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Book review: Hilda Matheson: A life of secrets and broadcasts by Michael Carney and Kate Murphy

24 November 2023

Angela Tilby reflects on a self-effacing pioneer

THIS is an unusual biography of a gifted, forgotten public servant, Hilda Matheson, who held a series of immensely important posts in the first half of the 20th century. Matheson managed six significant careers before burning out with a thyroid disease that killed her at the age of 52.

Matheson, remembered by her contemporaries as a sweet, innocent young girl, was recruited in 1916 by the Special Operations Directorate, the forerunner of MI5. She was then political secretary to the first woman MP, Lady Astor. John Reith made her Head of Talks for the BBC. When they fell out, she worked for The Africa Survey, and, in the run-up to the Second World War, she became Head of the Joint Broadcasting Committee, producing propaganda for the British cause.

Her most stunning public achievement was as a pioneer of broadcasting. Lord Reith thought her “capable”, but greatly underestimated her creativity, and in the end forced her out. Yet Matheson more or less invented what became the radio talk. She was the first to recognise that broadcasting required new techniques of writing and delivery, and helped speakers to move away from rhetoric and establish an intimate link with the listener.

She did not fight shy of controversy, unlike the cautious, moralistic Reith, who knew from the bottom of his Presbyterian soul what was good for people and what they needed to hear. Matheson, on the other hand, engaged speakers who could delight and amuse even while imparting information and opinion.

Her talks covered literature, the arts, music, and politics, alongside a good deal of practical advice. She never forgot the needs of housewives and mothers, and provided talks on child psychology, school issues, and health — topics that would, for a later generation, become the agenda of Woman’s Hour. One of her innovations still exists today as The Week at Westminster.

She never married, but enjoyed a passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West, and with several other women, although Virginia Woolf scorned her as “common”. She remained friends with Sackville-West and, remarkably, with Sackville-West’s husband, Harold Nicolson. Both broadcast for her regularly.

Her letters reveal her as modest, informal, girlish, and ever grateful, as though she saw herself as not much more than a useful functionary. She liked the pet name that she used with Sackville-West: “Stoker”. As she saw it, her role was to “stoke” the engines of others’ fires. The cover portrait of her with a dog shows someone who listens, observes, and appraises. Yet, she was clearly an extraordinary star, whose legacy remains in the BBC.

As Michael Carney comments: “One cannot avoid the conclusion that her main defect was not to know her place in a man’s world.” For many gifted women in public life, this is still, of course, true.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.


Hilda Matheson: A life of secrets and broadcasts
Michael Carney and Kate Murphy
Handheld Press £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.59

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