Research into Honor Balfour’s career as a journalist continues to yield rewards. It was against the backdrop of the early rivalry between the BBC Talks and News Departments that Honor forged her contribution to broadcasting which would span over the next three decades. The research continues but with the emphasis now firmly on Honor Balfour’s role as arguably the first significant woman current affairs commentator in broadcasting.
Research into Honor Balfour’s career as a journalist continues to yield rewards. Originally the main focus was to have been on her work as the British staff member in the London office of the American magazine Time, with her freelance work for the BBC, the Guardian, the Observer, etc. as subsidiary areas. Honor’s private papers in Oxford made a good starting point. Hints that her broadcasting career was by far more significant began to emerge from searches of the BBC Genome, and the more extensive coverage in the volumes of the Radio Times, handily available on shelves in the British Library’s Humanities 2 reading room.
But it’s in the files in the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham that the real discoveries are to be made, and not only those on Honor (relatively few in number but key to the emerging narrative) but also in the files on Stephen Bonarjee (1912- 2003), the producer with whom Honor worked over many years on topical issues radio programmes, and Doreen Stephens (1912-2001) another post war broadcasting pioneer (who under her married name, Gorsky, had been a leading women’s rights campaigner).
Reading Bonarjee’s newly-released 1980 oral history interview and his staff file, and those for Topic for Tonight, the programme he created and to which Honor regularly contributed, from 1949 until it was discontinued in 1959, has been revelatory. The research continues but with the emphasis now firmly on Honor Balfour’s role as arguably the first significant woman current affairs commentator in broadcasting.
It was against the backdrop of the early rivalry between the Talks and News Departments (which nearly killed off Topic for Tonight at the outset), the pitching of programmes to appeal to audiences including those whose schooling had ended at fourteen, and women, especially housewives, that Honor forged her contribution to broadcasting which would span over the next three decades. Her final broadcast was on 4 May 1979 and as prescient as ever.
A talk given to Friends of the Women’s Library, LSE, 20 November 2019
The files of the Women’s Publicity Planning Association (WPPA) include material on the Women for Westminster campaign. Initiated in January 1942 by the Association on the suggestion of Dr Edith (later Baroness) Summerskill (1901-1980), W4W encouraged women’s involvement in politics at both national and local level; offering practical guidance as well as information. In 1944 Honor, then still pursuing a political career, was invited in May to speak in support of the Equal Citizenship bill and, in December, to appear on a W4W Brains Trust surveying the three main parties’ programmes.
I came across the references in 2016 while researching Irene Ward’s contribution to the Equal Pay Campaign. Briefly marvelling again at the interconnectivity between the lives of people in my various research areas I couldn’t know just how serendipitous the discovery would prove two years later.
December 2018, as a guest contributor to the parliamentary archives vote100 blog. Honor regularly wrote and broadcast about Westminster politics.
Oxfordshire Gardens Trust, 20 September 2019. The talk explores connections between the two great estates in the twentieth century.
Nancy Tree- now better known as Nancy Lancaster (1897-1994) was the niece of Lady (Nancy) Astor (1879-1964); Paul Phipps (1880-1953), Nancy Astor’s brother-in-law worked at both properties (the revamped orangery at Ditchley is his) and Norah Lindsay (1873-1948) designed and planted borders at each garden. The schemes of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-1996) is another common denominator (though separated by a couple of decades). Researching in the vast Astor archives in the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)in 2017 suggested that not only should Cliveden’s role in Nancy Astor’s life be re-assessed but also that connections with Ditchley’s reimagining by Ronald and Nancy Tree merited further exploration.
A talk, at Cliveden, in August 2018 on ‘Lady (Nancy) Astor (1879-1964) and Cliveden’s political landscape’ to members of the volunteer research group preparing for the National Trust marking the centenary of Lady Astor’s election to parliament in 1919. The talk drew on research in 2017 in the Astor archives held in the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading. This had detailed how Nancy Astor consciously-or unconsciously, used invitations to Cliveden to support women active in public life, as well as offering the more usual country house roles such as coping with the rocky marriage of a future Prime Minister -Harold Macmillan (later 1st Earl of Stockton, 1894-1986), and entertaining celebrities.
