The British Broadcasting Century with Paul Kerensa

The BBC’s First Female Employee: Isobel Shields

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Episode notes

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' - - so if you like, join, watch, then cancel. Or stick around for more videos and writings each month.

You can follow us on Twitter or our Facebook page or join our Facebook group, and say hi, or share anything of broadcasting history.

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.

We also mention the BBC 100 website - inc. the 100 Objects, Faces and Voices. Who's missing? Let us know!



  • 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.
  • Be on the show! Email me a written ‘Firsthand Memory’ (FM) about a time you’ve seen radio or TV in action. Or record a voice memo of your ‘Airwave Memories’ (AM), 1-2mins of your earliest memories of radio/TV. Get in touch!
Next time: All change! Mics, Callsigns and Phone-in Requests - we race through week 1 of 1923 as the BBC prepares for the first Outside Broadcast...   More details on this whole project at