When a young Stella Groschel heard of her friend's plans to join a marriage bureau in her search for a husband, she was shocked to the core. It was the Forties and, quite simply, respectable girls just didn't do that sort of thing.
I thought it was rather on the dangerous side and something that only really desperate, peculiar people would consider. Now aged 83, she can lay claim to the title of the country's oldest and most long-standing matchmaker, still dispatching affairs of the heart at the country offices of her own dating agency.
In almost half a century of romantic busybodying, nearly 20, people have passed through her books - from Bluebell girls and businessmen to beauty queens and barristers.
There have been hundreds of weddings and, today, in a world of speeddating and internet romance, she still has around clients of all ages hoping Stella's personal touch can help find them their Mr or Miss Right.
In the process, her work has become a fascinating barometer of social change: But some things remain comfortingly constant, among them people's expectations - which are, she says, on the whole, generally unrealistic.
Today, she still sports the steely, scrutinising gaze that has been her principal professional tool during her year career - a career she fell into by accident to distract herself from an unhappy marriage of her own the irony of that inconvenient fact does not, of course, escape her. Born in Farnborough, Kent, in , Stella Flanders, as she was then, initially trained as a nurse. Then, aged 24, she married Ernest Groschel, a Czech engineer 13 years older who had come to Britain to escape the war.
It had been a heady romance, but once married, Stella regretted the union almost immediately. We had nothing in common and simply couldn't communicate. I was very young and we'd never spent any proper time together. In fact, despite Stella's unhappiness, the couple remained married for 14 years, during which time Stella fell pregnant, aged 38, with the couple's daughter, Emma.
By then working as a journalist on her local newspaper in Sheffield, where the couple had settled, Stella knew she would be unable to continue with her career but, with a stultifying marriage, was aware she needed something else to distract her.
I thought at least given my experience, I might be able to help other people. Marriage bureaux were still in their infancy and, bound by the sexually conservative mores of the time, Stella found it difficult to gain publicity: In order to surmount this opposition, Stella had to get personal references from her local MP and the Bishop of Lincoln. But it was still a huge battle," she says. Each came for a personal interview, with Stella carefully jotting down their age, hobbies and preferences into a notebook.
She matched her very first client, a shy widow in her early 40s who was looking for a new partner to help with the upbringing of her young children.
I had to decline as she was now in her late 60s and I didn't think I could help her. There were no average types. Those Stella has helped over the years include television personalities - although Stella is resolutely declines to name them - and members of the aristocracy. It is the ordinary folk, however, of whom she is most proud, and whose thank-you letters she treasures.
Like the one from the widow with three children who came to see her despairing that she would find love again. They hit it off immediately, moved in together, married, and had a baby of their own, which made nine. They live in a raucous household just a few miles away.
Unable to have children of her own, she believed herself to be no catch at all. Within months, the couple were married. I get a Christmas card from them every year, and postcards from their travels," Stella recalls.
The couple were so enamoured of her matchmaking abilities that just a few years ago, they sent their nephew to see her. They were both single and they were both determined to marry farmers," she says.
So that wasn't a bad day's work, all told. But if the business was booming, Stella's professional success was to prove the final straw for her own unhappy marriage. He was so mortified he packed his bags and left that day. The Sixties might now be seen as the decade which started Britain swinging, but the day-to-day reality was a buttonedup society which frowned on any departure from the social norm.
I used to have terrible trouble getting anyone to work for me. I was told it would be unseemly. In the end the only paper that would co-operate was the local paper in Colchester, so I decided to move there. I was divorcing Ernest and a fresh start seemed in order.
Over time, of course, the dating industry flourished, becoming more socially acceptable. The advent in the late Sixties of the computer dating service Dateline, which matched people on its database according to their likes and dislikes, made the notion of professional matchmaking more accessible.
For Stella, however, it is the personal-touch that she likes to think singles her agency out. In 50 years of matchmaking, she has met every single one of her clients face to face. They always try to avoid giving you their home address and can't quite look you in the eye. There is one great shift in behaviour which she singles out from her experience - the slow death of marriage. Today, she says, many of her clients are content to find romance rather than marriage.
People are perfectly happy just to have a relationship, and when that finishes they come to me again to fix up another one. The last time I asked someone about their religion during their interview was a few years ago.
The man replied that he was 'C of A'. So I kicked that question into touch. But while our tastes may have changed, the principles of professional match-making remain much the same. To be frank, these days there are too many young men, and too many old women.
There just aren't the men out there for them, because the older men want the younger girls, unfortunately. And if they still have it by the end of the interview, there's no point in allowing them to join. I never sign up people that I know I can't help," she says firmly. They come from all generations and backgrounds, from twenty and thirtysomethings with no time to look for love, to an octogenarian widower. She tends to draw the upper age limit at 50 for women, due to a lack of demand after that age.
I don't tell them they can't join, but I explain they probably won't have much luck, and then it is up to them. And bald-headed men have a hard time, too. Their attitude is that if they're paying for it then why shouldn't they be able to get exactly what they want? The answer, of course, is that life isn't quite like that. Stella herself has never remarried, despite a number of offers over the years.
I was too busy sorting other people's lives out, I suppose," she says. She does not intend to give up now, either. And there's a certain amount of satisfaction from it all, at the end of the day. Share or comment on this article: Most watched News videos.