Siepmann, promoted to Head of Adult Education in late 1928, was earning far more than her.[29] At first managers justified the differentiation by defending the ‘controversial and delicate nature of Adult Education talks’.[30] Later they conceded that ‘we have shown some weakness in the matter in that we have not handed things out to her as to the men, but have waited for her to complain and prove her case’.[31] Somerville never expressly stated that inequalities in her salary were due to her gender, however, the discrepancy arose at the point she was negotiating maternity leave. Once the pay gap emerged, it was allowed to continue until Somerville demanded redress. Even then, it never completely closed and, with Siepmann’s promotion to Talks Director in 1932, it widened considerably.[32]

Although she may have been privately disgruntled, Somerville relished her BBC job as her ‘BBC Diary’ in Radio Pictorial in October 1935 illuminates.[33] This particular day started with a call from her secretary, Miss Scott, reminding her to be at the office early to read through a memorandum on next year’s programme commitments. Then followed a whirl of meetings and telephone conversations peppered with broadcast listening, script reading and a visit to an infant school in the East End. Lunch and dinner (presumably at the BBC’s expense) involved hosting academics which meant talking ‘shop’ from 8 am until 11 pm. Somerville’s marriage to Ralph Penton Brown, the Morning Post correspondent in Belgrade, had not been a success and her ‘BBC Diary’ offered a glimpse into her home life, where she lived apart from her husband.[34] Mrs Bishop, Somerville’s ‘beloved, long-enduring, undefeatable’ housekeeper, ran the house and helped care for six-year-old Timothy whom Somerville described, tongue- in-cheek, as ‘the “neglected child” of a working mother’. Mrs Bishop also prepared meals although Somerville was quick to point out that she liked to make the sauces. She also spent as much time as she could with Timothy, on this occasion arriving home by 6.30 pm to play Meccano with him and to bathe him. The diary is an ebullient mix of frantic BBC work and pleasurable domesticity. Somerville was rare in being a working woman with a young child who was at the peak of her game.[35] The Radio Pictorial diary presented her both as a top-class executive and a devoted mother and Somerville was at pains to make clear that, although it was a struggle, there was no tension between the two.

By 1937, Somerville’s salaried team at Head Office amounted to ten: six men and four women. Between them they oversaw 27 different educational courses which included tailored talks for infants, juniors and seniors, all of which were carefully prepared with extensive support materials. By 1939, the number of schools listening to the broadcasts had reached almost 10,000. Throughout the late 1930s, Somerville continued to demand better resources and in June 1939, the staffing situation became so dire that she threatened to resign.[36] Before the situation had been fully resolved, however, the war had started which involved Somerville and the Schools Department in major shifts, both of location and programmes.[37]

Somerville was not always easy to work with. Lance Sieveking, who worked alongside her in the Education Department in the mid-1920s, recalled that ‘she was as much feared as she was loved’ adding that it was said of her ‘that she never went anywhere without creating consternation, havoc, a sensation or a precedent’.[38] She had a strong dislike, for instance, for Herbert Milliken, the Schools Executive, whom Somerville considered to be a fool.[39] She was also dismissive of a half-time assistant, Miss Simond who, because she was married and it was known wanted a child, was seen as insufficiently committed.[40] Somerville also developed a strained relationship with Professor Eileen Power who made regular school broadcasts in the mid-1980s.[41] [42] Yet she was also much admired. Richard Lambert, recruited as an Education Assistant in 1927 before becoming Editor of The Listener, described the ‘enterprising and self-possessed Mary Somerville’ as ‘one of the outstanding personalities in British Broadcasting’.78 Roger Eckersley, who headed the BBC’s Programmes Department from 1924 to 1984 and who was Somerville’s boss for many years, was clear that school broadcasting was organised, administered and stimulated by her ‘to whom all praise is due’.[43]

