By-ways of Administration 

11 May 2017

By-ways of the BBC


Few visitors to Broadcasting House see anything of its first floor, though they may know that most of its west side is occupied by the General Office, and all its east side by the Registry (the filing office and post room). But both places have as big a share in the activity of the building as has any one studio.

The “G.O.”, as the London staff calls the General Office, is the base of the women clerical staff. Though the majority of the women clerks at Broadcasting House work in the departments to which they are attached, they have all passed through the General Office, and to it, when circumstances make a reshuffle necessary, they may return. About fifty girls work in the General Office itself. Their desks are divided into two groups of orderly rows, the groups facing each other across the middle of the room. The notable things of the room are its ceiling, which has been specially treated with sound-absorbent material, and its typewriters, not one of which is noiseless.

In the space between the groups of desks is the cubby-hole of the General Office Supervisor, who is not only concerned with questions of recruitment, training, and supervision, but is regarded throughout the building as an unofficial enquiry bureau for queries about office routine.

At the head of all the BBC’s women staff is the Women Staff Administrator. The working lives of some 909 women — 691 in London and 218 in the provincial offices — are her responsibility. There are, too, the senior members of the women staff, approximately eighty-five in number, but the Administrator’s connexion with them is principally in an advisory capacity.

Space has been found on the first floor for two rooms closely associated with the “G.O.”: the “school” in which new recruits to the clerical staff receive their initiation into the specialised office routine of the BBC, and the Matron’s Surgery (though it should be added that the use of the surgery and the Matron’s services is the prerogative of all staff, men or women).

A sound-absorbing ceiling is a feature of the General Office at Broadcasting House

Careful consideration has obviously been given to the conditions under which the General Office typists work. Complaints of bad light or faulty ventilation are few, I was told. Elsewhere in the building each girl has her own locker, with its individual key. Work permitting, the typists are granted a break in the morning for coffee; afternoon tea is served to their desks, the girls taking turns in “pouring out.”

Next to the row of windows that overlooks Portland Place sit the copying typists, who devote themselves exclusively to the work of typing talks, play-scripts, and similar MSS. About fifteen talks each day come to the General Office for typing — many of them wanted the same day. One typist can get through three of the talks, representing 7,200 words, in the working day, and before the typescripts are sent to the official concerned each is checked by the university-trained girl employed for the purpose.

Opening the mail: a machine slits approximately fifty envelopes per minute

But that is only one part of the “G.O.’s” daily work. Typing — ninety minutes are allowed for it — no fewer than four news bulletins of the previous evening, addressing envelopes (the thousands required to cover the acknowledgments of applications for advertised staff vacancies are an example of the demands that this duty makes upon the resources of the “G.O.”), supplying typists to take the place of “isolated” girls temporarily absent, and giving clerical service wherever it is needed, are the other jobs of every day.

For fifteen hours out of the twenty-four (two stenographers are on duty each evening) the clatter of typewriters is heard on the first floor. Perhaps because of the ceiling, perhaps because of the “G.O.’s” atmosphere of happy efficiency, the noise is more cheerful than irritating. Anyway, the typists seem to like it. Their chief told me that, apart from those leaving to be married, the number of resignations is negligible….

Filing and indexing an uncountable number of papers, opening and sorting the 500,000 letters received a year, stamping, booking, and despatching eight or more sacks of mail a day proved too much for the floor space originally allotted to Registry — the pressure of expansion knocked down a wall and engulfed the first-floor conference room, then pushed away another wall and absorbed the corridor. Now Registry is limited by the two ends of the building and the wall of the studio tower.

To talk to the supervisor of the Registry is to hear the story of the growth of the BBC in terms of office administration. Years ago a small room and a staff of eleven girls were sufficient to cope with the filing of Savoy Hill, then the BBC’s headquarters. Now the supervisor is responsible for a female staff of thirty-three and a male staff of forty in the Head Office Registry, for sub-registries at the television station at Alexandra Palace and in the Publications Department at Marylebone, for the overseeing of the registries at the six regional centres.

The male staff, consisting mostly of boys, deals only with the post — internal, incoming, outgoing — of Broadcasting House and of the departments that work in offices adjacent to the main building. At 8.30 each morning a number of clerks come early to work (an hour in advance of the rest of the staff) to open and sort the first postal delivery. A machine actually slits the envelopes, at the rate of approximately fifty letters per minute. Members of the Registry staff are present to take care — and special care — of manuscripts and musical scores; they also attach the relevant papers to letters referring to previous correspondence.

During the day the post-boys (the term smacks of the stagecoach rather than the studio!) visit offices every forty-five minutes, delivering to “In-trays,” collecting from “Out-trays.” The one thing that marks the BBC’s boys from most other office boys is that they don’t lick stamps — a machine does that for them, at the rate of seventy letters each minute. And another machine licks the envelopes — seventy-five of them a minute.

