Centenary of the Great War Armistice

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

The photo above, which I took during an early visit to London, shows the RAF memorial church of St Clement Danes. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and fully restored in 1958, to act as a war memorial for the Air Force.

As most people are probably aware, today (11th November 2018) marks the centenary of the First World War (known earlier as the Great War). There has been and continues to be much debate about the causes of that devastating war, and the issue will probably never be completely settled. What does seem clear is that, in those days, many European nations saw warfare as a satisfactory way to resolve disputes or gain territory, and had created detailed plans defining exactly whom they were going to attack and how. Their autocratic leaders were really just “spoiling for a fight”, and were supremely (but mistakenly) confident that they could win a swift, decisive victory.

It seems clear now that, if the conflict hadn’t been sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist, then some other equally parochial incident would have served as the trigger.

The situation was made more volatile by the nationalistic attitudes of the general populations, who tended to see war as a spectator sport. Many were quite prepared to sit happily on the sidelines and cheer as their “team” slogged it out with the opposition. Warfare had usually been conducted that way for centuries, but all that was to change as the Great War turned into “total war”, involving substantial portions of the civilian populations.

The Invasion of Leeds?

Of course, I’m not nearly old enough to have lived through the First World War, let alone remember anything about it. However, my father was 5 years old when the war began in 1914, and he did have some memories of the time.

His family lived in Leeds, Yorkshire, which is some 60 miles from the coast of the North Sea, and thus was not likely to be in any direct danger from enemy action. Nonetheless, my father’s mother was apparently certain of an immediate German invasion, and insisted upon placing sandbags around the house on the outbreak of war! Apparently, even then, not everyone believed that the war would take place on faraway fields.

Raid on Scarborough

My home town of Scarborough became a flashpoint during the First World War, after being subjected to a German naval raid during December 1914. That attack was characterized as a brazen assault on civilians (and it’s difficult to see how it could have served much other purpose), and had the presumably-unintended consequence of offering a major propaganda opportunity for the Allied nations.

During the bombardment, Scarborough’s lighthouse was one of many buildings that were hit and damaged, but it was subsequently repaired, as shown in my photo below.

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

British illustrator Frank Patterson, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my professional web site, normally avoided propaganda-style artwork. Apparently, however, he was so incensed by the attack on Scarborough that he produced the illustration below, showing a thunderous Kaiser glowering at the town from over the horizon.

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

A Changed World

Whatever its actual causes and motivations, there can be no doubt that the First World War changed the course of history very significantly, and not only in terms of international relations and territorial dominance.

The war essentially spelled the end of the colonial empires created by European powers during the preceding few centuries. Admittedly, some empires (such as the British and French) clung on for a few more decades, but the new order of affairs was already being set up at the end of the First War.

On the social level, agreements made during the War led to women eventually obtaining the right to vote in several countries, such as Britain. From the modern perspective, it seems astonishing that such a development took so long, and no sane, educated person would now suggest that women should not have such a right.

The First World War was undoubtedly a disaster of immense proportions, but some social good did eventually come of it.

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

Leaving Home

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

I took the photo above in Coventry (West Midlands) in 1979, depicting an interesting contrast of ancient and modern. The building on the right is what remains of the Whitefriars Monastery, which has survived because it became Coventry’s workhouse during the nineteenth century.

On the left, next to the monastic remains, the city’s elevated Inner Ring Road sails past, with a modern office tower in the background. Ironically, since I took the photo, the modern tower seems to have been demolished, while the ancient Whitefriars building looks just the same now as it did then.

I first left my parents’ home in Scarborough, to live independently in Coventry, almost exactly forty years ago today, during the first week of October 1978, and the scene shown above was just one of many extraordinary sights that greeted me after I arrived in a new city.

A Memorable Day

For most of us, the day when we leave our parents’ home and start living independently is likely to be a memorable one. That was certainly true for me, although it was an event that I’d somewhat feared until it actually happened.

When I did finally make the move, I found it to be wonderful. A whole new world seemed to open up for me, and I never wanted to return to living with my parents!

To College or Not

For those who go on from school to university, their first experience of independent living is likely to be as undergraduates in college “dorms” (halls of residence). However, back in the 1970s, when I reached that age, only about 10% of Britain’s young people went on from school to university, so that experience was available only to a minority. (The situation is drastically different now.)

In those days, there were no universities in our home town of Scarborough, so, for me, going to college would inevitably involve living somewhere else. The nearest universities were in York and Hull, but even those were not sufficiently close to allow daily commuting.

