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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Sport
Lewis Hamtilon and pole-sitter Nico Rosberg
SportShould F1's most aggressive driver curb his instincts in title decider?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin