Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.3 (2002) 457-482
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"Sporty" Girls and "Artistic" Boys:
Friendship, Illicit Sex, and the British "Companionship" Advertisement, 1913-1928
H. G. Cocks
ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1920, Sir Basil Thomson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, received a note warning him of a grave threat to the morals of the British nation. The letter was from R. A. Bennett, editor of the weekly newspaper Truth and a prominent campaigner against white slavery. 1 Bennett enclosed a small pamphlet, available from newsagents in plain cover for the price of eight pence. A cursory glance at its pages, he announced, would allow the commissioner to judge its highly immoral character.
The offending paper was a small, monthly publication, usually no more than ten pages long, called the Link. Created in 1915 by the editor and comic novelist Alfred Barrett and initially appearing under the title Cupid's Messenger, its editorial page proudly declared it to be "the only monthly practically devoted to love interests." 2 Each issue included an editorial section and three sections of advertising, from "Ladies," "Soldiers and Sailors," and "Civilians" (men) who were seeking "companions," "friends," or "pen pals." In addition to the advertisements, which were free, the paper offered a service that would provide up to twelve introductions to other "suitable" subscribers for a small fee. 3 To its supporters, the Link was an innocent and socially valuable medium that facilitated the formation [End Page 457] of new friendships. To critics like Bennett, it promoted moral decay and prostitution. In spite of the Link's apparent insignificance and small circulation, its history was to become a symbol of postwar conflict over the apparently rising tide of sexual immorality.
The "lonely hearts" advertisements featured in the Link and similar publications enjoyed their greatest popularity in Britain between about 1913 and the mid-1920s. These "friendship" or "companionship" ads emerged as a form distinct from "matrimonial" ads and were helped by wartime conditions to become a semilegitimate form of courtship and self-promotion. During the war, journals and newspapers began to print requests for "companionship" from men and women, often alongside pleas for correspondence from "lonely soldiers," sailors, and airmen.
Lonely hearts advertisements and correspondence clubs were also the ideal anonymous means for homosexual men to arrange social contacts. But it was predominantly middle-class, young, metropolitan women who were assumed to be the principal constituency for these media. The vogue for these advertisements enabled women to explore the widening arena of possibilities for romantic encounters that lay between the traditional Edwardian locations of female sexuality: prostitution and marriage. In their advertisements such women were able to define themselves as "sporty," "bohemian," and "unconventional" yet "refined" and "educated" and hence to give hints of sexual availability while at the same time retaining an aura of respectability. It was this fundamental ambiguity that made the companionship advertisement and the correspondence club so successful. Both forms allowed the tentative exploration of new kinds of association with the opposite sex in which the object of the parties was formally acknowledged as "non-matrimonial." The rise of the companionship advertisement and the correspondence club therefore signaled a fundamental shift in the nature of intimate relations.
The story of the Link and other publications like it reveals the subtle shifts in the nature of courtship that occurred in Great Britain in the years surrounding World War I. Despite the alarms sounded by purity reformers like Bennett, new ideas about "companionship" between the sexes had begun to inform social practices. Some of these changes became more obvious during the course of the war. By the 1920s, the well-publicized trial of the Link and a series of journalistic exposés brought these conflicts over the changing nature of courtship into the open.
Its Enemies and Its Friends
For Truth's crusading editor, R. A. Bennett, who had carefully highlighted the most flagrant passages in the Link with a green pencil so as to leave the police...