Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Q&A with Penrose Halson

Penrose Halson is the author of the new book The Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London. Her other books include Happily Ever After. She has been a matchmaker, teacher, editor, and writer, and she lives in London.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you research it?

A: From 1986-2000 I ran a marriage bureau, introducing people to potential husbands and wives. I interviewed every potential client, listening to tales of their often chequered past, their present situation and their longings for the future.

As a match-maker, I had a unique insight into the joys and sorrows, the hilarity and the depression, of the quest for a mate. And I had been there myself: when I was 25 (in those days, dangerously close to being “on the shelf”), my determined mother had despatched me to a marriage bureau.

I always admired my clients for not sitting at home and moaning about their single state, but for taking positive [action]. Even more admirable were the early clients of The Marriage Bureau, set up by two young women, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, in April 1939.

Half-close your eyes and imagine it is 1941. A pretty 24-year-old is sitting at a battered  wooden desk, in a tiny office high up in fashionable Bond Street, London. 

She listens as a thin, tense young man, gripping the desk, white-knuckled, is stuttering: “Please find me a wife. I’ve been called up to fight.   want a girl to write to and come home to after the war. Please help.”  “Of course,” smiles the young woman. “Tell me more.”

He pours out his story, she tells him she will contact a suitable young woman. He lets go of the desk, smiles, thanks her and leaves, full of hope. His boots scrunch on broken glass and bricks as he marches away from The Marriage Bureau. A bomb fell round the corner the night before, the air is still thick with filthy dust.

Such cameos – stories of happiness, tragedy, surprises, fun, set against a nightmarish background of war and its grim aftermath, made writing about the first 10 years of The Marriage Bureau irresistible.

In 1992 I took over the bureau, acquiring its archives: typescripts, notes, letters, enormous press cuttings books, old ledgers, photographs, wedding telegrams, five books by Heather and one co-written by Mary. They provided most of my material for The Marriage Bureau – The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London.

Some of the stories, of the setting up of the bureau and of individual clients, were already complete. Others I pieced together, sometimes amalgamating the beginning of one with the ending of another, and changing names to protect identities.

Mary Oliver, about whom there was very little information, took a great deal of research time, for she was in fact Audrey Mary Parsons, the daughter not of a parson, as she purported to be, but of a farmer named Mr. Parsons.

For background to the times I researched in contemporary novels and documents, history books, websites, archive collections and the memories of elderly friends. My research was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, finding the pieces which would fit together to make a whole. 

Q: Of all the stories you tell in the book, is there one that's a particular favorite?

A: This is almost impossible to answer - I found them all totally engrossing (and there are many others, equally riveting, which could have been included only in a book twice as long!).  

I still laugh when I re-read the funny ones, such as Miss Bud and her bust bodices (Chapter 11, Sex, Tragedy, Success and Bust Bodices) and feel a pang for Martha, who was raped (also Chapter 11). But if I have to choose one, it is the poignant story from Chapter 17, Loneliness and Heartbreak.

Archibald Bullin-Archer, from an upper-class family to whose standards of success he does not conform, is introduced by Dorothy Harbottle, a middle-aged, tender-hearted interviewer at the marriage bureau, to Ivy Bailey. 

Miss Harbottle knows they are right for each other, although Ivy is only a shop assistant, of a lower class. Archie and Ivy, both modest, shy, sensitive, inexperienced, and crushingly lonely, do indeed rejoice in one another, and decide to marry. They announce their engagement to his parents. 

Ivy wrote later:

Mrs Bullin-Archer snapped “It is quite impossible that a Bullin-Archer should marry a salesgirl. Now take her away, Archibald, and let us have no more of this nonsense.”  

“Your mother is right,” Mr Bullin-Archer boomed, in a terrible exploding voice. “The idea is ludicrous. I am sure that Miss Bailey will see sense, will you not, Miss Bailey?” He took a step toward me and I almost feared he would hit me. “As  your mother says,” he carried on to Archie, “take her away and keep out of our sight until you have got over this stupid nonsense. Goodbye.”

Knowing that life without Ivy will be unbearable, but that if they marry, his parents will create hell for them, Archie hangs himself from a lamp-post.

Miss Harbottle mothers poor Ivy (whose entire family and some friends had been killed in a wartime air raid), and gradually restores her.  The last we know is that a nice man Ivy works with invites her out, and the thrilled young woman asks her matchmaker “Oh Miss Harbottle, whatever shall I wear?”!

Q: How unusual was this type of matchmaking service (or matchmaking in general) in the World War II era?