One person Somerville always got on with was Reith. From their first meeting in 1924 he saw in her the same zeal for public service broadcasting and commitment to education that he possessed. Reith’s fondness for Somerville is conspicuous in his diary entries. Unlike senior male executives, about whom he frequently wrote damning entries, he never expressed any anger or frustration towards her. They often lunched and dined together; he personally congratulated her on her work and she was invited to visit him and his family at his country home, Harrias House.[44] [45] Somerville’s friendship with Reith also meant that she had privileged access to him. Lambert recalled somewhat dryly that she could see the ‘D.G.’ at any reasonable time.[46]

Somerville’s friendship with Reith was undoubtedly beneficial to her career. Her rapport with the all-male Control Board and her peers in senior management, all of whom were men (apart from Matheson), is harder to discern. Along with Matheson she was invited to the Control Board Tea, a routine instituted in 1930, whereby senior staff members were summoned to a broader executive gathering at least once a week.[47] However, unlike Matheson, Somerville left no record of what she thought about the men she worked alongside. Somerville was ambitious but not ruthlessly go-getting. She was not part of atmosphere of ambition, suspicion and intrigue that Maurice Gorham described at Savoy Hill.[48] While the men around her might have jostled for higher positions, Somerville was content to dedicate herself, firmly and calmly, to improving and expanding School Broadcasting. Lambert’s description of her swimming round the Director of Education, Stobart, ‘like a swan round a carp’ is an apt one.[46]

Somerville was the only woman before the Second World War to sustain, long term, a senior management position in the BBC. She was retained despite her marriage and motherhood, evidence of her value to the Corporation and proof that it was possible for a woman to both care for a family and hold a high-powered job. Somerville is a prime example of a woman who carved out her own career at the BBC, a home-grown success for which she was rewarded in 1935 with an OBE. Her passion and commitment to school broadcasting set the agenda for the interwar years and drove the expansion of the department into the 1940s. Later she would inject this same drive to her job as Assistant Controller, Talks (from 1947) and ultimately as Controller, Talks (from 1950), the first woman to achieve this status. She retired in 1955. Reith’s obituary of Somerville in 1963 is telling. Addressing her in male terms he wondered ‘what this eager, restless, determined, irresistible pioneer, prince among men, and hero, is doing now’.[50]

