Ethel Wilson (1877-1959)

Born: Ethel Maude Sayer; also known as Mrs A. J. Wilson

Sector: Media (Advertising)

Advertising was an industry where women started to make inroads at the very end of the 19th century and by the 1910s, a small number of women were in influential positions, working in advertising houses, as advertising managers for newspapers and magazines or commissioning campaigns for retail and consumer businesses.

One of the leaders was Ethel Sayer. Ethel was born on 23rd November 1877 and grew up in south east London, part of a large family. After she left school she spent two years working for a typewriting firm, before joining the company of A.J. Wilson as a secretary, aged 19. She later said that at that stage it was viewed as ‘a dreadful thing’ for girls to take up a business career and she faced opposition from her family. As well as the social barriers to working, there were some practical ones: she claimed she never had two hands free out of doors because one of them was always holding up her ‘ridiculously long’ skirts.

Ethel Wilson (Mrs A.J. Wilson), advertising executive
Ethel Wilson (Mrs A.J. Wilson) in The Vote 22/10/1926
With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

A.J. Wilson was a new business, which had just five employees when Ethel joined. Its founder, Arthur Wilson, was 38 and passionate about cycling. He had experimented with all sorts of cycling inventions in the 1880s, including a tandem tricycle, had competed in cycling races and ran a cycling magazine. He was the founder and first president of the Road Records Association. He worked for Dunlop in 1890s in marketing roles and in around 1895 he set up his own business, producing advertising materials like signage and posters. Dunlop was one of his principal clients: ‘much of the success attained by the Dunlop tyre in making its name all over the world is due to Mr Wilson’s publicity work’, reported one paper in 1915.

Arthur had lost his hearing at the age of ten. Ethel learned sign language and became his invaluable ‘right and left ears’. She acted as his interpreter at public meetings and dinners, giving her access to events normally closed to women and making her a familiar figure in business circles. When the business was registered as a limited liability company in 1899, she became company secretary.

Arthur and Ethel worked together on both business and charitable activities. In 1905, Arthur set up the Cycle Trade Benevolent Fund to provide support to those working in the industry who had fallen on hard times. Ethel played a critical role in its management and the ongoing fundraising, acting as assistant honorary secretary. In 1908, the scope was extended to cover the growing motor trade and the charity still provides support to workers in the automotive industry today. So, although in the 1911 census Ethel still describes herself as a secretary, that understates her role: she was by then an influential figure in advertising and in the commercial world of motoring.

The Association of Advertising Women
In 1912, Advertising World staged an inaugural Advertising Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall, where companies working across the industry could show off their work. One section was dedicated to highlighting women’s work and offered an opportunity for women working in advertising to meet and discuss their experiences. The following March, the Association of Advertising Women was founded. Ethel was President and Nina Oliver-Watts, advertising manager at the Daily Chronicle, took on the role of Secretary.

Some were unhappy with the name chosen – ‘Why not the Association of Women Advertisers?’ It is less open to misconception.’ – but the fact that such an organisation was being formed was generally seen as very positive: ‘We believe the advertising business and the work of procuring advertisements very suitable for the special talents of women’, said The Vote. Ethel immediately set about publicising advertising as a career for women, writing a column for a monthly magazine that received a lot of attention and setting up a stand at the next Advertising Exhibition on advertising careers. Ethel was happy to be explicit about the financial opportunity advertising offered. The annual salary she suggested was achievable, of £500 to £750 a year, equates to £60k – £89k in current day terms.

That same month, the Thirty Club, a private dining club for men in the advertising industry (which still exists) welcomed some of the women to a dinner. The topic debated was that ‘in principle the members of the Thirty Club are agreed that women have demonstrated their ability in the advertising profession entitling them to become associate members of the Club’. The resolution was lost. Men were prepared to support women to a certain extent but not if it meant letting them in to their inner circles and sharing power. (The secretive Thirty Club still exists but does now allow women to join.)

