With archives presently closed because of the pandemic, resuming research into the career of the restorer of ancient houses and maker of gardens rose to the top of my list of projects because much of it could be conducted from my desk. Reggie Cooper first caught my attention in 2006; in between other projects I continued my ‘quest for Reggie’, returning to it full time in the summer of 2020 after completing the article on Honor Balfour.
Cold Ashton Manor, near Chippenham, Reggie Cooper’s second renovation project. Photographed October 2020.
With archives presently closed because of the pandemic, resuming research into the career of the restorer of ancient houses and maker of gardens rose to the top of my list of projects because much of it could be conducted from my desk. Reggie Cooper first caught my attention in 2006 as the amateur architect of the delightful neo-classical orangery for the politician Sir Philip Sassoon (1888-1939) at Trent Park. In between other projects I continued my ‘quest for Reggie’, returning to it full time in the summer of 2020 after completing the article on Honor Balfour.
Using internet and printed sources and boosted by access to family material, correspondence with those with stories to share or working on related topics, and information generously shared by June Davey, historian at West Horsley Place, in Surrey (which Reggie’s mother, Lady (Marion) Cooper owned between 1921 to 1931) I’ve revised my lists of the houses in which Reggie lived and those he knew through his friendships with other enthusiastic restorers of dilapidated old houses. There’s still more research to do, once the archives at the Royal Institute of Architecture (RIBA) and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) reopen to researchers but a more comprehensive narrative of his life is emerging.
Women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election. Image reproduced with the permission of Parliamentary Archives, PUD/8/32. http://www.parliament.uk/archives
A (very minor) contributor to an exhibition at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. Scheduled for Spring 2020 the opening was postponed by the pandemic until October 2020 but shortly afterwards new national lockdown restrictions were introduced.
The invitation to contribute information arose from my past work on Dame Irene Ward. The campaign by Dame Irene (later Baroness Ward of North Tyneside, 1895-1980) for the release of Special Operations Executive (SOE) files and the commissioning of an official history of the organisation began in the mid1950s when she was Conservative MP for Tynemouth. It was partly inspired by the refusal to allow access to SOE files while researching her history of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, F.A.N.Y Invicta (1955) which includes a chapter on members who became agents in ‘The Org’: SOE.
As a lifelong campaigner against injustice (most recently for equal pay for women, culminating in the 1954 Act), she was driven to champion those whose exploits remained buried in closed files; overshadowed by films about famous agents; memoirs by the former head of SOE’s French section, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (1902-1992) among others, and speculative histories. A study by the historian M R D Foot was eventually published in 1966. Her contribution to the commissioning may not have been as great as she believed but it was not inconsiderable.
With the publication of the article 'What Honor did next, the pioneering broadcasting career of Honor Balfour (1912-2001)', in the Journal of Liberal Democrat History, a very enjoyable period spent researching her remarkable life comes to a close.
Honor regularly appeared on Town Forum but Denmark was a rare overseas location. More usual were towns in the area covered by the BBC’s Midlands Home Service division. ©Radio Times/Immediate Media.
With the publication of the article on Honor’s broadcasting career, a very enjoyable period spent researching her remarkable life comes to a close.
Back in 2018 I only knew she’d been involved in one or two radio programmes. The first of what became many visits to the BBC Written Archives Centre pointed to her far greater involvement, especially in the early years of current affairs broadcasting.
At the British Library where BBC audio visual material is viewed, I was captivated by the sight of Honor in her prime, appearing on Press Conference in April 1959, a member of the panel interviewing Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962).
Honor’s pioneering time at Picture Post and at the BBC have undeservedly slipped into history’s byways. It’s time she was restored to her rightful place.
In July 2019 as a guest contributor to the BBC history research website an introduction to Honor’s career at the BBC. The full article can be found here.
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.
Enlarged detail from a Radio Times photograph of Honor Balfour as a panellist on the new television programme, It’s My Opinion. The programme, recorded early evening on Wednesday 21 May 1957 with an audience in Bridgewater, Somerset, was broadcast at 10.15pm. The other two panellists were the Liberal politician Frank (later Lord) Byers (1915-1984) and the journalist and writer Denzil Batchelor (1906-1969). The discussion was chaired by the historian Alan (later Lord) Bullock (1914-2004). Image reproduced by kind permission of Immediate Media Company Ltd., London.
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.
Cliveden, Buckinghamshire. One of the two borders leading to the mansion’s imposing entrance; the composition an homage to Norah Lindsay’s original planting. (2017 image).
Detail of view across Geoffrey Jellicoe’s pool with its distinctive steps. Ditchley Park, June 2019
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.