20,000 lonely hearts later (including her own) her views on the changing mores of romance make fascinating reading.

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. I thought it was rather on the dangerous side and something that only really desperate, peculiar people would consider." Since then, however, Stella has learned to see matters from the other side.

I thought at least given my experience, I might be able to help other people."And so on a hot July afternoon in 1962, Stella travelled by train to London to register the name of the Kathleen Kent Marriage Bureau with Companies House.

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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.

Today, she still sports the steely, scrutinising gaze that has been her principal professional tool during her 50-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 1924, Stella Flanders, as she was then, initially trained as a nurse.

It was the Forties and, quite simply, respectable girls just didn't do that sort of thing. 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 20,000 people have passed through her books - from Bluebell girls and businessmen to beauty queens and barristers.

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