London's 'Universal Aunts' come to the rescue

Anyone under the illusion that successful businesses operated entirely by women are new might be surprised by a very English organization with headquarters just off the King's Road in Chelsea. The year 1981 marks its diamond jubilee. Its name -- an accurate description of the staggering variety of services offered -- is "Universal Aunts."

Founded by Miss G. E. Maclean in 1921 "to be of help to people whatever their needs," Universal Aunts was also of help to those women Mrs. Kate Herbert-Hunting, one of its present directors, calls "the new poor." World War I had brought women out of the home in Britain. It had also deprived and impoverished many and made it necessary for them to look for jobs for the first time.

Under the banner of "Universal Aunts," women who were usually not trained for anything but domesticity, whatever their class, might perform any useful job without loss of self-respect. It was part of what Mrs. Herbert-Hunting, who is planning a book about the Aunts, characterizes as the "switch round." The working classes were beginning to find some kinds of work "not so attractive," she says. "Other classes were saying 'we can do it equally well' -- and they wanted the money."

The Aunts have stuck to their universality: they will undertake anything, they claim, except for legal or medical work. One of their biggest functions has always been to meet and escort children across London on their way to or from British private schools. Today this involves many more non-British children than previously. Aunts meet them at the airport, take them to the zoo or the changing of the guard, give them a good time, often take them into their homes overnight, and then make sure they are on the right train at the right time.

Aunts also act as temporary proxy-parents. They walk dogs. They act as witnesses. They cook. They scrub floors. They look after shops for vacationing owners. They baby-sit. They buy Christmas presents for businessmen , flowers for pregnant women. They witness weddings. They drive for or companion women touring Britain or the Continent. They do many jobs for the elderly.

They also dispense plenty of free information and advice, from how to behave and dress at functions (royal weddings, for example) to estimates requested by the legal profession in compensation cases. "We might be asked how much it would cost, over a period of time, to replace the services of a mother hurt in an accident, for instance," Mrs. Herbert-Hunting says. "This is an entirely new service."

Finding unlikely things is another Auntish operation -- "a green bowler hat, a black panther," says the brochure. In fact, over their 60 years, the Aunts have hunted for extraordinary items: a yacht, a telephone box, a Koran for a swearing, a barbecue to roast an ox, a hurdy-gurdy, a bear trap.

A bear trap?

"Well," laughs the director, "I imagine this was for show -- not to catch a bear."

Perhaps inevitably, Universal Aunts has great expertise in helping people out of sticky situations. There was the case of the ambassador's trousers, left behind in London. "We dispatched an Aunt across to France with them. He was delighted to see them again."

The chairman of the company, Margaret Fry, who has been with the Aunts for 25 years, recalls once having a mink in her office overnight. "An American wanted to start a mink farm, and no hotel, cattery, or kennels would house his mink." A man in Cornwall was saved from canceling his family's Christmas in London. His car had broken down, and he couldn't obtain the part needed in time. Universal Aunts had it put on an early morning express from London. The man later came in personally to thank them.

At one period, for six years, they placed in families the 15 or 16 children of one Arab family sent over to England for the summer. The Aunts also act as house agents, finding tenants for people wanting to let their flats or houses.

There are often sad aspects to their work. But there is also a great deal of laughter. "Somebody wanted a goat met at Waterloo Station," Miss Fry recalls, "and taken over to King's Cross. I don't know if it started as a joke, but they sent it. A very versatile Aunt did the job, and she insisted on the taxi stopping in Hyde Park so that the goat could have a walk."

Mrs. Herbert-Hunting tells now-funny stories of Aunts dog-walking or dog-sitting. "Owners' descriptions of their pets don't always quite tally with the facts," she says. "Two quiet puppies can turn into raging, Aunt-eating, fully-grown Alsatians. One Aunt was "Literally taken for a walk" by a "massive beagle" shem was supposed to be walking. "Fortunately the dog decided to take her back home again. When she returned to the office here, she was clutching the furniture," Mrs. Herbert-Hunting says. At the other extreme was the Chihuahua which had to be walked in her basket. "And I mean inm it," she adds, "not on its legs. They were too delicate."

Speaking more seriously, she emphasizes that Universal Aunts is a business and not just a group of women doing "good works." They are professionals. "We're friendly, but not amateur by any means." Nevertheless, an Aunt does need dedication.

"We have two or three hundred Aunts (as well as some Uncles) on our books. They give an enormous amount of themselves to their job and to the people concerned. And they care tremendously about them."

She enthusiastically praises the young Aunts today; they seem to be "naturals ," she states. "They're very willing and very compassionate."

"Aunts are doing a job, certainly," she adds, "they do earn. It's not a charity. But their rates of pay are considerably less than the value they give."

Are most of their clients wealthy people?

"Oh, no, not by anym means!"

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