"Tinder for the twinset generation"
Outside the offices of the Marriage Bureau dating agency in London’s Bond Street, 1952. Co-founder Heather Jenner knew that parents worried if their daughters remained single after the age of about 20.
Ex-debutante Heather Jenner was 24, pretty, strong-minded and six feet tall with blonde hair.
A suitable marriage at 19 was what was expected of her, to be followed by children, housekeeping and entertaining in furtherance of her husband’s career. But Heather was feeling her way towards a less subservient existence.
Her marriage to a man in Ceylon quickly foundered and she sailed back to England.
At a Chelsea party she met Mary Oliver, petite and dark-haired, who had two broken engagements and had also failed to comply with the unwritten rules of her sex, age and class.
Lacking husbands, what were they to do next?
Their common determination to find a different future drew them together. That was when the idea for a marriage agency was born.
Mary had been given the idea by her uncle George, after the failure of her second engagement, to a man in India.
‘When you get back to England, why not do something about introducing all the single young men you’ve met here [in India] to marriage-minded young women in England?’
Heather knew that in all strata of society, parents worried if their daughters remained single after the age of about 20.
However, even in the aristocratic set, young women were starting to rebel against these expectations, refusing to be sent out to India in what was known as the ‘Fishing Fleet’: gaggles of scarcely educated girls who had failed to find a husband and so were dispatched by ship with the express purpose of finding one there.
These young women were beginning to demand equal education and the right to leave home, take a job and choose their own friends.
However, Britain was still enduring a severe economic crisis with high unemployment, and any girl who could live with her family was castigated as immoral if she took a job that a man could do.
Heather and Mary both had girlfriends who were living at home, leading very dull lives – being dutiful, doing good works, helping in the house and meeting virtually no men.
They resolved that their bureau marriages should be solidly grounded, ensuring that a man and a woman came from the same social background and had a similar attitude to finances.
They would have shared tastes and aspirations and probably be of the same religion.
They would charge a modest registration fee for a year’s introductions, and when a couple married they would pay an ‘after marriage fee’ so that the bureau could prosper.
‘We had nobody to copy, no reference books to help us,’ Heather recalls.
‘We just had to rely on common sense, good taste and our certainty that we were doing something that was needed.’
They visited estate agencies where a warm welcome greeted the two disarming, well-spoken young women.
But the minute they said they were looking for an office to start a marriage bureau the agent stopped smiling, shuffled the papers on his desk, said he regretted (unconvincingly) that he had nothing suitable, nor was likely to, and ushered them out of the door.
At this point Mary remembered a small office in Bond Street she had come across when she had been looking for somewhere to live.
Much of the painted lettering had flaked off, but Mary and Heather could just make out ‘Small office to let’.
It was small, dirty and up too many stairs. The lavatory was even further up in the attic and the drains were none too reliable.
A dirty slip of paper pinned to the wall gave the rent for this urban rabbit hutch as 25 shillings (approx £3) a week.
Mary was sure that destiny had struck. Heather was ecstatic.
‘We’ll take it! We’ll paint it!’
The Marriage Bureau had found its home.
Heather bought buckets of sunshine yellow paint and for several days they clanked up and down Bond Street wearing slacks and old clothes.
A practically minded friend asked how people were going to hear about the Marriage Bureau.
‘We’ll advertise,’ Mary asserted cheerfully, unaware that the prestige papers would not take advertisements for such a suspicious sounding organisation for another 50 years.
So the week before they opened she rang up all the features editors of the papers and with the luck of the naïve got through every time.
With their picture in every paper and the press on their side, clients poured in and, as there was no waiting room, had to queue up the narrow stairs.
When the staircase was full, Mary would give the hopefuls her most appealing smile and guide them to a decrepit ladder leading up to a small trap door and say, ‘We shan’t be long; would you be so kind as to wait a few minutes on the roof?’
Although the matchmakers had thought that only the relatively well-off would apply, many poorer people saved up to become clients and Heather and Mary charged some people much less, or allowed them to pay in instalments.