The war
With the outbreak of war, Ethel’s attentions turned first to helping the great stream of Belgian refugees looking for sanctuary and transporting them from the coast to places where they could stay. Arthur was involved in the London Volunteer Rifles, which formed a Motor Battalion to ferry convalescent soldiers to countryside locations where they could relax and be entertained. Ethel was one of the drivers and also organised fund-raising activities, including two high-profile events at the London Palladium. One person who provided a location for these outings was Samson Clark. In the summers of 1915 and 1916 over a hundred soldiers were taken to his home, Moleside in East Molesey, to be fed and entertained, all organised by Ethel in conjunction with the A.A.W.

In 1916, Ethel was appointed a director of A.J. Wilson, was made a Freeman of the City of London and became a member of Holborn Borough Council. That year, the assets of the Cycle and Motor Trade Benevolent Fund were valued at £20,000 and the Fund was able to offer support to industry members who had lost their jobs as a result of the downturn in trade or had been wounded in the war, as well as families left bereaved. During 1915, the committee distributed the equivalent an average of £2,000 to 140 applicants. Ethel, now also treasurer of the Benevolent Fund, was given a ‘handsome tea and fruit service’ by the rest of the executive team in recognition of ‘ten years of onerous hard work’, all the more impressive as it was carried out in parallel with her demanding day job.

The activities of the A.A.W. continued through the war. Membership had grown from three to thirty in its first year and it continued to hold regular meetings where women could come together to discuss business issues and set up an employment bureau to help women find work. It sought to broaden its appeal, encouraging ‘all business women’ as well as those interested in advertising to attend. Speakers included Alice Head’s predecessor at Woman at Home, Annie Swan and her boss George Riddell, theatrical manager Annie Horniman and the ubiquitous Lady Rhondda.

Post war changes
In April 1919, the A.A.W. formalised its status as a cross-business forum by stating its new purpose was ‘to promote mutual interest, cop-operation and widening of ideas amongst women already established in business and professional work’. and re-branding itself The Efficiency Club.

In 1921, Ethel and Arthur announced their engagement. It was widely reported and greeted with general delight, with the couple receiving ‘hundreds of congratulatory messages’ according to the Daily Mirror. ‘The congratulations and good wishes of everyone in the motor and cycle trade from Land’s End to John O’ Groats with go out to [them]’, said one column.

Ethel made it clear that marriage did not mean retirement. She continued to speak and write about advertising as a suitable career for women and in September 1923, when the Women’s Advertising Club of London(WACL) was founded, was appointed Vice-President. A profile published in Advertiser’s Weekly in January 1924 suggests that the double-bind which plagues women leaders today was just as real 100 years ago. Energy was fine (‘extreme vitality is the pre-dominant impression conveyed to one on first meeting Mrs A J Wilson’) as long as it did not tip over into ‘aggression’. After 25 years of successfully navigating a male-dominated world, Ethel had mastered the brief: she did not show ‘a trace of aggressiveness’ and her ‘vital spirit’ was ‘tempered with a kindly smile’.

In October 1924, Ethel became President of WAC but it was her appointment as Managing Director of A.J. Wilson in 1926, right at the end of her career, that put her back in the public eye. By then the business had 200 people and offered a wide range of services: advertisement contracting, design, engineering and printing. She saw the secret to career success as ‘application’ and ‘a knowledge of the value of money’ but also chose to emphasise a third aspect: her solid attendance record. Clearly women were seen as more likely to be ill than men and she stressed that in a thirty-year career she had not had thirty days absence through sickness.

Arthur retired in 1928 and the business was wound up soon after that. Ethel and Arthur were living in Hampshire at the start of the Second World War and in Leamington Spa by the time it ended: Arthur died there in 1945. He was survived by Ethel who died in Bournemouth on 12th October 1959.


Special thanks to the History of Advertising Trust for organising my visit to their archives and searching out material for me and to Nickie Wren and her colleagues at Ben for their invaluable help.


Sources include: The Courier 12/3/1913; Cycling 13/3/1913; The Vote 28/3/1913; Common Cause 17/10/1913: Hull Daily Mail 22/1/1914: The Sphere 10/4/1915; Globe 16/6/1915; Derbyshire Advertiser 8/1/1916; The Army and Navy Gazette 22/12/1917; 27/7/1918; Sheffield Weekly Telegraph 3/8/1918; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 19/10/1918; Westminster Gazette 26/4/1919; Daily Mirror 28/4/1921; Aberdeen Press and Journal 7/5/1921; The Vote 22/10/1926

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