Some of the leading figures from the first intakes of women MPs, and campaigners for women’s rights, were guests at Cliveden including Margaret Wintringham (1879-1955), the first woman Liberal MP; the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), Irene (later Baroness) Ward (1895-1980), and Mavis Tate (1893-1947). In 1935 Tate had been instrumental with other women MPs in securing the release from detention in Germany of the wife and child of Herr Seger, the first SDP member of the Reichstag to be arrested in 1933. A less fortunate guest was Frau Dr Luders, an economist and women’s rights activist who briefly appears in the Astor archive, her fate uncertain in war-time Germany (despite Nancy Astor’s intervention). In another of those fortunate discoveries, in February I came across a 1951 document in the BBC Written Archives which revealed that despite terrible suffering she had survived and at seventy five was an inspirational figure at post war international conferences.
I always believed Honor Balfour (1912-2001) was too modest about her life but even so I’ve been blown away by discovering the extent and range of her broadcasting career...
I always believed Honor Balfour (1912-2001) was too modest about her life but even so I’ve been blown away by discovering the extent and range of her broadcasting career. I shouldn’t have been surprised, she had already pushed at the boundaries in print journalism by convincing Stefan Lorant to appoint her to the founding editorial team of Picture Post in 1938. During the war she was recruited by Walter Graebner for Time-Life magazine, diverting her from a career in Whitehall. In the 1990s we discussed some of her innovatory radio programmes. But even so to see the frequency with which her name was listed in the schedules of the Radio Times for over thirty years from 1946 was a revelation. Here was a woman talking about current affairs, commenting on social issues and, perhaps, most surprising of all, in the team analysing the 1955 General Election result.
All this at a time when women’s voices were still largely restricted to home-making and entertainment programmes. Interestingly, it was in the new medium of television where this appears to have been a constraint. In the mid-1950s Honor had a regular fifteen minute slot in which she addressed topical issues. It was broadcast at 3.35 pm, after Mainly for Women. But even if her appearances on television were usually limited to afternoons, it was still no mean feat for a woman political journalist to have significant footholds in both print and broadcast media (although Honor would not thank me for mentioning her gender).
The research is for an article commissioned by the editor of the Journal of Liberal Democrat History; a companion piece to ‘Honor Balfour and the Liberal Party: an archival perspective’ which appeared in the Spring 2013 issue (see also my Publications page). The digitised online overview of Radio Times schedules was a boon but for detail the volumes of the actual magazine available on the shelves in the British Library Humanities Reading Room were invaluable preparation for consulting the Honor Balfour archive in the Bodleian Library. Next stop: the BBC Written Archives resource in Caversham and the British Film Institute (for archival recordings). These will be followed up in the late autumn with a work-in-progress paper in London.
‘A home should be the centre of a woman’s life, not its boundary’ (Irene Ward).
Inspired by the research for my paper, Irene Ward, ‘Baroness Ward of North Tyneside (1895-1980) Unorthodox political warrior’ to the Institute of Contemporary British History seminar on 4 October 2015, the intention was to spend most of 2016 exploring further the campaign for equal pay for women, extending the focus beyond Irene Ward, looking more closely at the war-time and early post-war developments culminating in the 1954 act.
The first few months of 2016 were spent consulting material in the Women’s Library at LSE. The archive of the Women’s Publicity Planning Association (WPPA) proved particularly fruitful. War time files on the drive to secure ‘Equal compensation for equal danger’ for injured women civilians; nationwide meetings to encourage involvement in politics at local and national levels – the ‘Women for Westminster’ programme; or win greater representation on committees planning post-war reconstruction not only brilliantly illuminated my earlier research, but foregrounded the work of Mavis Tate, MP and Dr Edith Summerskill, MP (and included mention of Honor Balfour), all of whom, had I but known it at the time, would later re-appear in my research into the Astors and twentieth century Cliveden.