The story of the Marriage Bureau’s first wedding, a bride aged 68 to a 70-year-old groom, delighted the press. British Pathé made a two-minute documentary film, Cupid’s Labourers, showing the matchmakers in action.
A deluge of enquiries came from all over the world, from missionaries, colonial servants and managers of tea estates who all had leave infrequently and wanted to be put in touch with suitable women by post.
‘Poor wandering ones,’ cried Mary. ‘Just the kind of men we set out to help!’
But it wasn’t all plain sailing, as one of their first cases was to show. On 18 April 1939, the day after the bureau had opened, Mary had her first interview with a man.
The matchmakers had just finished touching up the paint on the ceiling as she took off her overall and headscarf to receive Cedric Thistleton.
He had visited the day before accompanied by a faint aroma of rum and dropping heavy hints about his importance.
He was a businessman of 33, tall, dark and exceptionally good-looking, radiating confidence and A1 health from his lightly sun-kissed face to his expensively shod feet.
Without waiting for a polite invitation he sat down opposite Mary, while casting appraising glances at Heather as she climbed down from her painting ladder to sit at her own desk.
Mary had expected her first interview with a man to be fraught with difficulty, for surely he would be nervous or shy, needing her to encourage him to speak.
But none of her imaginings had foretold Cedric’s abrupt opening: ‘I have five weeks’ leave before I return to Malaya with a wife. She must be socially acceptable to my employer and my social circle. It is your job to find her.’
Cedric made it clear that he expected entire satisfaction from his contract with the bureau: a girl of impeccable breeding (as if he were buying a racehorse, mused Mary), under 21 years old, willing and able to bear children, self-assured, sophisticated and worldly-wise.
She must be capable of entertaining, and of managing a large house with several servants.
She must be upper class or at the very least from the top ranks of the middle class (to compensate for his own lack of class, suspected Mary), with not even a hint of anything so scandalous as drink, divorce or debt in her family.
This paragon was to have no desire to do anything but glorify her husband and impress all in his circle.
He was unconcerned about his bride’s looks, taste or character, and the possibility that she might not enjoy life in a far-flung continent as the spouse of a rubber magnate had cast not even the slightest shadow over his mind.
Cedric sidled away from Mary’s questions about his background and education, but waxed lyrical about his income of £800 a year and his progress up the ladder of a company that exported rubber.
He talked so expansively on the subject dearest to his heart – himself – that he failed to notice Heather aiming kicks at the telephone bell underneath her desk, which made it ring.
She then took pretend calls from gloriously aristocratic young ladies all agog to meet a Cedric Thistleton lookalike.
Mary was dispirited but resolved to find him a bride in order to get rid of him.
The women under 21 currently on the books were a milliner, a domestic servant, a cake-maker and a lady’s companion, none of them a potential Mrs Thistleton.
But two days later in walked a girl of 20 who worked in a very recherché art gallery owned by a baronet. Mary immediately telephoned Cedric and arranged for him to meet Miss Plunkett for lunch the next day.
When Cedric swanned into the office after the lunch, he complained that for him to marry a person who was in trade was totally impossible.
He failed to comprehend how Miss Jenner and Miss Oliver could even have considered such an introduction. Mary’s chest swelled with indignation.
‘If being in rubber is not being in trade, what on earth is?’ she muttered.
As Cedric left, the telephone rang and Heather picked it up to hear Miss Plunkett’s icy voice.
‘He was frightful, the most snobbish man I have met in my entire life. If he is a true sample of your male clients, kindly return my registration form forthwith.’
As Miss Plunkett paused for breath, Heather adopted her most soothing yet commanding tone, assuring her that Cedric regrettably failed to understand that the mores in England are different to those in Malaya.
Heather then diverted her listener with a description of a clever, kind and open-minded young man whom she could meet immediately.
Mollified, Miss Plunkett accepted and put the telephone down.
