- This book tells the story of matchmaking agency the Marriage Bureau
- It was started in 1939 by Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner
- Ginny Dougary thinks Penrose Halson is a gifted storyteller
MARRIAGES ARE MADE IN BOND STREET
by Penrose Halson
Before there was internet dating, there were newspaper lonely hearts columns – and before that, there was the Marriage Bureau.
This is the story of the bureau and the enterprising young women who started it in 1939, Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner – one a serial altar bolter, the other a divorcee.
Before there was internet dating, there were newspaper lonely hearts columns – and before that, there was the Marriage Bureau, which helped people to find love in the 1940s
It ends with its tenth anniversary celebrations.
The pages in between are full of true tales (though they sometimes read a touch floridly far-fetched) of the match- makers and their appreciative clients, from a society with a class system more multi- layered than a mille-feuille.
Both women changed their names – in part, because their venture was considered so odd and risque at the time. Mary was a farmer’s daughter, nee Audrey Parsons, whose parents were desperate to get her married off.
And, boy, did she try to please them – but with each impending wedding, she found herself unwilling to forfeit her freedom for the respectability of marriage with a suitor who didn’t suit her.
It was while visiting her Uncle George in India that her life took off, with his suggestion that she find a way of introducing the lonely young men on colonial postings to ‘marriage-minded’ young women during their leave in England.
Back home, Mary met Heather at a party in Chelsea. Also 24, she was a striking, 6 ft part-time model, film extra and former debutante. Mary put forward the idea that had been planted by her Uncle George and proposed the outlandish, but rather brilliant, scheme of starting up a marriage agency.
The two young women had no model to draw on, relying instead on their common sense, combined, as Heather later said, with ‘good taste, and our certainty that we were doing something which was needed’.
Registration forms would be filled, a modest registration fee (five guineas) applied for a year’s worth of introductions and, if a couple married, a larger (ten guineas) After Marriage Fee.
3,000 PER CENT
Increase in the cost of a wedding since the Fifties
It’s thrilling to read how the fledgling businesswomen find a grotty office space they can just afford, up an unpromising flight of stairs, but in salubrious Bond Street. They transform it with a bright sheen of paint, bring in furniture and flowers and, almost immediately, their applicants start to come in.
Heather’s Rita Hayworth looks and bold manner – as well as the whole idea of matchmaking for money (initially, the duo have to explain the bureau is not a cover for a brothel) – mean reporters are always keen to write positive stories about the pair and interview couples who have married through the Bureau.
In one week in their first year, the marriage mavens were responsible for 40 weddings (i.e. 80 satisfied customers). Some years on, they have 8,000 people on their books and as many as 300 applications in a single day.
What was the secret of a perfect match? Tender-hearted Mary would feel in her ‘sagacious bones’ that two applicants were just made for one another. But mostly, the pair rarely deviated from a code of their own devising.
Their top tier was Lady and Gent – defined as ‘upper class, not necessarily titled, but definitely of superior breeding’. Then it was ‘Near Gent’ and ‘Near Lady’ (upper middle class, middle class with a professional background), ‘Gentish’ and ‘Ladyish’ (lower middle) and WC (working class).
This was later re-categorised as MBTM (Much Better than Most), a smidgeon lower was MBTS (Much Better Than Some) and so on.
All these different class levels are represented in the book, and one hopes the funniest stories are true. Nowhere is there a disclaimer that some names have been altered to protect identities – so we must assume that a ‘superior-bred’ tricky customer really was called Etheldreda de Pomfret.
There is the tragic story of Ivy and Archie. At 22, Ivy, with sad, green eyes, lost her parents, grandmother, sister and many friends in an air raid while she was at work.
She earned a meagre salary as a nurse in an East End hospital and later as a shop girl in ladies’ fashion in a department store.
Enter Archibald Bullin-Archer, a fragile, 38-year-old former prep schoolteacher, who had been damaged by the war.
After a brief courtship, Archie proposed to Ivy, but the engagement ended in tragedy. His ghastly parents had intervened and insisted he could not marry a shop girl. He hanged himself on a lamp-post and left a note and an emerald ring for Ivy.
There are a number of affecting stories such as this in between the general high jinx and merriment.
Halson – who wrote and edited before her husband persuaded her to go into the marriage business – is a gifted storyteller, with a slight stylistic weakness for over-long adjectival lists.
The book is a period piece in some ways but, away from the different clothes and customs, it has a contemporary ring because, fundamentally, people don’t change. Be it 1946 or 2016, we still worry about money, ailing parents, loneliness and finding someone to love.
The makers of Call The Midwife need look no further for their next television project.
Courtesy: Daily Mail Online