Partner Dorothy Wellesley
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
Hilda Matheson, OBE (June 7, 1888 - October 30, 1940) was the first woman BBC Head of Department in 1927.
She was a pioneering radio talks producer at the BBC and served as the first Director of Talks. Dorothy Wellesley was the lover of Hilda Matheson. When Matheson died in 1940, Wellesley placed a plaque at her home which reads "Amica Amicorum (friend above all others)". In distraught state, she was comforted by Vita Sackville-West, who had been Matheson's lover in 1928. Alison Neilans worked closely with Hilda Matheson who was a lesbian and political secretary to MP Nancy Astor.
Hilda Matheson lived with two friends, Marjorie Graves and Janet Vaughan (later to become Principal of Somerville), in South Kensington. Both women were aware of her relationship with Vita Sackville-West and were sympathetic towards it. According to Matheson, Marjorie had "a ribald tongue, enriched by a classical education and a past (I should guess) of her own."
After her resignation from the BBC in 1931, Matheson published a book about the development of broadcasting. Though officially the secretary, Matheson served as an executive manager for The African Survey after Malcolm Hailey fell ill. During World War II, she ran the Joint Broadcasting Committee, a British war news organization, until her death.
Hilda Matheson was born on 7 June 1888 in Putney, in south-west London, England to Scottish parents, Margaret (née Orr) and Donald Matheson. She was a boarding student at Saint Felix School in Southwold for four years. Matheson wanted to continue the study of history at Cambridge, but left school at eighteen, when her father's health forced the family to move to Europe. They lived in France, Germany and Italy and she gained fluency in all three languages. Returning to England in 1908, her father was appointed as the Presbyterian chaplain for Oxford University undergraduates and Matheson enrolled as a history student in Society of Oxford Home Students. After completing school in 1911, she went to work as a part-time secretary for H. A. L. Fisher at New College, Oxford and then later worked for David George Hogarth, who was the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.
During World War I, Matheson was employed by the War Office as an MI5 operative, working in army intelligence and ended her war work in Rome at the British military control office. Thereafter, she briefly worked for Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian), who introduced her to Britain's first female parliamentarian, Lady Nancy Astor. In 1919, after having previously refused employment with her, Matheson became the political secretary of Astor, gaining a wide circle of acquaintances including politicians, intellectuals, and society figures. While working for Astor in 1926, Matheson met John Reith, head of the fledgling BBC, who recruited her.
Initially, Matheson was hired to assist J. C. Stobart, who was the head of the Education Department of the BBC. At that time, BBC Radio's role was one of news provider and instead of writing its own copy, their news bulletins were supplied by Reuters. The agreement with newspaper owners banning the BBC from editing bulletins and reading only prepared copy after 6 p.m. would not be lifted until 1928. Matheson became the first Director of Talks in 1927 and established the first news section when the organization became incorporated. An unlikely candidate for the post, as a woman and a left-leaning liberal, Matheson supported the League of Nations, sympathized with Socialism and supported women's rights, in addition to being a lesbian. Around the same time that she began working for the BBC, Matheson began an affair with Vita Sackville-West.
In 1928, when the ban on broadcasting was overturned, the BBC to begin reporting rather than simply reading bulletins. Matheson developed standards for factual reporting of social commentary, current affairs, politics and news. She recognized that neither lectures, speeches nor theater were appropriate means of communication for the new medium of radio and developed models to create a more personal experience for the listener. She focused upon making presentations which were informal and conversational rather than formal and oratorical. To counter Reith's suspicion that Britain's cultural elites would reject Matheson's Americanised approach, she invited Britain's intellectuals, including E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf to give presentations. In addition to her drive to give listeners critical analysis of literary and cultural works, Matheson began The Week in Westminster program to provide education by female MPs about the workings of Parliament to newly enfranchised women. She also organized the first live broadcast of a political debate by the three leaders of the main British political parties.
By 1930, Matheson and Reith were increasingly estranged. As the political climate of the time brought fear and protectionism, Reith began to take issue with Matheson's left-leaning views. Their dispute came to a head when Reith, who despised modern literature, refused to allow Harold Nicolson, Sackville-West's husband, to analyze Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses on air. Nicolson, who was aligned with the Labour Party and had supported the Welsh miners in the aftermath of the General Strike, was an irritant to many of the BBC's right-leaning listeners. Reith imposed censorship on programming, which Matheson refused to accept and she tendered her resignation in 1931.
In January, 1932, Matheson left the BBC and began working as the radio critic at The Observer, which was owned at the time by the Astor family. Around the same time, she ended her relationship with Sackville-West and began a long-term relationship with the poet, Dorothy Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington, moving to Penns in the Rocks farm on the Wellesley estate in Withyham, East Sussex. In 1933, H. A. L. Fisher commissioned Matheson to write a book, she called Broadcasting, which captured the innovative technology of radio and the march of technology, which was still being cited into the 1990s. She also wrote a weekly column for the Week-end Review. Shortly after publication of her book, Matheson was hired as secretary to Malcolm Hailey for The African Survey. Lord Lothian, who at the time was at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Joseph Oldham, secretary of the International Missionary Council, convinced the Carnegie Trust to finance research on British colonial policy in Africa and to what extent, African races should be involved in policy making.
Though Hailey agreed to the project in May, 1933, he was unable to begin until he completed a prior commitment. Initially, he thought he would start in September 1934, but his actual joining the project occurred almost a year after that. In the mean time, Matheson went ahead with the work and served more as an executive manager to the endeavor than as his secretary. She canvassed scientists and administrators to help with logistics and plan the scope of the project, as well as completing the coordination of all the preparatory research. Of the planned 22 chapters, many were written by anthropologists and other specialists, as by 1936, Hailey's health was failing and his correspondence with Matheson indicated that he did not feel that he could complete the work. Hailey's health broke down completely in 1937 and during his hospitalization, Frederick Pedler stepped in to edit and revise the galley proofs. The report, containing nearly 2000 pages of data, was published in November 1938 and Matheson was awarded the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her effort in bringing the project to conclusion the following year.
After finishing the survey, Matheson and Wellesley took a trip to the Riviera where they joined friends, W. B. Yeats and his wife George, and met Walter J. Turner, the Australian poet. Returning to England in 1939, Matheson began working as the Director of the Joint Broadcasting Committee to counter German propaganda with pro-British themes. The goal of the organization was to broadcast British opinion on foreign stations, which were in neutral European and Latin American countries, in German and Italian. The thirty members of her staff included Isa Benzie, Guy Burgess, Elspeth Huxley and Turner, who she had met the previous year.
Matheson also initiated a publishing endeavor with Wellesley and Turner called Britain in Pictures. 140 volumes were published after her death to counter publications glorifying Germany and presented images of British notables, landscapes and cities. A few weeks before her death, Matheson had contacted Astor seeking an American publisher for the series. She died on 30 October 1940 of Graves' disease following a thyroidectomy surgery performed at Kettlewell Hill Nursing Home in Horsell, Surrey.
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