Talking as a 'typical housewife': Mrs Edna Thorpe and the BBC, 1935-1951

Authors: Murphy, K.

Conference: Social History Conference

Dates: 4-6 April 2017


In 1935, a London-based Yorkshire woman, Mrs Edna Thorpe, wrote to the BBC suggesting a talk. The topic was the ‘mistress v maid controversy’, something she had investigated at first hand. The letter sparked an effusive correspondence between Mrs Thorpe and Margery Wace, the then producer of women’s talks, who welcomed her verve and audacity. The resulting broadcast on ‘The One Maid Problem’ would be the first of many. A close working relationship continued with Miss Wace’s successor, Janet Quigley, who assumed responsibility for women’s talks in 1936. Edna Thorpe’s talks encompassed an array of subjects from ‘Forming a Reading Club’ to ‘Hints on Springcleaning’; in each she positioned herself as an ‘ordinary’ woman and ‘average’ listener. The BBC rejoiced in finding an intelligent and articulate housewife who represented the ‘lower middle class’ voice. But clues to Thorpe’s identity are few. We know that she lived in rented accommodation, that she had a ‘modern’ marriage to an electrician, that she had no children. She was also self-educated, studying at night school and fascinated by psychoanalysis, poetry, art and literature. In addition she provided the BBC with programme critiques from unofficial listening groups made up of friends and contacts from cashiers and house agents to doctor's wives and shop girls. Her correspondence continued throughout the late 1930s and into the war; her final talk ‘In the Kitchen’ broadcast in 1951. This paper explores an imagined life through letters to the BBC, probing the light they shed on the ‘typical’ housewife.

Source: Manual