A: There had been a few – I don’t know how many – small, local, short-lived matchmaking services before the War. They were run by a woman, from her own home. The Marriage Bureau was the first to have a proper office, to become widely known, and to endure (until 2000). 

Other agencies, largely modelled on The Marriage Bureau, started to spring up during the War, and  by the late 1940s there were several, including dubious organisations more interested in making money than satisfying their clients. The great increase in divorce after the end of the War in 1945 fuelled demand.

Two of the best known were run by former colonels, who wanted to set up a Marriage Agents Association whose members would conform to a code of professional conduct (see Chapter 19, A Chapter of Accidents and Designs).

Heather Jenner was involved in the initial discussions, but refused to join largely because she felt that all agencies should do as The Marriage Bureau: charge a relatively small initial Registration Fee, plus a larger After Marriage Fee to those who married through an introduction. 

Other agencies charged only a Registration Fee which, Heather felt, meant that the agency had no incentive to find a truly suitable partner, but might simply keep dishing out introductions, suitable or not.

Q: How would you compare the Marriage Bureau to today's dating services?

A: The essential difference is that The Marriage Bureau’s service was profoundly personal, while the internet, which must [be] the major provider of dating services, is purely mechanical. 

There are still some agencies run by matchmakers who interview their clients and keep in touch with them, a procedure which to some extent resembles that of The Marriage Bureau.

Their criteria are looser (inevitably, since so are the times): they can accept clients who are not necessarily wanting a partner for marriage, or even for a permanent relationship (The Marriage Bureau was dedicated exclusively to finding suitable husbands and wives, and would not register anyone who was separated – i.e. still legally married). 

The internet is looser still, since there is no check on what people say about themselves, or on the images they put up.  It is much easier to lie to a machine than to a person sitting in front of you.

A skilled and trustworthy matchmaker, as pioneered from 1939 by Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, offers something which no machine can. 

She (very seldom He) is an ally, acting entirely on the side of the client but dispassionate – and able to make introductions which may result in friendship and even marriage. She has the ability to listen empathetically, and so to “read” beneath the client’s spoken words, and sometimes to uncover what the client really needs. 

A simple example: an older widower nearly always think that life after his wife’s death will start again with a much younger second wife. She will not die before him. But a woman of 45 does not want to marry a man of 70 (unless she is a gold-digger). 

A clever matchmaker will introduce him to a few younger women, knowing it will not be a success, before introducing him to a woman much nearer his own age, with whom he has a lot in common (and who is unlikely to predecease him, since women usually live longer than men).

The matchmaker wants to know her client’s reactions to the people she introduces, in order to build a developing picture of the sort of person who will suit. 

The client can report any problems too: if there is any cause for suspicion, the matchmaker is able to remove a client from her register.  And a lasting friendship often develops between matchmaker and client, even if no marriage results.

The internet, apps, etc., can and certainly often do produce the right person. There is a never-ending supply of people among whom you may find just the one for you. There is much more choice than through a matchmaker. But it is a lonely and sometimes dangerous route. If you take it, keep a friend informed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Being not at all technologically adept, I am trying to understand how to deal with websites, Twitter, Facebook and the like! And other methods of telling people about The Marriage Bureau, in the USA and Canada as well as the U.K., where it is published as Marriages Are Made in Bond Street. 
The book is in development for television, and should that happen (fingers crossed), there may be interest in a follow-on book.

I am fascinated by the evolution of marriage bureaux, and have decades of archives; but am currently waiting and seeing; and spending more time on my husband Bill’s Victorian music hall shows, put on by the Players’ Theatre (there’s an acount of a wartime show in Chapter 15, Picot and Dorothy Hold the Fort) and the City Livery Company, the Worshipful Company of Turners, of which I was the first Lady Master. 

Turning is a wonderful craft, producing stunningly beautiful objects turned on a lathe, mainly from wood but also from jet, semi-precious stones, glass, bone, porcelain – even recycled vending machine cups.

Bill and I are in touch with many former clients, some happily married, some still searching, I reflect on the children of “my” marriages, working out who Janie, aged 10, should meet about 15 years from now. A matchmaker never stops!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It depends what you would like to know. I’m happy to answer questions. There is more information here

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. I am curious. What happened to Mary Oliver? Did she find happiness in America?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ruth--I will try to find out for you!

    2. Hi Ruth. I found out some more information for you from Penrose Halson. She married an American who may have worked for General Motors, and after he died, she married another American. She had no children, and she died in the U.S. Her real name was Audrey Mary Parsons. Apparently it was difficult to find out a lot of information about her!