Saturday 19 January 2019

Mary Kenny: The mating game

Old marriage bureau guidelines are still relevant for the Tinder generation

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Matchmaking today is done often via the internet - often successfully too - but previously, it was the job of the matchmakers either in person or through "marriage bureaux". London's best-known - and first official - marriage agency was started by Heather Jenner and her business partner Audrey Parsons in 1939 and the archives they left behind are a priceless record of how men and women looked for partners over the next decade.

As soon as they opened for business, letters flooded in from both sexes. The men might be in some form of overseas service and were starved of female company. The women were often desperate not to be "left on the shelf", or to escape from domineering families, who also wanted their daughters "off their hands".

Jenner and Parsons realised that despite this urgent desire for coupledom, people were often mismatched in eligibility (and many newspaper "lonely hearts" adverts at the time were fakes). So the art of matching one individual to another emerged. Later in life, when she had made over 3,000 marriages (and claimed that only two had failed), Heather Jenner set out her list of common ground to ensure maximum marital harmony: (1) social position (2) income (3) religion (4) nationality (5) age. Then, type of personality, health, interests, location, acceptance of a person's past life.

Sexual attraction wasn't listed, because the matchmakers insisted they were "not running a brothel": they were introducing individuals with a view to matrimony. But they believed that conjugal relations would work out "if friendship ripened into love".

Then (as perhaps now) the lists of requirements from people seeking mates were quirky, and often hilarious. Men's demands: "Attractive and chaste." "Beautiful girl with a big breast and lovely legs. Not had any men friends, nor been married before." "A plain, working-class girl." "No clinging vines." "Keen on golf would be a great asset. No one of high social standing." "Being illegitimate, I would like to meet someone who is the same." "NOT bossy, impatient or Socialist, NO bridge players. I hate 'rows' and sarcasm." "May wear glasses or be lame - I hate butterfly types."

Women's wish-lists were subtly different. "Someone interested in doing good in the world. Connected with church, schools, children, etc." "Someone with vision. I have £1,000 capital and will inherit a business…" "I don't mind how ugly." "A gentleman of respectability as I am very lonely." "A man who will talk to me." "A divorced man if it is not his fault." "Someone willing to marry an unmarried mother." "I would not object to a disabled man."

Having got on the books, applicants would be interviewed and fixed up with a series of dates. The matchmakers also made their own Tweet-like comments on their clients, which have also been preserved for history by Penrose Halson, who bought the original Heather Jenner business in 1986, and has now published the matchmakers' story, Marriages are Made in Bond Street - which is to be turned into a TV series by the makers of Downton Abbey.

Some male clients described: "Dear old boy, looks clean." "Terrible. Mad stare. Looks like hell." "Nice little man, v. sensitive about being bald." "Gent. Charming but impotent." "Very nice, honest-to-goodness, superior working-class." Female clients: "Shy mouse, pretty in elfin way." "Full of her own importance and breeding." "Ordinary, faded, only child of old parents (aged 26)." "V. direct, rather lesbian. Has had insides out." "Better education than most but seems an ass." "Was in a convent for 28 years." "Intelligent - too bloody bright." "BATS!"

When people gave feedback, each partner might render a different account. A young woman might judge her date "stuffy", while he considered her "flighty". Sometimes the matchmakers would give their clients advice. Heather Jenner warned a particular blabbermouth to stop boasting to new dates about her previous affairs (she had to be taken off the books as she couldn't stop).

Yet to their Bond Street marriage bureau came many touching stories of people just looking for love, or to whom fate had dealt a tough hand. Myrtle's case was one of the most compelling - being the only child of self- sacrificing parents who had died in a cholera outbreak in India and consigned to care for an elderly godparent in Cornwall. She had never had new clothes, didn't know what lingerie was and she was both naïve and vivacious.

She was so unworldly, she was a difficult match, but when an Anglo-Irish squire, farming a "ramshackle estate" alone wrote to say he was desperate for a lively wife to alleviate his solitary life (the "local Catholic girls were too bashful and shy"), Myrtle was introduced to him, and they lived happily ever after - she also found she was an heiress after the elderly godparent died.

The lives of people seven decades ago were so very different from today, although the same human yearnings surely prevail, and Heather Jenner's rule of shared interests and even shared social status are still probably applicable. Penrose Halson, experienced in the matchmaking business herself - and who happily married her husband, Bill, aged 48 - still believes many of the old guidelines remain helpful. Even in the era of the internet.


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