Relay Women: Isa Benzie, Janet Quigley and the BBC's Foreign Department, 1930-38

Authors: Murphy, K.

Start date: 6 July 2017

Isa Benzie joined the BBC as a waged secretary in 1927 and was placed in the BBC’s Foreign Department. In 1930, now a salaried Assistant, she suggested to her boss, Major C.F. Atkinson, the Foreign Director, that he recruit her flatmate Janet Quigley as a second Assistant. The two women had met at Oxford University and were great friends. Amongst their main tasks in the Department was the organisation of international relays, which was the broadcasting of overseas programmes on the BBC. Benzie had responsibility for Europe and Quigley, America. When Benzie replaced Atkinson as Foreign Director in 1933 (the third woman to attain Director status at the BBC), she maintained her interest in relays while assuming a raft of new obligations. Representing the BBC at the highest level, she attended International Broadcasting Union meetings, frequently the only woman present. She also dealt with the international press, entertained overseas dignitaries and acted as a point of liaison for major events such as the Coronation of George VI. When Benzie retired on marriage in 1938, the Foreign Department was absorbed into Home Intelligence; her post redesignated Foreign Liaison Officer. Quigley, during her six years in the Foreign Department, became increasingly adept at US relays as well as overseeing other Empire work. For example, she brokered Saturday afternoon entertainment programmes, transatlantic debates and NBC celebrations. Acknowledged as an exceptional employee, Quigley was transferred to a Talks Assistant role in 1936. This paper explores the role of women within the Foreign Department and asks whether their dominance made a difference to the way it was run and its perception within the BBC.

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