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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 14-Apr-16 11:25:50

The decline of the marriage bureau

The world of the marriage bureau is long gone - but is today's online dating so much worse? Author Penrose Halson argues that the lack of a friendly guide can make modern dating a perilous journey...

Penrose Halson

The decline of the marriage bureau

Posted on: Thu 14-Apr-16 11:25:49


Lead photo

"Many dating/introduction agencies faded away as internet dating took off"

In April 1939 two 24-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, set up a marriage bureau in Bond Street. Their intended clients were the thousands of lonely single men stuck out in India, Africa and other outposts of Empire, who saved up their leave to come to England and find a wife. After war broke out, in September 1939, fear, loneliness and desolation caused single people all over Great Britain to flock to the Bureau.

Clients were interviewed, paid a modest registration fee, and were matched according to their requirements: almost always someone of their own class, background and religion, honest, reliable and not penniless. Basic priorities were somewhere to live, enough money, food, furniture, a job. Clients were practical: Must be a good cook, able to make jam, dress poultry and rabbits. Must reside Yorkshire. Or Preferably good looks, golden hair and blue eyes. If not available, any decent type will do.

The interviewer asked questions: Would you meet an unmarried mother? Or a widow with children? Someone responsible for elderly parents, or other encumbrances? Would you let your wife work? Do you want to have children? Some women refused to meet a man with a war wound, or a divorcee (unless he was the plaintiff – so not his fault), or a bald man.

Clients were interviewed, paid a modest registration fee, and were matched according to their requirements: almost always someone of their own class, background and religion, honest, reliable and not penniless.

The Bureau sent to a woman a letter briefly describing a possible man. If she agreed, the Bureau wrote to the man, and the couple arranged to meet. If the meeting was unsuccessful, each client informed the Bureau, and another introduction was sent. When a marriage resulted, clients paid a second, After Marriage Fee. If dubious behaviour was reported to the Bureau, the client was removed from the books.

Thousands of marriages resulted, partly because clients' expectations were low. Today they are far higher: I require a woman who is slim and elegant, warm and gregarious, with a sense of humour as quirky as my own, a streak of dominance and a sense of adventure. It is important to my career that I can be proud to be seen with her.

At the click of a mouse, everyone now has access to a constant flow of potential partners. The anonymity of the internet allows people to post what they like about themselves, true or false. Among honest people with a genuine desire to find a permanent partner lurk fraudsters and worse. And there is nobody to monitor what goes on, no sympathetic and sharp-eyed interviewer to intervene when there are problems. It is a gamble, which can and does lead to happiness, but it is a lonely and sometimes perilous route, with no friendly guide.

There are no more dedicated marriage bureaux apart from a specialist few, e.g for Asian or Jewish people. Many dating/introduction agencies faded away as internet dating took off, but there are still some (affiliated to the Association of British Introduction Agencies) of long-standing, plus new, often incredibly expensive operations. The field is wide open.

Penrose's new book Marriages Are Made in Bond Street: True Stories from a 1940s Marriage Bureau is published by Macmillan and is available from Amazon.

By Penrose Halson

Twitter: @Gransnet

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 14-Apr-16 11:33:50

I joined the Heather Jenner Marriage Bureau briefly, when I was twenty one! I nearly married a Welsh farmer. smile

Still wondering...... hmm

mollie Thu 14-Apr-16 15:56:20

Back in 1976 my first job post marriage was to replace a woman who had also joined the Heather Jenner Marriage Bureau. We overlapped for a week and by the time she left I was rather envious of her new lifestyle, she'd made a brilliant bargain for herself (I thought) with her husband-to-be settling money and jewels etc on her as a form of pre-nup. I'd just married an impoverished rooky policeman and didn't that such places existed. I've often wondered how they had got on, were they together...

tiredoldwoman Sat 16-Apr-16 09:35:01

I wish I had joined it !

harrysgran Sat 16-Apr-16 09:40:06

Me too tiredoldwoman?

Skweek1 Sun 17-Apr-16 12:01:06

At least with the old-fashioned marriage bureau you did get to actually meet someone. DS has tried most of the more famous on-line dating sites and has contacted many ostensibly suitable dates - so far not one has had the courtesy even to reply to him and he's now feeling that there is something wrong with him, instead of accepting that these young women are not worth worrying about and that somewhere there's the girl for him.

Morghew70 Sun 17-Apr-16 15:48:28

I'm Heather Jenner's daughter and was able to give Penrose Halson lots of archive material from the Marriage Bureau. I worked there over the years for quite long periods. We were actually far too ethical and would never take on people unless we genuinely believe we could help them and we made sure that everyone had a personal interview. Unfortunately with the advent of computers the finances didn't add up and after my mother retired through ill health I was forced to close. I do feel that there would be a market for a reputable agency where everyone was given a personal service. I have heard some terrible stories about people meeting on-line.

wot Sun 17-Apr-16 16:42:01

I wish there were still bureaus like that. There's no romance left in th world. (My world, anyway)

EmilyHarburn Wed 20-Apr-16 20:01:33

Seems that if you google 'marriage bureau' you get Indian, Muslim and Jewish bureaus. But if you google 'match making' bureaus you can get ones who will interview you etc.


soniasultan Sun 21-Aug-16 13:14:44

i hear of marriage bureaus all the time, as emilyharburn mentioned they are usually asian bureaus. my family are mixed race, would be nice to have a bureau that caters for the new age religion. only one i have heard about is
they seem decent, although recently their website changed to cater for more muslims. I do know they have various members from other religions as one of my friends is a hindu and she signed her son up to it.
I really do believe there is a market for a bureau that offers a personal, ethically grounded approach. Hum Marriage sound very friendly and quite morally sound, but again they are probably more for asians.
Come on guys, surely one of us could start a marriage bureau up!