The BBC’s First Female Employee: Isobel Shields
Episode 41 (aka Season 3 episode 2):
On January 2nd 1923, John Reith interviewed Miss Frances Isobel Shields for a job at the BBC, to be his secretary. At the time the BBC had four or five male staff members. Miss Shields started work on January 8th, instantly making the BBC a 20% female organisation. It's been greater than that ever since.
This episode's fab guest is Dr Kate Murphy: academic, former producer of BBC's Woman's Hour and author of Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC. Her book is brilliant and highly recommended for a deep dive into the subject.
Hear Isobel Shields' tale, plus the women who broadcast before her: Britain's first DJ Gertrude Donisthorpe, 2LO's first children's presenter Vivienne Chatterton, and one of our first broadcast comedians Helena Millais. (You can hear their fuller tales if you go back to the earlier episodes on this podcast.)
And hear about some of the women who joined the BBC soon after Miss Shields, like telephonist Olive May and women's staff supervisor Caroline Banks. Plus hear about some of John Reith's unusual management practices, from taking his secretaries to the cinema to his brutal firing criteria.
But we dwell on his hiring not firing, as well tell the origin story of British broadcasting.
And Dr Murphy will return on future episodes! With tales of the first Women's Hour (not Woman's Hour) in May 1923, and the early female managers, like Mary Somerville and Hilda Matheson. To catch those episodes, you'll have to stay subscribed to this podcast.
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In this podcast I mention my latest Patreon video, going behind-the-scenes of my broadcasting history trawl, inc. a glimpse at my new (old) crystal set radio, 'on this day' on the 1923 BBC (with a nice surprise), and a reading about Reith. This video's available to all Patreon folks whatever their 'level' - www.patreon.com/posts/60853999 - so if you like, join, watch, then cancel. Or stick around for more videos and writings each month.
Paul's one-man play The First Broadcast tours the UK in 2022. There's now an official trailer you can watch here. The first date's in Surbiton on Feb 2nd, then Leicester Comedy Festival on Feb 3rd, Banbury on March 3rd, Barnes on March 25th, London's Museum of Comedy on April 21st AND Nov 14th, plus Bristol, Bath, Blandford Forum, Kettering, Guildford... and your place? Got a venue? Get in touch.
- Original music is by Will Farmer.
- Many of our archive clips are old enough to be public domain. BBC content is used with kind permission, BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
- This podcast is 100% unofficial and NOTHING to do with the present-day BBC - it's entirely run, researched, presented and dogsbodied by Paul Kerensa.
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