Forbidden radio station on a ship

FROM A FIELD on my friend’s farm in Essex, I could see the mid-morning sun glistening on the water of the estuary of the River Blackwater. Moored out on the water, there was a trawler with a red hull and white superstructure. A tall aerial mast, just about visible through the heat haze, was mounted on its deck in front of the bridge housing. When my friend saw me taking a photograph of the vessel, she mentioned what it is, and this caused distant memories to surface in my mind.

When I was a child in the early 1960s, I had a Phillips radio in my bedroom. I was a keen listener and enjoyed exploring the various stations broadcasting from all over the world. It was during this period and with this radio that, for example, I was able to tune into the propaganda-rich programmes transmitted from Albania by Radio Tirana. Less exotic than this was Radio Luxembourg, which unlike the few rather straightlaced, advert-free BBC stations, pumped out a stream of non-stop ‘pop’ music, punctuated by commercials for products, which were not aimed at audiences in little Luxembourg but instead at consumers in the UK. In those days, I was not much interested in pop music, but I enjoyed the commercials. The only one that I can remember was for a particular football pool company.

Radio Luxembourg was founded in 1933, long before I became one of its listeners. Located outside the UK, it was not subject to any of the legislation that ensured the BBC had a monopoly as a broadcaster in Britain.

In 1964, the Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly (1940-2020) and Alan Crawford came up with the idea of broadcasting to the UK from a ship moored in international waters. This way both the restrictive laws that protected the BBC, and the record company’s control of pop music broadcasting in the UK, were overcome. Radio Caroline was born and began broadcasting non-stop pop music from beyond Great Britain’s territorial waters. Caroline was soon followed by other radio stations, such as Radio London, which all made use of the same wheeze to get around the restrictive legislation in the UK. Radio Caroline has had a long and sometimes difficult history since its formation. This is described in great detail on the company’s website (www.radiocaroline.co.uk).

Our friend in Essex told me that what I was photographing is the boat from which Radio Caroline transmitted. I was surprised because, for no good reason, I had believed that Caroline was a thing of the past. The boat moored in the Blackwater is the Ross Revenge, formerly used as a fishing trawler. It was not the first boat to house Radio Caroline; it served this purpose between 1983 and 1991. A radio station bearing the name Caroline still functions. What is important about Radio Caroline and other so-called ‘pirate’ stations is that their existence had some considerable influence in causing the BBC to commence broadcasting pop music. Radio 1, which replaced the BBC’s Light Programme, was started in 1967 in response to the popularity of the pirate stations amongst the listening public.

I am glad that we were shown around our friend’s farm and that I spotted that boat in the estuary. Although I did not often listen to Radio Caroline, seeing the vessel made me recall my early radio receiver (‘wireless’) and the joy it gave me during my early teens.

Marconi slept here

DURING A SHORT VISIT to Chelmsford in Essex, we noticed an old hotel The Saracens Head. Situated in the centre of the city – yes, Chelmsford is a city; it has a fine cathedral – it bears a commemorative plaque which states that the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), founder of the Wireless Telegraph Company, stayed at the hotel between 1912 and 1928, when he made visits to his New Street factory in Chelmsford. Marconi made the city a place that was to change the world. It is hard to imagine how our world would be today without radio signals.

I wondered why he had chosen Chelmsford to site his factory. The only explanation I can find is that Marconi needed electricity for his factory and that Chelmsford had a good supply of it. In any case, his factory provided work for many (up to 6000) people in the city.

As for The Saracens Head hotel, I have not yet stayed there, which might be a good thing as it receives many poor reviews on Tripadvisor.

Prior to establishing his factory in Chelmsford, he lived in a terraced house near London’s Westbourne Grove, at number 71. He lived there between 1896 and 1897. That was 2 years after he had made the world’s first demonstration of radio transmission. He arrived in London from Italy in 1896 because few in his native land could see much of a future in what he had demonstrated.

