The bureau was opened in the spring of 1939 by two middle-class young women who were inspired to become matchmakers by the scores of lonely men looking for wives to take back to the far-flung reaches of Britain’s colonies.
But their clientele soon sprang from the most unexpected places and with war looming, the dynamics of their service changed beyond all reckoning. It was the birth of one of Britain’s most successful marriage bureaux.
In her fascinating – if somewhat sugar-coated – account of the early years of Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver’s groundbreaking Marriage Bureau, Penrose Halson delivers a rare glimpse of life and love during and after the war.
Using the copious books and memoirs of Jenner and Oliver and her own research, Halson – who became proprietor of the bureau in the 1990s – has dug out a long-ago world of lonely hearts, broken hearts and desperate hearts.
Many of the individual cases packed into the pages of this vivid social history are a moving reminder of the angst and uncertainties of wartime, and the invidious and isolated position of women when it came to finding a husband.
The inspiration for the bureau came from 24-year-old Oliver’s tea planter uncle who encouraged her to do something for the thousands of single young men working abroad who spent their short leave abroad looking for ‘marriage-minded young women.’
Her new friend and ex-debutante Heather Jenner initially dismissed the idea as ‘batty’ but soon realised that they could be a perfect partnership if they harnessed Mary’s ‘imaginative and romantic’ talents with Heather’s predisposition for the ‘practical and logical.’
With no other marriage bureau to copy, no reference books to help and relying only on ‘common sense and good taste,’ they opened their simply named Marriage Bureau over a hairdressers in Bond Street in April 1939 and set about the delicate business of matchmaking as the country teetered on the brink of war.
There was a five guinea fee to register and an After Marriage Fee of ten guineas each if a couple married through the bureau and, from the start, the clients poured in, queueing on the narrow stairs and climbing through a trapdoor on to the rooftop to a makeshift outdoor waiting room amidst concrete and smutty chimney pots.
The lonely hearts came from all walks of life, ‘from plumbers to peers, and from charladies to countesses.’ There were postmen, clergymen, doctors, waiters, stable boys, a rat-catcher and even ‘a nib-maker.’
Many of the women who arrived did not have paid jobs but lived on a meagre allowance from their father and their only hope of a life of their own was through marriage. And there were women who earned scarcely a living wage as lady’s maids, shop assistants, nannies, nurses, typists, cooks, dressmakers and governesses. They saved up their wages to join the bureau and find a beau, paying a much reduced fee.
As fear of war polluted the atmosphere, the minds of many unmarried people became focused on finding a spouse, ‘an ally in an uncertain world.’ And when war became a reality, it brought new clients, including the poignant needs of injured servicemen. Others were foreigners, meaning the bureau was put on alert for ‘enemy aliens’ and potential fifth-columnists trying to infiltrate through marriage to an English girl.
Inevitably, the bureau also attracted some unusual client requirements over the years… a woman seeking a ‘broad-minded’ husband. ‘Should drink, smoke and be capable of swearing,’ and another wanting a man ‘handy round the house’ but ‘must have wavy hair.’
One intriguing demand was that any potential husband has to be ‘sensible but not stodgy’ and ‘not living in or near Southport.’
Amongst the men’s requirements was a client who stated that ‘the only essential qualification: must have one leg.’ Another sought a woman with the ‘looks and voice of a Shakespearean heroine’ while another stipulated ‘no hysteria, no gold diggers’ and must ‘like mountaineering.’
By 1942, the bureau had nearly 10,000 clients on its books and by 1946 they had successfully overseen 2,000 marriages. Mary Oliver eventually sold out and left for a new life in America while Heather Jenner married and ran the bureau by telephone and frequent visits from her new home in Scotland.
Halson’s entertaining book – essentially light-hearted but illuminated by powerful flashes of human pain and tragedy – presents a remarkable cross-section of British society in the 1940s and serves as a compelling reminder that the runaway success of today’s internet matchmaking is just part of the age-old dating game.
(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)