Among the mass of material that comes to Registry each day are the letters received by the BBC from listeners to the Empire programmes. Before it reaches its final home, each of these letters makes a long tour of Broadcasting House, visiting every official and department concerned with the preparation and transmission of the programmes from Daventry. The listener who writes frequently has his own personal file; the letters of the less-frequent correspondents are clipped together under a red seal. These “personal” groups of papers in turn are filed under country headings — a scheme that was adopted because it enables the programme officials and engineers to consider at once the weight of opinion expressed by any particular part of the Empire.

One cannot visit the BBC’s Registry without becoming aware of the large stacks of drawers in which the index-cards are kept. Everything filed is noted in that index — it is the signpost to correspondence dated 1926 as well as to that of 1938 — and no one knows how many thousands of cards there are in it.




It is probably quite unoriginal to say that life in the BBC is largely a matter of forms — somebody must have said it before. There are over 1,700 of them. But to see the internal activity of the Corporation is to admit the necessity for them: were the thousands of essential records, returns, analytical statements, to be prepared without the simplifying help of the standard form, the complicated life of a fully-occupied staff would become a thing of horror.

Supplying these forms — and the duplicating of play-scripts, of the minutes of meetings, of programmes, bulletins, announcements for the Press, of synopses and announcer’s duty sheets, and of menus and studio allocations, all subject to last-minute alterations and many the tasks of every day — is the work of a staff of thirty, called the Duplicating Section.

A member of the Duplicating Section in her floral overall

It has been in existence since the Savoy Hill days of British broadcasting and the original staff and equipment comprised one girl and one machine. Now there are twenty-seven girls (the remaining three are boys), seven duplicators (three electric), three electric addressing machines, four rotary and one lithograph printing machines, varied founts of type. All are always busy. To the Section comes every requisition for duplicated material that may be required anywhere in the Corporation (with the exception of small jobs that can more conveniently be done by the machines at the provincial offices), and with every requisition comes a request for immediate delivery. Time is the Section’s greatest enemy. And because there are only sixty minutes in anybody’s hour, the Section always has at least thirty jobs on the waiting list.

As I have indicated, the Section is equipped to produce printed matter. Index cards, forms, standard letters, notices, internal memorandum paper, schedules (coming under the last heading are the schedules of transmissions familiar to many listeners to the Empire programmes) are all “set-up” by hand and “run-off” on the premises. The volume of work handled by the “printing” staff of the Section is well illustrated by the fact that during a period of six weeks no fewer than 50,000 memorandum forms were printed. Had other equally urgent work permitted, the job would have been a matter of hours, not weeks, for the rotary printing machines have an output of 4,800 copies an hour.

Another room is devoted to the orthodox duplicating machines and to the assembling table, at which girls collate material of more than one page and, if necessary, bind it.

One finds thought for the staff and evidence of a sense of humour in the Duplicating Section: the machine operators are distinguished from other women on the BBC’s staff by the pretty floral overalls with which they are provided, and the supervisor has designed a form for the requisitioning of forms!

Though the Duplicating staff spend their working days handling rapidly-revolving machines, they share in the good fortune that the BBC as a whole has enjoyed: comparative freedom from any form of injury. Jammed fingers and cut hands are rare. Were any minor injury to occur, treatment can at once be obtained.

The BBC’s Matron at work in her surgery

Ever since Broadcasting House was occupied in 1932, the staff has had available the services of a fully-qualified Matron and nurse and a well-equipped surgery. An idea of the work that “Matron” has done, and the value placed upon her services by the staff is shown by her records: in one year she gave 4,545 treatments — 2,518 to women, 2,027 to men. But use of the surgery is in no way compulsory.

It exists to provide advice and treatment for minor ailments. If a member of the staff, feeling unwell, consults the Matron, authority to send her patient home, and to advise the taking of medical advice, are within her discretion. If the patient’s trouble is obviously slight, she herself may dispense treatment, after which, if no improvement is apparent, she suggests a consultation with the doctor. Staff returning to work after illness frequently visit the surgery for some friendly advice.

The nature of the BBC’s work probably accounts for the infrequency of accidents within the building, but what is more remarkable is that, despite the thousands of people in the building each day — anyone at Broadcasting House, whether staff, artists, visitors, or casual messengers, may receive Matron’s attention, of course — there have been only two or three cases of collapse through sudden illness. And even faints are uncommon. The surgery stretcher, I was told, has been used only once.

Nevertheless, were such unhappy emergencies more common, there are adequate facilities for dealing with them. The services of a doctor can be called upon at short notice; a friendly arrangement with an adjacent hospital is in existence.

