Social Philosophy

A Social History of Women between the Wars as seen through the Archives of Universal Aunts

Angela Bebb
19th November 2018, 7:00pm

Established in 1921, Universal Aunts is much the same now as it was – even if the Aunts themselves no longer wear fur-collared coats and cloche hats! Their first service was caring for children whose parents were posted overseas, very much in the tradition of its founder, Gertrude Maclean.  With brothers and sisters scattered world-wide in the service of their country, Aunt Gertrude took over caring for her nephews and nieces who were sent back to school in Britain. With the end of WWI, her brothers and sisters came home and Gertrude bemoaned the passing of her usefulness until an elderly uncle suggested “Why not do for others what you have been doing for your own family?”. Gertrude’s reply was instantaneous “....and be a Universal Aunt!”. 


Thus began an institution that by its 80th year had employed over three quarters of a million women and undertaken over a million services. Universal Aunts speedily developed and diversified. As well as meeting children, requests came in to care for the elderly, pets, houses, gardens, children left alone and to provide nannies, housekeepers, cooks and butlers.


Remarkable things were done by Aunts up to and during the war. There was a flying school for ladies and planes, boats and cars were delivered all over the world. The Aunts transported a poodle from London to Korea, a pair of Purdey shotguns to Verona, some corsets to Florence, two dolls and six pots of honey to Alaska and an ambassador’s trousers and a pack of foxhounds to France. The Post Office became used to delivering letters addressed rather oddly ‘Please Locate and Deliver to Everybody’s Aunts in England’ from America, ‘Unusual Aunts’, ‘Universal Arm’, ‘Universal Widows and Spinsters’ and, from France, ‘Universal Ends in the Trings Road’. The original logo ‘Anything for Anyone at Any Time’ produced requests for what, elsewhere, would be considered unobtainable; not so with Universal Aunts – it just took a little longer. Such things included a stuffed horse, peacocks for a garden party and an expert to look after a huge tank of piranha fish. The calls have hardly changed through the decades, and the company is now caring for elderly clients who were Aunts in their youth. Universal Aunts still endeavours to rise to any challenge, however unusual, and the remarkable history of the company is added to every day.


About the Speaker

Mrs Bebb was born and grew up in Leicestershire. She was educated in Felixstowe then Bristol University where she met her husband. Until the birth of her children she worked in antique silver in a busy shop in Conduit Street, London. As the children were growing up she ran a bookshop in Camberwell. She has been involved with Universal Aunts for some 30 years, initially part time, both in the field and in the office and is now the managing director. Most of her leisure time has been spent travelling to watch her husband, Jamie, play a variety of sports – her preferred ones being cricket and rackets although she will watch him play tennis with pleasure.


The arrival of grandchildren as well as working full time at Universal Aunts has rendered any other leisure time almost non-existent. She does, however, have a great interest in mediaeval history (one of her University subjects). This makes trips to France for tennis even more enjoyable. Angela also enjoys reading, opera, and military and naval history. Members will remember her giving the Society a very well-received lecture in 2017 on her great-uncle Sir Ernest Shackleton.


Menu for Supper

Roast chicken with a Diane sauce served with roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables

Linguine pasta with halloumi, spinach, cherry tomatoes and pesto

Key lime pie

Fresh fruit salad

N.B. the Lit & Phil office have to inform venues of catering numbers approximately 7 days before an event so please make sure you book as early as possible to avoid disappointment.