‘Thank you, Heather,’ murmured a chastened Mary.
‘No thanks are due, dear Mary. There will always be clients who complain.
'There are young women who share Cedric’s unfortunate characteristics and others who want at any cost to escape their fate by fleeing to another country.
'We shall have to hope that some equally unpleasant or thoroughly desperate damsel darkens our door before long.’
Mary and Heather kept trying to find a match and managed to introduce Cedric to one or two young women who were so desperate that almost any husband would be better than none.
But they squirmed at his arrogance, while he haughtily dismissed them as inadequate.
With only two weeks of Cedric’s leave to go, the two matchmakers were in despair, until out of the blue, with no appointment, in walked the future Mrs Thistleton, escorted by her father. Lord W was a chivalrous old peer who doted on his only child, the Hon Grizelda.
Late in life he had fallen for a much younger woman and married her, only to stand helplessly by as she died giving birth to their daughter.
Lord W was now in his 70s, Grizelda 20. What would become of her when he was no more? She was not an appealing girl but would never be short of money. Lord W had set his heart on her finding a husband and a home.
Before inheriting his title, Lord W had managed a rubber plantation in Malaya. After his wife’s death, a charming, childless widow, Mrs R in her 50s, had befriended him and helped him to bring up Grizelda, and now they wanted to marry – once Grizelda was established.
Ten years ago, they had moved back to the Old Country so that Grizelda could go to school, but they yearned to return to their beloved Malaya.
The Marriage Bureau
In 1942, three years after establishing the Marriage Bureau, Mary Oliver met and married an American businessman, sold her shares in the bureau to Heather and went to live in the U.S.
Heather Jenner met her husband Michael Cox, a Scottish landowner, at a cocktail party. She had a daughter in 1944, followed by a son, and continued to run the bureau, later with the help of her daughter.
In 1966, Penrose Halson, then 25, was sent by her mother to the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau. She didn’t find a husband but registered again in 1981 when she was 40. She finally met her future husband, Bill Halson, while searching for a lodger, and in 1986 they bought the Katharine Allen Bureau and got married two years later. wearing suitable for the wedding of the tall bride
In 1992, Heather Jenner’s daughter asked Penrose to look after her clients who were then incorporated into the Katharine Allen Bureau, which was sold in 2000. It closed two years later as the internet began to impact on personal introduction agencies.
‘Here’s a dilemma!’ lamented Mary, after they left.
‘Cedric is the answer on so many levels but it would be like throwing a Christian to the lions. I’d feel like a cold-blooded murderess!’
So Grizelda was invited to return on her own and they were both taken aback. She said that much as though she loved her father and Mrs R, she felt crushed by their anxious concerns.
‘I am perfectly capable!’ she exploded, ‘and I should love to run an establishment and have a husband, though not one who fusses over me as if I’m a fragile flower.
'My father is the darlingest of men but he cannot see that I am a cactus.
'I should adore to go back to Malaya and as long as he’s not a lunatic or a savage, I don’t care what my husband is.’
Flabbergasted, Mary organised an introduction, and a day later was further stunned when Cedric telephoned to recount that he had been taken by the Hon Grizelda.
The minute they finished luncheon she had laid down her terms for the marriage: she would retain her title and the vast sums of money she would inherit.
She would, if necessary, make her husband an allowance. They would marry immediately and return to Malaya. She would manage their house and entertain lavishly.
Her father and his new wife would be in the vicinity. She would do all in her power to produce a son and heir. Was Cedric content with the proposal? He had capitulated.
Torn between laughter and tears, Mary repeated to Heather Grizelda’s matter-of-fact summary of their meeting: ‘Cedric is ravishingly good looking, the most sensational man I have ever set eyes on and I am not at all attractive, I know.
'But I have what he wants. So you see, we are equal. And whenever I’m fed up with him I shall simply sit and stare at him.’
From Marriages Are Made in Bond Street: True Stories From a 1940s Marriage Bureau, which were published by Macmillan on 24 March 2016.