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Olden Life

Regulars | August Issue

What was The Marriage Bureau?

On 17th April 1939, two 24-year-old women climbed up five dingy flights of a Bond Street house and pushed on the door of their newly-rented, tiny office. 

The door got stuck on piles of letters, addressed by spouse-seekers to The Marriage Bureau. Those two women, Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner, made three piles: MEN, WOMEN and UNCERTAIN (such as the letter with an illegible signature, plus a photo captioned ‘Me at 17 months’), and started assessing who might marry whom.

Scant education and joblessness had driven farmer’s daughter Mary to Assam, where she became engaged and rapidly disengaged. Disconsolate, she heeded her tea-planter uncle: ‘Thousands of men here long for a wife. They save up their leave to sail to England to find one. Why don’t you help them? Introduce them to your friends? Open a marriage agency?’

Mary enlisted Heather, ex-debutante, brigadier’s daughter, six foot, blonde, divorced, business-minded, bored. 

Officials were scandalised: ‘It’s a high-class brothel!’ said one critic. But the press, over-burdened with grim reports of imminent war, published photographs and articles galore. Godfrey Winn’s Sunday Express column lauded the novel venture. War that September meant single, British women feared another post-First World War shortage of husbands, while men craved a wife to return to after fighting. Hordes lined the bureau’s stairs.

Fuelled by fishcakes, eaten cold in one hand, while answering the telephone or writing introductions, the matchmakers interviewed and introduced non-stop.

Clients inhabited all social strata: ladies’ maids, rat-catchers, a cowman-in-charge, a trapeze artist, earls, MPs, women of vast wealth and loneliness, debutantes floundering in their devastated world.

Hopefuls specified a spouse of their own class: ‘I am secretary to a duke. Any man must be of my own standing.’ The matchmakers classified: Lady/Gent (superior breeding, not necessarily titled); Gent For Here/Lady For Here (upper middle class, public school); Near Gent/Near Lady aka Half Gent/Half Lady (middle class professional); Gentish/Ladyish (lower middle class); W.C. (Working Class, aka M.B.T.M. – Much Better Than Most; and M.B.T.S. – Much Better Than Some). Plus and minus signs, V. (Very), Good and Just modified: a V. Good Half Lady ++ could meet a Gent For Here Just, possibly a full-blown G.F.H!

Money was fundamental: ‘Her income not important, the larger the better.’ Women did war jobs, but there were non-earning potential wives, too. ‘Would you let your wife work?’ asked the bureau’s interviewers. And what about religion, nationality, abilities (a man without hands, due to a bomb), encumbrances (dependant relatives), children, unmarried mothers, a divorcée (plaintiff and/or defendant)? 

Education, politics and sex scarcely featured. Looks were not supreme: ‘Marilyn Monroe with homely ways.’ Interviewers made notes: ‘Gent, mad, amiable rotter, beard’; ‘B.T.M.  Could meet better. Nice little thing, pretty (chocolate-box type).’

Bombs fell while the bureau brimmed with joy, tragedy – and marriages: 3,000 by 1948. The press, and post-war radio and television, relished Heather’s stories and opinions. She wrote books, established branches beyond London and in Paris, and married three times. Her second husband was humourist Stephen Potter, inventor of gamesmanship. She died in 1991. 

In 1960, Dateline launched computer dating. Marriage started to descend a slippery slope; the bureaux slithered too. 

That year, an Irish-American, Betty Allen-Andrews, opened the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau. Despatched to KA by my mother in 1965, I drank Betty’s ritual sherry and failed to marry. In 1986, my husband, Bill Halson, bought KA, adding, in 1992, the Marriage Bureau, crushed by a 700% rent increase. We sold the combined bureaux in 2000. They quickly vanished. I shed a tear.

Penrose Halson 

Penrose Halson is the author of  ‘Marriages are Made in Bond Street’.

This story was from August Issue issue. Subscribe Now