  • [1] BBC/WAC:L2/195/1: Mary Somerville Staff File:1 (hereafter MSSF:1), 1925-35.Undated but between April 1927 and February 1928.
  • [2] Broadcast 4 April 1924.
  • [3] Mary Somerville, ‘How School Broadcasting Grew Up’ in Richard Palmer ed. (1947)School Broadcasting in Britain (London: BBC) p. 9.
  • [4] Reith Diaries, 11 April 1924.
  • [5] The Times, Mary Somerville Obituary, 6 September 1963.
  • [6] MSSF:1, Somerville to Reith, 24 February 1925.
  • [7] MSSF:1, Stobart to Carpendale, 4 March 1925. Somerville’s literary connections includedRobert Graves, Robert Bridges, Sir Edmund Gosse and George Moore, Manchester Guardian,2 September 1963, News Chronicle., 16 January 1936. News Chronicle hinted that to enterbroadcasting she gave up a promising literary career, her early short stories being ‘acclaimed bydiscriminating critics’. Because of ill health Somerville was awarded an aegrotat degree.
  • [8] For a more detailed history of school broadcasting see Asa Briggs (1965) The Golden Ageof Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Vol. 2 (London: OxfordUniversity Press) pp. 185-218; Mary Somerville, ‘How School Broadcasting Grew Up’,pp. 9-16.
  • [9] BBC/WAC:R13/419/1/ Departmental: Talks Division: Talks Department 1923-29,Duties, Talks Section, October 1926.
  • [10] For specific details of the Kent Report see Briggs, Golden Age of Wireless, pp. 190-5.
  • [11] The Carnegie Trust funded the experiment. Kent was chosen partly because of its rangeof urban, rural and semi-rural schools.
  • [12] Somerville, ‘How School Broadcasting Grew Up’, pp. 12-13.
  • [13] Rough Notes for Co-ordinating Committee Discussion, October 1954, as quoted inBriggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, p. 195.
  • [14] ‘Boys and Girls of Other Days’ was broadcast weekly from 17 January 1928.
  • [15] ‘Music and Movement’ was first broadcast 28 September 1934.
  • [16] Good Housekeeping, August 1935.
  • [17] Somerville, ‘How School Broadcasting Grew Up’, p. 12.
  • [18] Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, p. 195.
  • [19] BBC/WAC:R16/537: School Broadcasting Memos and Reports, Somerville to LocalEducation Authorities, 22 July 1930.
  • [20] BBC/WAC:R13/216/2: School Broadcasting Department:2.
  • [21] Lambert (1940) Ariel and All his Quality (London: Gollanz) p. 54.
  • [22] BBC/WAC:R49/611/1: Schools Broadcasting, Somerville to Siepmann, 26 August1933.
  • [23] Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, pp. 201, 206.
  • [24] Cameron was formerly Director of Education for Oxford.
  • [25] Somerville was shocked when she first became aware of how much larger Cameron’ssalary was than hers. Mary Somerville Papers, Letter to Briggs from Rowan Davies, 21February 1965.
  • [26] MSSF:1, Eckersley to Goldsmith, 13 September 1926. Somerville’s salary comparedfavourably to her male colleagues. In 1927, as Education Assistants, George Dixon earned?200, Derek McCulloch earned ?350 and, arriving in 1928, Tony Rendall earned ?280.
  • [27] MSSF:1, Confidential Report, February 1929.
  • [28] MSSF:1, Confidential Report, February 1930. Somerville was acknowledged as ‘virtually Schools Director’.
  • [29] Siepmann joined the Adult Education Section in 1927 as an Assistant.
  • [30] MSSF:1, Graves to Eckersley, 6 March 1930.
  • [31] MSSF:1, undated, unsigned but most probably sometime in 1933.
  • [32] In 1933, Siepmann earned ?1700 to Somerville’s ?950.
  • [33] Radio Pictorial, 4 October 1935.
  • [34] A memo states that Somerville’s husband lived in the Balkans and did not contribute tothe household expenses. MSSF:1, Nicolls to Carpendale, 30 July 1934.
  • [35] It is hard to think of many examples. Sarah Lewis, the wife of John Spedan Lewis, continued to work for the John Lewis Partnership, as a Director of Peter Jones and DeputyDirector of the Partnership, while raising three young children. Other senior professionalwomen who were mothers and who worked included the haematologist Janet Vaughan andthe crystallographer, Kathleen Lonsdale.
  • [36] MSSF:2, Clarke to Pym, with handwritten additions by Rose Troup, 7 June 1939.
  • [37] Asa Briggs (1979) The War of Words, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom,Vol. 3 (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 105-6, 636-7.
  • [38] BBC/WAC:S61: Special Collections: Autobiographical Sketches of Lance Sieveking, p. 48.
  • [39] BBC/WAC:L1/305/2: Herbert Milliken Staff File, Nicolls conversation with Milliken,12 June 1984.
  • [40] BBC/WAC:R18/216/1: Schools Broadcasting Department, document headed‘Schools Department Staff’, 1 June 1988.
  • [41] Berg, A Woman of History, pp. 282-4.
  • [42] 78 Lambert, Ariel in All his Quality, p. 54.
  • [43] Roger Eckersley (1946) The BBC and All That (London: Sampson Low, Marston)pp. 159-60.
  • [44] Reith Diaries, for example 15 February 1927, 22 January 1980, 12 December 1988, 29
  • [45] May 1986.
  • [46] Lambert, Ariel in All his Quality, p. 54.
  • [47] BBC/WAC:R3/3/10: Control Board Minutes, 7 January 1930.
  • [48] Maurice Gorham (1948) Sound and Fury (London: Percival Marshall) p. 17.
  • [49] Lambert, Ariel in All his Quality, p. 54.
  • [50] The Times, 6 September 1963.
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