The Stay-at-Home Who Didn’t

As my younger brother and I were growing up, it seemed that I was usually the “stay-at-home”, whereas he seemed to be the more “adventurous” one, who was thought to be more likely to leave.

The idea that I might one day “go away to university” was first suggested to me by my mother when I was about 8 years old. I really didn’t like the sound of that, to the extent that she had to assure me, explaining that, when my father went away to Teacher Training College, he had really enjoyed the experience. (She failed to add that, when my father went away to that college, he was about 40 years old!)

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

The photo above shows (left-right) my mother, our dog Meg, my brother and me, staying at home!

Artificial Limitations

In 1977, I was preparing to sit my Advanced-Level examinations, and it was time to start thinking seriously about what I would do after leaving school. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that I would continue my education at a university. Personally, I wasn’t so sure, and in any case, what would I study and where?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, thanks to poor career advice, I decided to apply for Civil Engineering degree courses. (With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, that decision seems even more ludicrous!) Some universities offered a more general Engineering Science degree, in which you could opt for a Civil Engineering specialty before graduation.

I interviewed at and received offers from four universities, and, on the basis of my experience during the interviews, I eventually decided to accept an offer from the University of Warwick (located in Coventry).

I was the first in my family even to apply to a university, so I had absolutely no guidance as to how to choose between the offers. I seem to remember that my final decision was made on the basis of the landscape in each campus, which is actually quite a poor basis for making such an important decision!

I still hadn’t really grasped the fact that I had committed to moving nearly 200 miles away in the near future. However, as the date of the first term drew closer, I warmed to the idea of getting away from the depressing environment in Scarborough.

Expanded Horizons

During the first weekend of October 1978, my parents drove me to the Halls of Residence at Warwick University, helped me get my suitcases into my room, then left me to it.

Any sense of trepidation that I experienced at that moment soon evaporated, as I began to discover the new freedom of independent living!

Of course, the fact that most of my fellow students were experiencing the same epiphany was tremendously helpful, because we could “compare notes” regarding the best places to shop or hang out. Very few of us could afford cars, so we were mostly reliant on public transport. Fortunately, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE—which we referred to as “Wumpity”) and the Midland Red company provided comprehensive bus services, so we were able to get to most places that we needed to visit. Even so, bus travel wasn’t necessarily always pleasant, as illustrated by my view below of Coventry’s Pool Meadow Bus Station one snowy winter morning.

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

For longer journeys, British Rail offered “Student Railcards” that provided a 50% discount on standard fares, making rail travel quite cheap.

An Exciting City

Before I began living there, all that I really knew about Coventry was that it had famously been “blitzed” during World War II, which had destroyed much of the city center. By the time that I arrived there, most of the bombed sites had been redeveloped, and the central area presented a pleasant, neat and modern appearance, as shown below in my view of Broadgate Square from the tower of the bombed-out cathedral.

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Although British industry was already in decline in those days, Coventry was nonetheless still very much an engineering center (which was largely what had made it such a tempting target for the Luftwaffe).

Many local engineering companies gave professional presentations on their newest developments, and as a student, I received invitations to those. For me as an aspiring engineer and transport enthusiast, it was very exciting to be able to go along and listen to discussions of new vehicles and other technical advances! For example, one evening the commercial vehicle manufacturer Metro-Cammell Weymann gave a presentation on their new Metrobus in the Hotel Leofric (on the right in the photo above), and I went along not only for the talk, but also for the free “wine and cheese”!

Clipped Wings

Sadly, as I’ve related in previous posts, my first year at Warwick did not go well academically, largely because of the traumatic events that were occurring in our family at around that time. (I even visited the University’s Student Counselor, in the hope that she would have sympathy for my situation and offer me some kind of “deferment”, but she clearly had no interest in such things.) I was forced to drop out of the course at the end of that year, which at the time seemed like a disaster (but as things turned out, was for the best).

Knowing that I was going to have to leave university lodgings, I made some effort in Spring 1979 to try to find a job in Coventry, but received very negative responses. (Later, such attitudes would not have deterred me, but I was too inexperienced at that time to persevere.) Thus, it seemed that I had no choice but to return to my mother’s home in Scarborough (my father having died in April 1979).

A Commitment to Leaving

As related in an earlier post, I ended up obtaining an office job in Scarborough and living with my mother there for about 18 months, before returning to university, this time further away—in London—but with ultimate success.

Despite my “false start”, my mind was made up from those first few weeks in Coventry, that, whatever it took, I would move away from Scarborough and forge my own independent life.

Of course, I still had no desire at that time to move to another continent, which I in fact did within 10 years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea that ultimately led to my being here, now, was planted on the day that I left home.