Arrangements exist, also, for the free inoculation of the staff against the common cold. Until recently, it was necessary for the person desiring inoculation to visit a local hospital, but now even that is unnecessary: a doctor attends the Broadcasting House surgery for the purpose. In the first months of the winter of 1938, nearly 100 members of the staff have taken advantage of the opportunity that the arrangement offers.

Another part of the surgery’s work is designed to be of help to the office boys and pages, upon whom Matron keeps an eagle eye. Many of them are between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, and suffer from the effects of too-rapid growth. For these, Matron prescribes fresh milk, and the boys concerned attend at her surgery each day, for as long as may be necessary, to get it — free.

The bright, reassuring atmosphere of the BBC’s surgery must do much to help those who use it. Though there are the usual white cabinets and bowls and trays of gleaming instruments, there are curtains of soft green over the windows, bowls of interesting cacti on the sills, flowers in Matron’s cubicle, linoleum of a quietly cheerful pattern on the floor.

The rest rooms adjoining the surgery are places of colour and comfort. And the wheel-chair that is so rarely used is covered with gaily-coloured cretonne.




On the seventh floor at Broadcasting House works a band of twenty-six people each of whom has tamed memory and made it her very obedient servant. They are the operators of the telephone switchboard — in other words, “PBX” — and their capacity for mentally recording tiny, involved detail is almost awe-compelling.

For consider: the telephone exchange is connected with 650 extensions. At the end of each of those extensions there may be two, four, six, or more members of the staff. The extension numbers, the names of the officials they serve, are memorised. Changes of office accommodation are frequent, and at each change each operator has to perform a complicated feat of mental dexterity: because Mr. Brown, who has moved into Mr. Smith’s office, expects his old number to be forgotten as far as he is concerned, and his name to be remembered in place of Mr. Smith’s. Likewise Mr. Brown’s secretary, and likewise Mr. Smith and his secretary, who have taken over the room that Mr. Robinson once occupied. Mr. Robinson — but let us hope, for the sake of the Private Branch Exchange, that Mr. Robinson has been transferred to one of the Regional centres.

That is only one aspect of the switchboard’s job. BBC offices are situated at several points throughout London and though most of these have their own private branch exchanges, they are all connected to Broadcasting House by private lines. Consequently, the operators in the main building must remember who works at the television station at Alexandra Palace, in the Equipment Department at Clapham, in the Research Department at Balham, at the Maida Vale studios. Certain of the high officials have private lines to their houses; many of the staff, for business reasons, are on the telephone at home — circumstances that give further work for memory.

Figures speak eloquently of the volume of work handled at the switchboard of Welbeck 4468. There are sixty-five exchange lines associated with that number and there are times when every one of the sixty-five is in use, and Welbeck 4468 is “engaged.” Each day those lines carry to Broadcasting House an average of 1,850 calls, and 1,900 from it. At times of crises, the figures reflect the increased pressure of activity within the building: on one day during the 1938 crisis outgoing calls totalled 2,364.

In October, 1938, the switchboard dealt with 79,588 local calls, incoming and outgoing; the total for the same month of 1937 was 73,368. In the first year of its existence — 1923 — the BBC’s Head Office made 25,000 local calls and received 20,000; in 1937, it made 474,450, and 375,000 people rang it up. Those figures represent only calls within the London telephone area; trunk-calls (with which one operator is exclusively concerned), toll calls, telegrams (which initially are received by telephone and taken down by the operator) come in the category of “other business.”

Is it surprising that the six switchboard positions that were installed when Broadcasting House came into being have grown to twelve? Or that, of the staff of twenty-six, no fewer than twenty-three, working in shifts, actually handle the plugs and keys? And soon an additional girl will be on duty. At present, “PBX” goes off duty on weekdays at midnight and on Sundays an hour earlier —though at whatever hour of night you telephone Broadcasting House, you will always be answered.

Telephone Exchange

The remaining three members of the “PBX” staff are the Supervisor and two assistants. The Supervisor described to me another aspect of her work :—

“Every day — and especially at times of important happenings – we have hundreds of enquiries from listeners. People telephone to ask us to settle wagers, to find out the wavelengths of oversea transmitters and the correct pronunciation of disputed words, and, of course, to learn the results of sporting events. We try to satisfy them all, with the exception of the last — in no circumstances do we repeat news.

“Some of the posers set us have little to do with the business of broadcasting. For example, one enquirer asked us for the name of Queen Elizabeth’s mother, another wanted to know the name of the capital of Turkey, and somebody else had forgotten of what the seven wonders of the world consisted! As the majority of these queries reach us after office hours, responsibility for an accurate answer falls upon the operators who receive them. Frequently, we are the listener’s first means of contact with the BBC, and so do our utmost, of course, to meet the demands of every voice we hear — even of those who have forgotten the name of the official to whom they should be connected, but refuse to tell us what they want because ‘it’s none of your business!’”

