Decades before Match, OkCupid, and Tinder, there existed the Marriage Bureau in London, offering the unorthodox — some might say scandalous — services of finding clients their future husband or wife. War loomed large and single young men were posted abroad in the British colonies; when they came home on leave, they didn’t have time to find a proper date — much less their future wife — before returning to duty. And though times were changing and more women were entering the workforce, a lot of young women still lived at home and lived under their parents’ rule. How would they ever find someone?
In The Marriage Bureau, Penrose Halson recounts the first ten years of the Bureau’s existence. A restless twenty-four-year-old named Mary Oliver visited her uncle in India. He told her that she should find a way to introduce the boys stationed there to some women when they went on leave; otherwise, they’d never find someone to marry. The idea stuck, and she brought it up with her friend Heather Jenner, a beautiful socialite who had already been divorced and was intrigued by the idea. They forged ahead with their eccentric plan and ended up charming the media in their favor. With the publicity, they suddenly found their “mating” services in high demand even through terrifying times like the London blitz.
The Marriage Bureau charged a reasonable membership fee that made it possible for people from all backgrounds to participate. Members were carefully interviewed and then filed according to class and interests, then introduced to potential matches. If a couple got married, they would then pay a larger After Marriage Fee, so Jenner and her staff had an incentive to make good matches. They had the results to show for it.
There were a couple of times where I gave the book the side-eye and had to remind myself that these were reasonably well-to-do women starting a business in 1939 and that some of the things they said reflected that era:
They have no vision, no imagination — not even common sense!…We have good money to pay, but hey jumped like March hares when we uttered the fearsome words ‘marriage bureau.’ Anyone would think we are intending to open a backstreet gambling den or white-slave bureau!
That said, many of the chapters offer a fascinating look at some of the Bureau’s matches. They worked with everyone from wealthy people with titles to working class people to returning soldiers who were disfigured in war. There were some heartbreaking stories as well, such as one desperate woman who may have gotten pregnant by her sweetheart, who was immediately killed in action, or by the stranger who raped her shortly after as she was trying to rescue a baby from a building that was on the verge of collapse after being bombed; could the Bureau please help her find a man who would save her from the shame of being such a damaged woman with an illegitimate child?
At the end of the book, the author includes some of the requests that clients had from 1939-1949.
Some of the women’s requirements:
- Broad-minded. Should drink, smoke and be capable of swearing.
- Dark, not very good-looking. Large poultry farmer, accountant, civil engineer, solicitor, or other good profession.
- No racial hatred.
- Not amorous.
- Someone born in February or May.
- Man who will cherish a large woman.
- Pref. one who can darn his own socks.
Some of the men’s requirements:
- Must be pretty or attractive facially and the only essential qualification: must have only one leg.
- Non-smoker, little make-up, tidy appearance, prefer non-driver.
- Must be interested in sex.
- No one who has been left on the shelf.
- Servant or nanny type.
- Someone I can fall in love with. I am very lonely.
- I am not particular if she is respectable and healthy.
Even though there many somber war-time stories, the book as a whole is entertaining and fast-paced. Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner were ages ahead of their time, and their Bureau still exists (kind of): it merged with the author’s bureau in 1992. If you’re looking for a lighthearted read, this is one to try.
The Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London was released in the U.S. by William Morrow in May 2017. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.