During a recent tour of New Broadcasting House I saw a large freize of people who had been influencial in the early days of the BBC. Lord Reith of course but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of women featured. One, in particular stood out; Hilda Matheson. In 1927, Hilda Matheson became the BBC’s first Director of Talks. Head-hunted by Lord Reith, having worked for several years as Nancy Astor’s political secretary. Hilda was the first to realise that there is a specific art to talking on the radio and transformed the broadcasting of the spoken word, and in doing so hugely raised the profile of the BBC and was the first woman to write a book on broadcasting.
In effect, it was Hilda Matheson who founded BBC radio journalism and was responsible for laying down the foundations of qualitative cultural programming. Her championing of modernity and critisism of the sexist environment within the BBC created tension and led to her resignation over censorship of a talk on James Joyce.
She was a left wing patriot, and played a key role in the development of MI5 during the First World War, and , with the outbreak of the Second World War, she continued to work for the secret services.
She was responsible for the mammoth African Survey even though a man, Lord Hailey, took all the credit.
She championed poets, literature and qualitative radio as well as setting out the course for an independent BBC radio news gathering culture. The Week in Westminster, which she initiated in1929, was originally aimed at educating newly enfranchised women about the workings of parliament, with all the speakers being female MPs.
Hilda had a passionate relationship with Vita Sackville-West but later had a long term realtionship with Dorothy Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington, who herself had left her husband for Vita in 1922. Until her death, Hilda lived at “Rocks Farm” in the grounds of Dorothy’s house in the Sussex village of Withyham called “Penns-in-the-Rocks”.
Hilda was what would now be called a workaholic and her commitment to her work and to the notion of public service undermined her health. She died during a routine thyroid operation in 1940, aged just 52.
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