Fortunately for this official and her versatile staff, the BBC has its own house system of automatic telephones, operated in the usual way — i.e., the “internal numbers” of the various officials are “dialled,” and the “tones” — “ringing,” “engaged,” or “out of service” — are heard.

Telephones on the system number 700 main instruments and about 450 parallel instruments. Some of the extensions, of course, are in BBC offices outside Broadcasting House (but in its immediate vicinity), the respective buildings being connected by cables rented from the British Post Office. Between Broadcasting House and the Publications Department at Marylebone, however, run four tie-lines, the Marylebone offices having their own automatic switchboard, with which communication must first be established — by dialling “O” — before the number of the official required is dialled. In addition, certain senior members of the staff are provided with inter-communication facilities, whereby they can ring each other by pressing a button instead of dialling.

How essential the internal telephone system is to the smooth running of the broadcasting service is well illustrated by the use it receives: the average number of calls each day is 11,000.




“An Empire product” is a merited description of the Council Chamber at the BBC’s headquarters. To its making went British craftsmanship, for its design and decorative scheme; Tasmanian oak, for the panelling of its walls; Queensland walnut, for its tables.

It is a dignified, impressive room, designed by G. Val Myer, the architect of Broadcasting House. He placed it in the nose — or the “bows” — of the building above the Entrance Hall, the outline of which it follows. Its windows, by the way, are not the windows that you see from the street: each window of the Council Chamber has a twin in the exterior wall. And, because the room must be sound-proof, the Council Chamber is artificially ventilated. It is also artificially illuminated, by light shining through squares of glass in the ceiling, and reflected from wall-lamps concealed in wrought-oak urns.

Those who use the Council Chamber use furniture designed for it by Raymond McGrath, B.Arch., A.R.I.B.A., who was retained by the BBC as Decoration Consultant when Broadcasting House was built. In shape, the tables that he has given the room follow the curve of the outer wall.

And those who use the room are many. Here, under its chairman, Lord Macmillan, meets the General Advisory Council of the BBC, the body that advises the BBC on matters relating to programmes, general policy, and the like. Service on the Council brings to the Council Chamber people distinguished in many walks of life: Mr. George Robey, the Rt. Hon. David Lloyd George, Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir Walter Citrine, Sir William Bragg, the Marquess of Lothian, and Miss Grace E. Hadow, for example. The Council Chamber, too, is the meeting-place of the Central Religious Advisory Committee, under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Winchester, and of other bodies such as the Central Council for School Broadcasting, the Spoken English Committee, and the Music and Appeals Advisory Committees.

Representatives of the Press meet in the Council Chamber for the Press Conferences that are held from time to time by the BBC; the room is the scene of the meetings of the Council of the BBC Club, over which the Director-General presides, and of divisional and liaison meetings of Corporation officials.

Somewhere behind the statue of Prospero and Ariel that identifies Broadcasting House as surely as Big Ben identifies the Daventry transmissions is the Council Chamber’s fireplace, with the room’s clock in its mantel. A genuine fireplace, this, complete with chimney flue, and one of the only two in Broadcasting House. (The other is in the Director-General’s office.) But no fire has ever been, or, I gather, ever will be, lit in it. Heat must come from the efficient radiators that lie behind ornamental grills.

The fireplace serves, too, as a fitting foundation for the only picture in the room. In subject it repeats the Prospero and Ariel theme, and its creator is a woman, Miss Eleanour Fortescue Brickdale. Opposite the fireplace, over the chairman’s seat, is a representation, coloured blue, green, silver, and brilliant gold, of the Corporation’s coat-of-arms. The representation is a striking example of the artistry of George Kruger Gray, A.R.C.A., F.S.A., famous as a designer and painter of all kinds of heraldic work. South Africa, Northern Rhodesia, and Nova Scotia, especially, should know him: he designed the official seals of each and the coinage of the Union as well as the silver coinage of Southern Rhodesia. The collar of the Order of the British Empire and the New Imperial Silver Coinage are also his work.

There are other places in Broadcasting House where “the spoken word” is also supreme; but those places are equipped with microphones. What would happen if a microphone were to stray into the Council Chamber is food for thought.



About the author

Wilfred Goatman began working at the British Broadcasting Company’s station 5WA in Swansea, where his was the first voice heard on air. He later worked in the Public Relations Department at Broadcasting House in London. These articles were originally written as features for BBC Empire Broadcasting magazine under the pen-name “J. C. MacLennan”, and all nine were collected into the book By-ways of the BBC, published in late 1938 by P.S. King & Son.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Wednesday 22 May 2024