Between the lines in the changing course of lonely hearts

Francesca Beauman tells Sarah Freeman why her history of the lonely hearts ad was a real labour of love.

Advertising in one lonely hearts column, an east London builder, for reasons best known to himself, announced he was on the lookout for a wife with one leg. In another, a Scottish MP, wanting to start a family with some urgency, stated he would like to meet a woman who was already six, seven or eight months pregnant.

“One of my all-time favourites was a woman writing in The Times in 1787,” says Francesca Beauman, author of Shapely Ankle Preferr’d: A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad 1695-2010. “It reads like a prescription for the ideal man.

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“She wanted someone with a liberal education, who would refrain from ogling other women, at least in her company, who never got up after midday or before 9am and who crucially never drank two bottles of claret or one of port at a sitting. I just love the detail, she was clearly a woman who knew her own mind.”

Beauman doesn’t know whether the advertisement’s creator ever found her man, but having spent years delving into lonely hearts columns spanning more than three centuries, she does know that when it comes to dating not an awful lot has changed.

While there is a tendency to think of lonely hearts as a modern phenomenon, the first one appeared in 1695 when one young man advertised his availability, adding he was willing to “match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman that has a Fortune of £3,000 or thereabouts”. With that, the floodgates well and truly opened.

“Lonely hearts ads began in the 1690s for a reason and it wasn’t just the fact newspapers had taken off,” says Beauman, whose last book was a history of the pineapple. “At that time Britain’s urban centres were expanding at an unprecedented rate. People were moving from the countryside to find work, but they were also leaving behind their friends and finding themselves in completely unfamiliar environments.

“In many ways it wasn’t so different from today. People led busy lives, the size of the city made it difficult to meet people, they were busy at work or had just returned from abroad. Loneliness is nothing new.”

Beauman admits when it came to researching the book, which indulges both her passion for social history and her inherent nosiness she was spoilt for choice.

By the early 1900s, there were 25 British newspapers dedicated solely to matrimonial advertisements and they were used by everyone from aristocrats and MPs to bus conductors and nurses.

“The best ads make you want to know what happened next in the story, but sadly most of the time it’s impossible to find out,” says Beauman, who disappointedly met her own husband at work.

“Just as when internet dating began and people were embarrassed to admit they had met their partner online, so the same is true of lonely hearts ads. A lot of couples who met through them were often somehow ashamed of how their relationship had begun and tended to rewrite history a little to save their blushes.”

However, Beauman did stumble across one happy ending which restored her faith in the power of the lonely hearts column.

Jack and Gertie Burnicle first met through an advertisement in 1866 and while their relationship had something of a false start they went on to be happily married for 60 years.

“It’s just an incredible story,” says Beauman, who was contacted by the couple’s granddaughter.

“Gertie initially turned down Jack’s proposal because she didn’t want to give up her job as a teacher – at the time it wasn’t possible to have both a career and a husband.

“Years later they were reunited by Gertie’s sister, the relationship was rekindled and they never looked back. Their meeting through the lonely hearts ad became part of their family history and there is something quite life affirming about it.”

As Beauman’s history progressed to the present day, she had to grapple with the phenomena of internet dating,

“Advertising for love is now an essential tool in the modern courtship process,” she says. “Most of my friends do it, but at heart I’m a historian, so if I’m honest I tend to lose interest about anything after 1960.”

Shapely Ankle Preferr’d A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £12.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepost.co.uk