Heart Searching: 'In the end, chemistry is quite baffling': The Agencies. To begin a series, Angela Wilkes visits a traditional marriage bureau

Marriage in Mind? Katharine Allen (ex-Foreign Office) personally meets and introduces professional people wishing to marry. Est 1960. Member of Society of Marriage Bureaux.

THE ADVERTISEMENT is rather exclusive, run only in publications such as Harper's, the Field and the Spectator (and, of course, the Independent).

In fact, since the demise of Heather Jenner (in summer 1991), the upmarket Katharine Allen agency is the only member of the Society of Marriage Bureaux. They would welcome more fellows, but many other businesses won't fulfil the Society's two strict criteria: personal interview for all clients and membership restricted to the single, widowed or divorced - not separated or 'thinking about it'. (Some agencies belong to the Association of British Introduction Agencies.) Katharine Allen has about 1,000 clients (women-men ratio 6:4) including about 300 inherited from Heather Jenner. Some are titled, the bulk are middle- class, well-educated professionals and, with the exception of a handful who live overseas, most live within 100 miles of London.

Katharine Allen's tastefully furnished offices off Marylebone High Street have gently sloping floors and a wealth of period detail. They were once the secret lovenest of the exiled Charles X of France and the Comtesse d'Artois. Today, clients hoping for equally romantic trysts sink into the glazed cotton covers of armchairs for a personal discussion that may last from one to three hours. The atmosphere is akin to that of a plush Harley Street practice. Fees are pounds 15 for the initial interview, pounds 385 for indefinite registration and unlimited introductions for a year, pounds 100 for a second year's introductions. There is pounds 200 to pay on marriage - though some ('mainly the filthy rich') have tried to avoid this. A poor do, thinks Penrose Halson, 53, who runs the agency.

There is, of course, no Katharine Allen. Originally, there was Betty Allen-Andrews, an American who set up the business in 1960. She retired in 1986 and Penrose Halson and her husband, Bill, a freelance management consultant, bought it, spent many sleepless nights codifying the data, 'a lot of which was in Betty's head', and replaced the typewriters with word processors. As for the FO connection, Betty Allen-Andrews had worked in its personnel and welfare section. Since most of the adverts still included this bit of kudos, and as Penrose Halson had what she calls a very slight claim ('a postgraduation year working out in Beirut as a glorified au-pair for a Foreign Office uncle') the wording stayed. It is being phased out.

Mrs Halson is tall, elegant and entertaining, somewhat headgirlish, a good listener. She went to 'masses' of schools, ending up at Millfield and later became a headmistress. 'It was at an absolutely dotty place: I saw an advert in the Marylebone Times for a teacher of autistic children, but it turned out that they'd meant 'artistic'. I was given the job - you didn't need to have any teacher training in those days, just a degree - largely on the basis of having the right voice and right handbag]'

Mrs Halson has a natural talent for putting others at their ease and for getting them to tell the truth. She is, apparently, a wonderful dinner party hostess. She finds it a 'shining exception' to be asked about her private life. 'No one has ever asked what my qualifications are for doing this - quite unanswerable, anyway]'

They would probably include a natural liking for people and a desire to do them a bit of good. She comes from a long line of Scottish female missionaries. Both her grandmother and mother went to Girton, but neither considered it appropriate for a woman to have a career other than marriage. Mrs Halson did an external London University degree in modern languages in Oxford. She has dipped in and out of teaching and educational publishing, both editing and writing, and is the author of a number of children's books. It was while she was going quietly bonkers at Stoke Newington Comprehensive - 'I was supposed to be doing Spanish for first-to-fourth years, but I didn't teach a thing' - that her husband, Bill, suggested the matchmaking business.

She has another interesting qualification for the job, too. She is an ex-client of both Katharine Allen and Heather Jenner. 'When I was 27, my mother sent me to Katharine Allen. I don't think I was frightfully gracious about it. I wasn't keen. I did meet some interesting and pleasant people, but then let my membership lapse.' She went to Heather Jenner, of her own volition, at 40 after the man whom she was going to marry suddenly collapsed and died of a stroke. Many people go to agencies after such a trauma, she says. 'I get very cross with people who assume there is something wrong with you if you are 40 and haven't been married. Nowadays, there seems to be such a stigma that older, single people pretend they're divorced.' That relationship, incidentally, was engineered by Mrs Halson's mother. 'She'd advertised me in the New Statesman. She is a very determined lady. Actually, it worked absolutely marvellously. I'm a great believer in small ads. In the end, I don't think it matters two hoots how people met, as long as they do meet.'

It was a small ad, not a marriage bureau, that brought about Mrs Halson's eventual marriage - 'I was very long in the tooth when I finally got round to it, 47 or 48. Ideally, I think most people are better off being happily married, but I'm against marriage for its own sake. I don't think people should do it other than for very good reasons. The pain and distress caused by divorce gives me the heebie-jeebies.' She had actually advertised in the Mensa magazine for a lodger. 'Sometimes I advise a client with a big house to advertise the spare roomand see who turns up.' Bill, a divorce with three children, initially turned the flat down. He asked Penrose to dinner instead. It was not, however, a whirlwind romance. Bill eventually became a weekend flatmate - 'His lodgings were only for weekdays and, as I had a very busy social life, our paths rarely crossed.' They muddled along for a few years before finally marrying.

It rather bears out Mrs Halson's theory that no amount of logical, commonsense pairing can substitute for luck and timing. 'I am convinced that you can introduce people at certain times in their lives and nothing will happen. A few months later, they might take off. And whatever chemistry is, in the end, it's quite baffling.' She says that she can put people in touch who are 'worth introducing to each other, but I never make it sound more or less than that'.

There are no formal checks; none of the psychological, graphological, financial and medical soundings and 'lists' of the kind that the ill-starred Helena agency once used. 'If you can't tell a nut without having all that stuff done, you shouldn't be in the business.' There is a network of informal structures to keep out dodgy customers - charging for the preliminary discussion is the first block. Each client has a lengthy profile based on Mrs Halson's notes, plus an easy-reference thumbnail sketch on a strip-index. A typical aide memoire: 'Very easy, smiley. Seems decent, relaxed. But I went off him a bit at the end. He has done very well and wants everyone to know it. Touch of abrasiveness, probably due to nerves.' She relies on a combination of 'dry notes and instinct. Of course, you get better all the time.' Clients who turn out to have emotional problems can be referred to one of the company directors, a clinical psychologist.

Mrs Halson finds it handy to have been on the other side of the partner hunt. 'I've some idea what it's like, gearing yourself up, making an appointment, pressing the bell and not running away, and having gone through a fair number of relationships myself, I would like to help people not to make such a pig's ear as I did for years]'

Next week: new agencies

(Photograph omitted)

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