Calling the world

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, the family possessed a radio, which could receive long wave, medium wave, and short-wave signals. It was made by Pye, contained in a dark brown wooden cabinet, and took several minutes to ‘warm up’ before anything could be heard from it. It was faced with glass screen behind which there was a list of radio stations and a vertical cursor that could be moved across the list to tune into different stations. The stations listed were, to my young mind, quite exotic. They included places such as Berlin, Budapest, Beromunster, Moscow, Prague, Monte-Carlo, Leipzig, Hilversum, Vienna, Sofia, Cairo, and Luxembourg. One of the places on the tuning screen sounded far less exotic to me: Daventry. I knew that this place was somewhere in the English Midlands, and that gave it less appeal to me than places further afield and across the sea.

Recently, we spent a couple of nights near Rugby in Warwickshire. After leaving it to travel eastwards, we noticed that we would be passing through Daventry, and decided to stop there for breakfast. Prior to our arrival in that small town in Northamptonshire, I believed that it would turn out to be a place of little interest apart from the fact that I remembered having seen its name on our old radio back home in the early 1960s. How wrong I was to have pre-judged Daventry so harshly.

We parked next to a modern shopping centre, attractively arranged around an open space in which people were enjoying refreshments at outdoor tables and chairs. This contemporary shopping precinct is close to the High Street, which runs from Market Square to Tavern Lane. This thoroughfare is rich in historic buildings.

Overlooking Market Square is the former Daventry Moot Hall, an 18th century building, and beyond it on a slight elevation is the Holy Cross Church. This neo-classical style church was built between 1752 and 1758 to the design of David Hiorne (1715-1758) of Warwick. Not only does it resemble London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, but on a smaller scale (and with a far smaller portico), but also many churches built by the British in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Seeing the church in Daventry reminded me of the far larger St John’s Church in central Calcutta and the Danish church at Serampore on the River Hooghly. Unfortunately, the church in Daventry was not open when we visited it.

At the other end of the High Street, where it continues as the narrower Tavern Lane, there is a curious building with gothic revival features and crenellations. We asked an elderly man about the building and he told us that it used to be the BBC Club. It was then that I remembered that Daventry had connections with radio broadcasting. I recalled seeing the place’s name on our old radio at our home in northwest London. Our informant reminded us that for many years the transmitters near Daventry carried news and other broadcasts from Britain to the rest of the world.

On the 27th of July 1925 at 730 pm, the BBC began broadcasting from its new station at Daventry. At first, these transmissions could be received on crystal radio sets within a 250-mile radius of a circle with Daventry at its centre. Soon after this, broadcasts could be received far further afield. This was further augmented when the BBC installed much more powerful transmitters in about 1927. By the end of WW2, Daventry was transmitting the ‘highbrow’ Third Programme (now, ‘Radio 3’) broadcasts.

In December 1932, Daventry began transmitting programmes to a world-wide audience on the Empire Service. As the threat of war increased during the 1930s, Daventry started transmitting regional services such as The Arabic Service (in Arabic) and The Latin American Service (in Spanish). After WW2 broke out, there were broadcasts in many other foreign languages. Some monitoring of foreign broadcasts was also carried out in Daventry.

During the Cold War that followed the end of WW2, Daventry was involved in the transmission of programmes to people living on the Soviet side of the so-called Iron Curtain. Until its closure in 1992, the radio station and its transmitters at Daventry were continually updated. One of several reasons for its closure was the end of the Cold War following Gorbachev’s leadership of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now, returning to the gothic revival building at the end of Daventry’s High Street, here is what Norman Tomalin, who worked at Daventry and has written a history of its radio station (www.bbceng.info/Books/dx-world/dx-world.htm), has to say about it:

“For the many thousands of BBC staff who briefly came to Daventry, the BBC Club … was home from home. It provided a central cosy meeting place, a break from the digs, a bar, billiards, table tennis, and photographic rooms and on the top floor, pride of place, a much treasured amateur radio transmitter. Call sign 5XX”

‘5XX’ was the call sign of the first transmitter at Daventry. It was superseded by another ‘5GB’ in 1927.

Our elderly informant told us that he remembered that broadcasts from his hometown used to begin with the words: “Daventry Calling The World”. In his book “Daventry Calling”, Tomalin wrote that the very first broadcast from Daventry began with the words: “Daventry Calling”, for back in 1927, it was not the world that could receive the programmes, only people in the UK.

I wonder how many of the people who listened to broadcasts from Daventry all over the world had any idea where the town was and if they did, did they wonder if it was as great a city as many of the others that appeared on radio tuning dials.