In retrospect, the chance meeting of two former debutantes, Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner, on a ship back from Ceylon in early 1939 can be seen as a pivotal moment. Both women were single and both were thinking that - aged 25 - it was about time they found suitable husbands. As Oliver inspected her fellow guests on their trips around the deck, she realised that a lot of them were single, middle-class men who were going back to Britain to try to find wives.
Why not set up an agency, she proposed, one that would provide refined young ladies with a number of potential suitors. These suitors would initially be recruited through ads - and then Oliver and Jenner would weed out all the oiks, neanderthals and non-Anglo-Saxons, so that only the prosperous and the reasonably pure-at-heart were left. As soon as they arrived back, they put their plan into practice. Within a month of opening, their Bond Street office was receiving 300 letters a day.
From this moment, personal columns were never quite the same. But still they continued to be used as a noticeboard by all manner of suburban sensualists and backwoods erotomaniacs. In the '60s, for instance, wife-swappers in America contacted other swinging couples through the personal columns. Even here, though, all was not what it seemed. As the social anthropologist Gilbert Bartell discovered, the swingers, far from being fervent sexual revolutionaries, tended to be staunchly middle-class Republicans.