These examples of key women from the early days of radio and television, from the 1920s to the 1950s, show how women have been at the centre of the story of British broadcasting from the beginning.
Whether they were the voices over the microphone, the brains behind the operations, or the skilled technicians building the television masts and installing the radio valves, women have always played a role in getting information to the masses.
Dame Nellie Melba: The entertainment broadcast heard around the world
15 June 1920: the day of the first scheduled entertainment broadcast by the Marconi Wireless Company, sent out to eager wireless owners and operators. One of the first voices listeners heard was that of Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba.
Dame Nellie Melba had first travelled to London in 1886, when she was 27 years old. She performed in a classic Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Mikado, and the next year had her solo debut in Brussels. She was a well-known member of high society in London in the late 19th century, having performed for a range of royals from Tsar Alexander III in Russia to Queen Victoria in England. She spent the First World War back at home in Australia but returned to England in the 1920s, having received a DBE while she was away for her wartime work raising funds to help the British.
By the time of her death in 1931, Melba had acted and sung across the globe and performed for radio a handful of times.
The microphone used to broadcast Melba’s voice was the C100L Telephone Microphone. Like many telephone microphones used in early broadcasting, the C100L could often crackle and was not ideal for streaming music.
In the early days of broadcasting, technology was not optimised for female voices, which were generally higher frequencies and softer. This could mean that professional artists might sound as if they couldn’t sing at all, leading to a 1928 article in the Scientific American titled ‘Why is a Radio Soprano Unpopular?’ Despite this, a female voice that streamed badly and led to a failing career was seen as less of a problem than a male one.
Hilda Matheson: The BBC’s first Director of Talks
Hilda Matheson shaped the way the BBC would speak to its audience for generations to come. In 1928, Matheson became the first Director of Talks at the BBC, having initially joined the Corporation in 1926 as an Assistant in Education on a salary of £600. She suggested speakers should address the microphone as though they were chatting directly to a member of the audience, rather than speaking to a large group.
Matheson was born in Putney in 1888, and left England to travel across Europe at the age of 18, passing up an offer to study history at Cambridge. After learning French, German and Italian, Matheson returned to England with her family and studied at Oxford, later becoming Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.
Thanks to her fluency in multiple languages, she worked for MI5 during the First World War; through this work she met Lady Nancy Astor, the first female parliamentarian in Britain. Astor recruited Matheson as political secretary in 1919, and through this job Matheson met the head of the new BBC, John Reith. He recruited Matheson to her first BBC role.
Matheson was responsible for inviting a number of guests to give talks on the BBC, including playwright George Bernard Shaw and novelist Vita Sackville-West. These guests would have spoken into a Marconi-Reis transverse-current carbon microphone, which were in use at the BBC from 1926 until 1933. The microphones were apparently incredibly sensitive as notes around the studio would warn speakers ‘DON’T COUGH—you will deafen millions’ and ‘DON’T RUSTLE YOUR PAPERS’.
Later in Matheson’s career, the Marconi AXBT microphone was used instead. It was co-designed by the Marconi Company and the BBC in the 1930s, created to be highly sensitive and especially good at picking up the voice.
Unlike the carbon microphones which came before, which had used tightly packed carbon granules to convert sound to an electrical signal, the AXBT had a thin aluminium ribbon which vibrated when hit by sound and caused magnets either side of it to produce the signal. The ribbon microphone created a clearer sound with less background noise than the carbon microphone.
Mary Adams: The BBC’s first female TV producer
In 1937, Mary Adams became the BBC’s first female TV producer.
Adams’ career with the BBC started in 1927, when she was invited to give a science talk on the radio. Initially she proposed a talk titled ‘The Differences between Men and Women’, but it was decided this might be contentious, and so ‘Heredity and Environment’ was chosen instead. She began working in a permanent post at the BBC in January 1930, as an Adult Education Officer.
Adams remained in radio until January 1937 when she made the move to Alexandra Palace, joining as the first woman in the production team for the new medium. 39 at the time, she was considered unusual not just due to her gender but also her age (much older than most of the young recruits) and because she was married with a child; in the 1930s, women would rarely be able to continue working after having children.
Adams was responsible for talks at Alexandra Palace, and made her on-screen debut in March 1938 when she introduced Architecture Today. She remained at the BBC until 1958.
Women on the radio assembly line
Photographs from the Daily Herald Archive, the photographic library of the bestselling UK newspaper of the 1930s, also show that women were more than just onscreen talent. Women were also a crucial part of the radio assembly line; as they were cheap labour and generally had smaller hands, they could easily take on intricate work.
Doris Arnold: The first female DJ
1937 was also the year the BBC employed its first ever female DJ. Doris Arnold started at the BBC as an office worker, and then became a full-time pianist. She would move from music creation to music curation, hosting two gramophone programmes: The Melody is There and These You Have Loved.
Doris Arnold was born in Wimbledon in 1904 and had piano lessons from an early age (although these were stopped when she was 14 due to financial concerns). Just like Mary Adams, Arnold had also initially joined the BBC in 1926 in a different role. She started as a typist, and was later identified as a talented pianist. Because of this musical talent she was promoted to the role of musical accompanist in 1928. Between 1929 and 1933 Arnold would feature in at least 70 different music shows as pianist.
