Desperation’s Noticeboard

Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column by H.G. Cocks

In 1969, the following announcement appeared in the contacts magazine, Way Out: “Lady 32 seeks female who will make fun with me in front of my husband. Only genuine replies please.”

This quickly attracted the attentions of the Obscene Publications Squad of the Metropolitan Police. But when they tracked down the potential fun-seeker who had placed the announcement, they were surprised to find that she was, in fact, a man – a married office manager and keen amateur photographer from South London.

The man had put in the advertisement, he explained, without the knowledge of his wife. “She would never do anything like that,” he told them, a little glumly perhaps. When questioned, he insisted he had torn up all the replies, except for one – “a letter that had come from a woman in the Canary Islands”. Alas, we will never know what fragrant enticements this letter contained.

As soon becomes apparent, deceit and subterfuge have traditionally clung to the personal columns. Although lonely-hearts ads have been around in various guises since the late 17th century, it was not until the First World War that the market really boomed. Here, in magazines such as The Link, one could find all manner of potential companions advertising their attractions – most of them coyly veiled in innuendo. There was the “modern girl who wanted to correspond with a naval officer (submarines preferred)”, and also the “bachelor, just discharged, intelligent, artistic temperament, though rather pagan” who was looking for “friends, own sex”.

But however thick the veil, nothing could withstand the searchlight of official scrutiny. In 1921, The Link‘s founder Alfred Barrett was found guilty of corrupting public morals and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. In his summing-up, the judge expressed his deep regret that this was the maximum sentence open to him. Penal servitude, he felt, would have been a much more attractive – and appropriate – option.

Yet even the threat of breaking rocks was not enough to discourage a host of new publications. Nor were persistent rumours that they were a front for White Slavers – swarthy Levantines and the like who would coerce innocent girls into acts of unspeakable degradation. Throughout the ’20s, contacts magazines continued to thrive, providing what George Orwell called “a guide to the mysteries of the collective unconscious”.

H. G. Cocks, one suspects, has taken Orwell’s remark a bit too much to heart. As he writes in his introduction, the stories contained in the personal ads “tell an oblique history of British morals in the 20th century”. In order to lend weight to this theory, he uses the ads as pretexts for examining various topics: sexual behaviour, marriage, pornography and so on. He clearly knows his stuff and he certainly is thorough, but he’s also – given the nature of the subject-matter – rather more po-faced, more academic, than necessary.

Things get much more interesting – and fun – when he sticks closely to his “secret history”, tracing how the personal column has moved from being the preserve of the desperate and the depraved to its present, rather dreary, respectability. As always with any great sea-change in British life, one can never underestimate the role of class as the catalyst.

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.

At first, when Bartell infiltrated them, the swingers – perhaps not surprisingly – offered him and his wife the warmest of welcomes. The Bartells, however, had their minds on higher things. Despite meeting more than 400 swingers, they never had sex with any of them. But when, as an experiment, Bartell grew a beard and long hair, the swingers shivered in collective disapproval and shrank away. The message was plain: this time he had really gone too far.

The internet, of course, signalled the biggest change of all. Within the last few years, any stigma attached to advertising for a mate has disappeared. In Britain alone, 26 million people have enrolled in online dating sites. The results, for the traditionalists anyway, have been mixed. One dejected would-be adventurer quoted here bemoans the way in which everything has become like “a sexual McDonald’s”. No longer do personal columns offer an exciting encounter with the unknown. Now, people stipulate exactly what they want, unencumbered by any fear of embarrassment, or exposure.

And there’s a sense too that in the rush towards blatancy, something else has been lost. In classic personal ads one finds the coy and the plaintive sitting squeezed together to strangely beguiling effect – as in this announcement that appeared in Correspondent magazine in 1969: “Torbay area. Sincere couple 38/28 interested in absolutely everything erotic wish to meet others similar for anything goes. Hurry, we are so bored down here and very genuine.”

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