Dr Summerskill’s private papers are also in the Women’s Library. Shifting through the archive for information on the equal pay campaign re-ignited my interest in political houses and gardens. In the ‘noughties while exploring my political houses research, discovering that Dr Summerskill (pictured top left in the pamphlet), had commissioned a young woman architect, Elizabeth Benjamin (1908-1999) to work on the family home suggested new possibilities. But after being advised it was (only) an interior remodelling of a Victorian villa, rather than a new build, Melrose, 1 Fitzroy Park, Highgate village, slipped off my list. But here it was again, in February 2016, on the front cover of the July 1935 issue of The Ideal Home; a reproduction of Guy Lipscombe’s delicately coloured painting of the hallway captioned ‘Alterations & improvements’. 1
In an interview with Lynne Walker published in 1996, Elisabeth Benjamin recalled how the scheme had to include dramatic spaces in which Dr Summerskill could make an entrance (the staircase), and entertain (the dining room). The enlarged and reconfigured living room acquired a chic steel fireplace. Five years after the project’s completion war broke out and display receded as an objective. With Dr Summerskill a tireless campaigner on a range of issues, not least promoting women’s equality and political participation, we can only wonder what conversations these spaces absorbed. 2
Inspired by the depth and breadth of the Astors’ archive at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading, my current project focuses on Waldorf and Nancy Astor’s years at Cliveden and some of the less familiar stories.
From the estate papers, for example, we learn of the contribution of Captain Harry Lindsay (the estranged husband of the garden designer Norah Lindsay) to the refurbishment and repair of the mansion in 1906-1907. The cost-cutting moves which led to Cliveden’s temporary closure in 1931.
Most interesting of all however, as we move towards commemorating the centenary of women gaining the vote in 1918, and Nancy Astor’s ground breaking election in 1919, is how Cliveden fits into the narrative of the advance of women in British public life in the following three decades. A talk on this topic has been pencilled in for next year.
February 2016 brought an invitation to return to an old favourite topic: houses and gardens with modern political associations. Discussions with a potential publisher updated the list of properties to be considered. Hughenden, Cliveden, The Wharf, Garsington, Trent Park and Port Lympne; Chartwell, Wallington, Sissinghurst, Birch Grove House, The Manor House, Hell Corner Farm, and Thenford were added to three properties from past lectures: The Wharf, Buscot and Ditchley.
Researching the Astors at Cliveden for a sample chapter brought a reconnection with the work of campaigners for equal compensation and pay. By the late 1930s Nancy Astor’s parliamentary reputation was in decline but some of her war time interventions were beneficial to the lobbying for women’s equality. She was also vocal in her support for women to be more involved in plans for post-war reconstruction.
Cliveden was Nancy’s stage too. The papers of Waldorf and Nancy Astor in the excellent Museum of English Rural Life archive (MERL), University of Reading, reveal that during the war, campaigning women MPs as politically various as Mavis Tate (appointed chair of the Women’s Power Committee in 1941, and of the Equal Pay Campaign in 1942); Irene Ward (Chair, Committee on Woman Power, 1940) and Ellen Wilkinson were guests on separate occasions. Margaret Wintringham, Liberal politician and the second woman to take her seat in Parliament was a frequent guest long after she had lost her seat in the 1924 General Election. Nancy Astor’s steadfastness in the hostile, all-male parliament, emboldened Wintringham to stick it out at Westminster (as she gratefully acknowledged) but the key to their long-lasting friendship may have stemmed from shared Christian Science beliefs. The social and political mix of guests at Cliveden weekends was usually eclectic; an invitation brought opportunities to relax and recharge, but also network. Invitations extended beyond establishment figures to weary social workers and civil servants.
As MP for the heavily-bombed constituency of Plymouth Sutton (and regularly deputizing for her husband as Lord Mayor) much of Nancy Astor’s attention during the war years was, of necessity, focused on Plymouth. The constant travelling between the two cities, not to mention nationwide speaking engagements, was exhausting. Little time was left for reflection – a quality already largely missing from Nancy Astor’s personality.
The Astor archives at MERL far exceeded my expectations as a resource. The estate papers are particularly good and form the basis of my reassessment of the roles played by Cliveden in the era of Nancy and Waldorf Astor.
Honor Balfour fleetingly appears in both the LSE’s WPPA archive and MERL’s Astor papers, as a participant in the Brains Trust event organized by Women for Westminster in December 1944, and a guest at Cliveden in November 1949. The latter presumably as an upcoming commentator on Anglo-American relations, and freelancer on the David Astor-edited Observer newspaper. Seeing her name in the Visitor’s Book reminded me of our many conversations at her home in Windrush, and led me to regret we never discussed her impressions of Cliveden. An astute commentator on contemporary politics right to the end of her life her insights are much missed.