The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson Highlights a Little-Known Aspect of London’s History


Sometimes in this age of internet dating it’s difficult to remember that there was a time when people met their life partners through other means. But pre-internet, it wasn’t all personal introductions or chance encounters either. In 1938, two 24-year-old women established the “Marriage Bureau” in London in response to the premise that scores of men serving in British colonies needed a way to meet their future wives when they returned to England for short visits. However the Marriage Bureau almost immediately began helping people from all walks of life make their match.

In her wonderfully penned non-fiction book, The Marriage Bureau, Penrose Halson tells the story of this enterprise and its founders. I asked her whether she thought WHEN the bureau was established had anything to do with its success.

“It is difficult to speculate about whether The Marriage Bureau would have flourished, or even survived, had it opened a few years earlier [than 1938],” Halson says. “Heather [Jenner, one of the founders] in particular had a wide range of connections, so it is possible that by constant lobbying, the bureau might have built up a sufficient clientele – though a far less socially varied one than it in fact attracted.”

She goes on to explain that “in 1938-39 the imminence of war hugely affected the social climate in Great Britain. Uncertainty and anxiety about the future pervaded. People feared losing their family, neighbours, friends, job, home, health and even their life. Single people felt increasingly isolated and lonely. Single young women feared a recurrence of the dearth of possible husbands after World War I: thousands of men of marriageable age had been killed, and many of the survivors were physically and/or mentally severely damaged.

“War is an aphrodisiac: lovers seize the moment since it may be their last; boys are forced to become men; death makes people want to create new life. People’s longing for a personal ally, someone to correspond with, have children with, and with luck return to after the war, was fertile ground for The Marriage Bureau.”

When the press became interested in the unique business in 1939 (a much-needed relief to the reports on the almost inevitable war), clients from many different backgrounds sought out the services of The Marriage Bureau, including, Halson points out, rat catchers, herdswomen, railway porters, and trapeze artists.

Although the Bureau’s founders, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, initially managed on their own, they received so much business that they eventually needed to hire secretaries and other “interviewers”, who were essentially the match-makers. By 1943, Mary was out of the picture, moving to the United States. As I read the book it seemed to me that she faded away rather suddenly so I asked Halson about this. She tells me that she “researched ‘Mary Oliver’ extensively and unsuccessfully.” (Quotations added because she did discover that Mary was born someone else altogether.)  . . . “Why she left The Marriage Bureau is unlikely ever to be known, since Heather Jenner and anyone else of the period is long dead. Heather’s daughter, who took over the bureau, does not know; but told me that her mother often fell out with people (she was an extremely strong character) so perhaps the two partners argued, at a time when Mary was becoming involved with the American Red Cross in London and, quite possibly, with her future husband too.

“The wartime background may have precipitated her departure – nothing was certain or reliable.  And she must have been as dragged down as many Londoners by living and working in the thick of the Blitz – just walking to and from her flat in Piccadilly to the office in Bond Street every day would have been a draining and dangerous experience.”

Penrose Halson has unique insight into the story and workings of The Marriage Bureau because she and her husband Bill bought the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau in 1986, and six years later took over The Marriage Bureau’s client list, at the request of Heather Jenner’s daughter, combining the two businesses. Halson’s first interaction with the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau was as a client: in 1966, her mother sent her there to see founder Betty Allen-Andrews in the hope that Halson would find someone to marry.

“Being interviewed by Betty made a lasting impression on me,” Halson shares. “She poured out a large glass of sherry (as she did for all clients, whatever the time of day) and asked what sort of man I wanted to meet: single/widowed/divorced?  With/without/wanting to have children?  . . . .  She was friendly but firm, said I should watch my weight as my midriff was not attractive, gave me a diet sheet, and sent me away chastened but thoughtful.

“The highly personal, individual nature of the service Betty gave, including sound advice, remained in my mind, as too did the feeling of having failed because of not having found a spouse in “the usual way”.  The experience of being a client stood me in good stead later on.”

The inevitable question left in my mind after finishing The Marriage Bureau was: Can match-making help to build lasting relationships, more so perhaps than today’s online dating or the traditional meeting someone by chance?

Halson responds: “This is a truly fascinating question, to which any answer is completely unproveable!

“A skilled match-maker unites two people who, most critically, share values. . . . However, a couple who share the same values will not necessarily find satisfaction and happiness in marriage. If both place great importance on worldly success, and disaster strikes – they lose all their money and possessions – they may well fall apart. They would have been well matched for the good times, but not for the bad. A couple whose aims are more modest stands a much better chance of dealing with adversity and surviving.

“Although highly intuitive a match-maker is not psychic, so cannot predict problems. But I think the process of match-making can indeed help to build a lasting relationship. The match-maker adds a small but positive dimension: she (sometimes he) is an ally, who knows and understands the background of both members of the couple, and has a knowledge not shared by anyone else of how they came together. The match-maker receives confidences that are given to nobody else. This shared, very private knowledge acts as a bond.

“. . . A good reason for the strength of match-made marriages is the fact that clients were prepared to invest time and money in finding a spouse; and they had the courage to go for an interview, and put their trust in a stranger. Almost none of this applies to online dating or chance meetings.”


About the contributor: Claire Morris is the web features editor for the Historical Novel Society. She served as the managing editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.

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