Arnold impressed many at the BBC, and often received promotions and pay rises to reflect this. As Kate Murphy notes in her article ‘Doris Arnold: the making of a radio star, 1926–1939’ (PDF), Arnold was highly valued by senior BBC staff. In a letter to a colleague in 1936, Mungo Dewar, then Executive of the Variety Department, wrote: ‘If she were to fall ill I can assure that it would require about three people to replace her, and the final result of the work by the three people would not be equal to Miss Arnold’s.’
In 1937 Arnold produced The Melody is There, a show that played a variety of musical recordings, and she was the first woman to both curate and present such a show. At the time, the term ‘DJ’ was very new, but looking back we can see Arnold’s work fits that description.
During the Second World War, women were often recruited as operators and technical assistants. These were typically seen as male jobs, but as the men went off to fight, the BBC found it had gaps to fill. While the television service was suspended during the war, radio continued: women who could read music were brought in as sound engineers, while women from dramatic backgrounds played a part in creating sound effects for drama shows.
Una Marson: The first Black female producer
During the Second World War, the BBC employed their first Black female producer. Born in Jamaica, Una Marson split her time between her native country and London throughout the 1930s. In 1938, she returned to London to work on the Jamaican Save the Children project; in 1939 she started working at Alexandra Palace; and in 1941, after the Television Service closed for war, she was moved to the Empire Service, today known as the World Service. She was already a published writer and had experience in journalism when she started working for the BBC.
At the Empire Service, Marson went on to produce Caribbean Voices, a programme where soldiers’ messages would be read over the radio to their families at home. This show continued until 1958, shifting into a show filled with poems and short stories by Caribbean authors during peacetime. Marson, however, did not work with the BBC for long after the Second World War; poor health ended her time at the Corporation, and the BBC helped her return home to Jamaica.
In the Science Museum Group Collection we have many examples of wartime radios—the sort that would have been used to listen to female presenters and performers on the BBC broadcasts of the day. These include the ‘wartime civilian receiver’ pictured below, designed by the Joint Wartime Enterprise, a consortium of 44 electronics and radio manufacturers. Sponsored by the government, the consortium built around 250,000 of these radios; the collaborative approach meant they were inexpensive to produce and easy to maintain, as spare parts could come from any manufacturer.
Queen Elizabeth II: The coronation—a turning point for television
The televised crowning of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was one of the most significant events in British broadcasting history. The Science Museum Group Collection contains many objects that relate to the coronation—from an example of the type of camera lens used to televise close shots of the event, to the special Radio Times publication that celebrated the day.
The coronation was the first time television cameras had entered Westminster Abbey, and BBC staff faced a significant challenge in cabling all the cameras and microphones along the procession route. Their hard work was worth it—it’s estimated that 20 million people watched the coronation, with an average of 17 people per television. Famously, this was the first time television viewing of an event surpassed radio consumption.
You can read more about how Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was televised in this story on the Science Museum website.
Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird: Pioneers of children’s TV
Following the post-war return of the television service in 1946, the BBC began to introduce the first television programmes created specifically for children. Female creators were instrumental in children’s television from the start—for example, the popular character Muffin the Mule was brought to life by musician and storyteller Annette Mills and puppeteer and scriptwriter Ann Hogarth.
Andy Pandy, initially part of the same For the Children programming strand as Muffin the Mule, was created by Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird in 1950. Lingstrom and Bird had met earlier in the 1940s while working in the Home and Empire Talk department of the BBC. Together they set up a production company, Westerham Arts, to make episodes of Andy Pandy; Lingstrom wrote the scripts, while Bird wrote the music and narrated the early episodes.
Prior to joining the BBC, Lingstrom had trained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and established a career as an artist and illustrator, while Maria Bird had studied music and dance in Germany. They had both contributed to the children’s magazine Junior, Bird as a writer and Lingstrom as an editor from 1945 to 1949. The two had a close-knit relationship, and after they both lost fiancés in the Second World War they moved in together. They lived and worked together for 40 years, with Bird writing and narrating the television shows they created while Lingstrom worked more closely with the BBC.
As Assistant Head of Schools Broadcasting at the BBC, Lingstrom had created the radio programme Listen with Mother. When she was appointed Director of Children’s Television in 1951, she developed this into Watch with Mother, a series of television shows aimed at pre-school-aged children. Alongside Andy Pandy, this development included characters such as Bill and Ben and Little Weed, all from Flower Pot Men. Produced between 1952 and 1954, Flower Pot Men was so popular that regular repeats continued into the 1970s.
This whistle-stop tour of the first 50 years of women in broadcasting shows how women have been an integral part of the broadcasting story from the very beginning. They’ve helped shape shows, create technology, and keep the BBC going throughout wartime. As the years have gone by, women have become increasingly involved in the day-to-day world of broadcasting, but it’s important to know that the history of women in broadcasting is as old as the history of broadcasting itself.
- 100 Voices That Made the BBC: Pioneering women, BBC
- Dame Nellie Melba, Jim Davidson, Australian Dictionary of Biography
- Mary Adams, first woman television producer at the BBC, Kate Murphy, BBC blog
- Doris Arnold: the making of a radio star, 1926–1939 (PDF), Kate Murphy, Bournemouth University
- Who was... Una Marson? Notes on the BBC’s first black woman broadcaster, Jemimah Norman, BBC blog
- Broadcasting Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, Science Museum
- Freda Lingstrom, Science Museum Group Collection
- Caroline Mitchell (ed.), Women and Radio: Airing Differences, 2016
- Kate Murphy, Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC, 2016