Picture Post, the left-wing photojournalism magazine launched in October 1938, has a proud track record of political journalism, including comprehensive reporting on the plight of Jewish people under Nazi rule. In amongst this serious political reportage, however, the weekly magazine also provided plenty of lighter content, such as an article in an early issue about the so-called ‘Monkey Club’, a club where ‘debutantes learn to be housewives.’

The five-page spread appeared in the issue of 10 December 1938, early on in the Post’s existence. The Monkey Club was a slightly odd hybrid between a member’s club and an educational establishment. One would become a member either by being put forward by two existing members, or by serving probation – by 1938 there were apparently eighty members in total. The club had been founded in 1923 and lasted at least until the early 1950s. According to the Club’s founder, Marion Ellison, she wanted to ‘supply a social and educational club for society girls, who at eighteen may not wish to enter a University, but who do not want to idle away their days.’[1]

Debutantes were daughters of prominent families who were presented at Court during their first ‘season’ and subsequently attended the annual round of balls and parties. The ‘season’ was a long-established London tradition and once upon a time the primary way for young wealthy people to meet their marriage partners. By the late 1930s, however, social change had been such that debutantes could not necessarily expect the same lives as their mothers and grandmothers, and some of them undoubtedly also wished to have a profession.

The Monkey Club’s varied offering demonstrates the transitional space in which it operated. It offered residential lodgings for about 30 of its members, providing young women who wanted to live independently a more socially elevated alternative to lodging in a Bloomsbury boarding house.[2] The club also provided five main strands of educational activity: ‘General Education, Music, Secretarial Training, Domestic Science, and Dressmaking.’[3] The five categories had different purposes, depending on what the debutante needed.

Should she need to learn a job to earn her own living, clearly the secretarial training would be very useful. It is a sign of significant social change that a sizeable sub-section of the Club membership was ‘training for careers’ – even a generation earlier the notion of a debutante taking a secretarial course would have raised eyebrows.[4] But by the late 1930s, ‘debs’ could not necessarily expect to marry into wealth and live out the rest of their days as matriarchs. Secretarial work, on the other hand, was in constant and increasing demand and provided a respectable route into paid employment for young women, at least until such a moment that they got married.

The ‘Domestic Science’ training, which Picture Post called ‘probably the highlight of the club’, also demonstrates how society had changed.[5] Although the debutantes come from wealthy families, they can clearly no longer expect to run households with a lot of staff. The Monkeys are not taught how to manage servants, but rather how to undertake household tasks themselves. From ironing shirts to cleaning windows, the Monkeys are given instructions on how to undertake each part of household management. ‘Every debutante wants to be a good housewife’ enthuses the Post.[6]

The club building even contains a complete flat, where members who are about to get married take ‘Bride’s Course’. The flat gives them a trial at running a complete household, including planning and executing dinner parties. Says the Post: ‘The “Bride’s Course” is no romantic interlude. The brides are thoroughly prepared to cope with all emergencies, even to leaky pipes and broken armchairs.’[7] Clearly, most of the debutantes were expecting to be quite hands-on in their household management after marriage, reflecting the replacement of servants with labour-saving devices as the job market changed. Another area for change was that of childrearing. Like with the household, debutantes would be expected to be hands-on in the raising of their children. To that end, the Monkey Club had a ‘perfect 7lbs “baby” with moveable head and limbs’ – a realistic model which the club members were taught to bathe and dress in the ‘correct’ way.[8]

Other parts of the ‘educational’ curriculum serve to a more traditional conception of a debutante’s life. The music and art education mostly built on what club members had learnt at the inevitable ‘finishing school abroad’: in-depth teaching on music history and theory to allow members to ‘know how to listen and enjoy good music.’[9] Also popular are classes on ‘dancing, stage technique and elocution’ – skills that have less practical use and are more designed to enhance the pupil’s appearance and effectiveness at social engagements.

The Monkey Club clearly fulfilled a function during a time of significant social change. As class barriers were broken down, the old system of sending debutantes to finishing schools and expect almost everyone else to either be a housewife or learn a trade no longer worked. In this ambiguous space, the Monkey Club bridged the old and the new, providing debutantes with a familiar space from which they could navigate their own way through a changing society.


[1] ‘This is the Monkey Club’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 33

[2] Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei (eds), Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern British Life, Literature and Film (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

[3] ‘This is the Monkey Club’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 33

[4] Ibid., p. 34

[5] Ibid, pp. 35-6

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 35