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Early radio broadcasting for women in the BBC’s Women’s Hour 1923-4 – Kate Murphy

Many readers will know of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which has been broadcast on the BBC for more than 75 years. Far less well known is an earlier programme called Women’s Hour, which first appeared 100 years ago, on 2 May 1923. The BBC was then a brand new organisation, just a few months old, grappling with the sorts of programmes that might appeal to its small but growing audience. With married women firmly based in the home, either through convention or because of marriage bars, the BBC would have been aware of this captive daytime audience. The person brought in to oversee Women’s Hour was Mrs Ella Fitzgerald, a former Fleet Street journalist, and the inaugural programme included two talks, one on ‘The Adoption of Babies’ given by Princess Alice the Duchess of Athlone, the other on ‘Fashions’ by the esteemed couturier, Lady Duff Gordon.

Broadcast six days a week, initially at 5pm, Women’s Hour encompassed topics such as cookery, infant welfare, poultry keeping, tennis, beauty culture, electricity in the home, society gossip and gardening. In many ways, it replicated the sorts of items that were then found in the women’s pages of newspapers and Ella Fitzgerald often drew on her journalist friends to write and present talks. So, for example, regular ‘Kitchen Conversations’ were given by the famous cookery writer Mrs CS Peel while Edith Shackleton spoke about journalism as a potential career for women. There was also space for political talks. The former suffragist, Lady Emmott, who sat on a number of local government committees, spoke on ‘How Local Government affects the Home’; Alderman Miss Smee, who chaired Acton Council’s Public Health Committee gave a talk on ‘Women and Public Health’ and Lettice Fisher, the founder of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, talked about ‘Education’.

The talks were broadcast from the BBC’s first purpose-built studio at Savoy Hill, just off the Strand in London, where the organisation was based for its first ten years. It would have been quite a daunting process. Speakers would have waited outside the large curtain-draped space, clutching their scripts. When the time came to deliver their talk, they would then have stood before a large box-like structure – the microphone – where they would have been given a cue to start. It was then just a matter of continuing on until finished, hopeful that they hadn’t spoken too slow or too fast or made too many mistakes. In the absence of any recordings, it’s not possible to know what these talks would have sounded like, but reception on rudimentary wireless sets would have been very poor. It’s also impossible to know who would have been tuning-in to the programme in these very early days, but most probably they were the wives and mothers of radio enthusiasts who, evidence suggests, were overwhelmingly male.

Things would change for Women’s Hour in December 1923, with the establishment of a Women’s Advisory Committee to oversee the running of the programme. Amongst the prestigious membership were the Chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Lady Denman; the actress Dorothea Baird; the physician Dr Elizabeth Sloan Chesser and the Secretary of the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association, Mrs Violet Cambridge. The first full meeting, in January 1924, raised questions about the sorts of talks that should be included in Women’s Hour and also the time of day that it was broadcast. It was decided that two members of the Committee, Mrs Hardman Earle (who had worked for the Ministry of Food and Public Kitchens during the First World War) and Evelyn Gates (who was Editor-in-Chief of The Women’s Yearbook) should appear on the following Saturday’s programme to canvas listener views. The case for practical domestic talks was put forward by Mrs Hardman Earle while Evelyn Gates championed the case for lighter, escapist talks and listeners were also asked about when they could best tune-in.

The results of the ‘plebiscite’, as it was termed, were discussed at the February meeting of the Women’s Advisory Committee. With the majority of the letters received (326 in all) voting for leisure rather than domestic talks, it was agreed that these should feature more prominently in the programme, which would be moved to a new time of 4pm. Writing about the change in the BBC listings periodical Radio Times, Ella Fitzgerald explained how ‘a tour of Constantinople’ was substituted for ‘the cure of constipation’ while ‘talks on the English country-side’ replaced those about ‘stocking the kitchen cupboard’. The decision was also taken at the meeting to abolish the name Women’s Hour; in future Radio Times would simply state that ‘talks of general interest but with particular appeal to women’ would be placed either side of the afternoon concert.

Although a robust range of women’s talks continued to be broadcast during 1924 (the April meeting of the Women’s Advisory Committee was particularly buoyant with ideas), gradually the slots that had previously been earmarked for this output dwindled, to be replaced by music, priority events and broadcasts to schools. Regular meetings of the Committee also ceased and the fourth meeting, in December 1924, turned out to be the last. In September 1925, members received a letter informing them that as only one talk was now given, and as the name Women’s Hour no longer existed, it had been decided to disband the Women’s Advisory Committee. It would take the arrival of Hilda Matheson in January 1927, as the BBC’s first Director of Talks, to put programming for women firmly back in the BBC’s radio schedules, a trend that would culminate in October 1946, with the launch of Woman’s Hour.

Kate Murphy is a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University. Her main research area is the history of women at the BBC. Her book Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC was published in 2016.

Image reproduced by kind permission of Radio Times. 


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