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

The Last Day of Steam at Agecroft

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Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

The image above shows two steam locomotives that, on the day that I photographed them, were just being retired from active commercial service. On the basis of that description, you might think that this must have occurred some time during the 1940s or 1950s, but I’m not that old! In fact the date of the photo is Saturday, 12 September, 1981.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, during the summers I spent as an apprentice at Ferranti in Manchester, I was always on the lookout for interesting local places to visit at the weekends. These days, of course, such places are easy to locate—you just do a web search—but back then it was more difficult and more haphazard.

At some point during my first summer in Manchester, I must have spotted a notice somewhere advertising the Last Day of Steam at Agecroft Power Station. I didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to visit places that were not well-served by public transport. Fortunately though, as I learned from my A-Z street map, the power station was in Pendlebury, not too far from where I was living in Middleton, so I went along on the advertised day to see what was happening.

The map excerpt below, which is from a later 1992 edition of a Manchester street atlas, shows the location of the power station, near a railway line and a canal (for deliveries), and the River Irwell (for cooling water). The nearby Agecroft Colliery was the source for the station’s coal. The general appearance of the power station is shown in this BBC photo.

AgecroftPS1992Map

A Coal-Based Operation

As is well known (in the UK at least), British Rail had phased out steam traction in 1968, but that change didn’t apply to other users of steam locomotives in Britain. The locomotives at the power station were owned by the nationalized Central Electricity Generating Board, and, since the station was itself coal-fired, it made some sense to keep the locomotives in operation for as long as possible.

Three locomotives were being retired that day, and were giving joy rides to the public, as shown in these photos. They had all been built by the famous firm Robert Stephenson & Co., in 1948, so by steam locomotive standards, they were still relatively new. Locomotive No. 1 was painted red, and Locomotive No. 2 was blue. Those locomotives are both visible in the heading photo.

Locomotive No. 3 was painted green, and is shown steaming in my photo below.

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Last Day of Steam: Locomotive 3

My photo below shows a more general view of the Power Station, with Locomotive No. 2 hauling joyriders in a set of yellow carriages.

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Joy Rides at the Power Station, 1981

Unfortunately, my photographs are all somewhat too dark, so it’s difficult to see the locomotives well in them. The sky that day was very showery, so lighting conditions were changing rapidly, and my camera had only manual controls. Such concepts as High-Dynamic Range photography were unknown to me in those days, and in any case not available with the equipment that I had.

Fortunately, someone else called Dave Dixon took much better photographs of the same event, and has made them publicly available on Flickr here.

What’s Left Of It All

Not surprisingly, following their withdrawal from CEGB service, all 3 steam locomotives were bought for preservation, so they all still exist. The same cannot be said for any part of Agecroft Power Station itself, which was closed in 1993, and demolished in 1994. The entire site was redeveloped and is now the location of a prison.

My presence at that historic event was very much a matter of chance. It was another of many Manchester locations that I visited, but which have now completely vanished.

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

London’s Post Office Tower: My First & Only Visit

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

At the age of eleven, I produced the illustration above for the cover of a “London Study” that we were required to write and illustrate at school. The study was created in connection with our school visit to the capital city, which had taken place in May 1971, just before I drew the cover.

As you may expect (given my interests), my cover drawing emphasized modes of transport. Additionally, I chose as the centerpiece a striking modern building to which we had paid a surprise visit during the trip, and which had substantially impressed me. Little did I know at that time that it would probably be my only opportunity ever to visit that iconic building.

The building in my drawing was the recently-built Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower). Even before that first visit to London, I was well aware of the existence of that structure, which was feted as a prime example of Britain’s dedication to the anticipated “White Heat of Technology”. In addition to its role as an elevated mount for microwave antennas, the Tower offered public viewing galleries providing spectacular views over Central London. There was also the famous revolving restaurant, leased to Butlin’s, the famous operator of down-market holiday camps.

The Tower and its restaurant began to feature prominently in the pop culture of the time. An early “starring” role was in the comedy movie Smashing Time, where, during a party in the revolving restaurant, the rotation mechanism supposedly goes out of control, resulting in a power blackout all over London.

In the more mundane reality of 1971, our school class arrived in London and settled into a rather seedy hotel in Russell Square. One evening, our teacher surprised us by announcing an addition to our itinerary. We would be visiting the public viewing galleries of the Post Office Tower, to watch the sun go down over London, and the lights come on! Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though we had no inkling that that would be our only-ever chance to do that.

There were actually several public viewing gallery floors, some of which featured glazing, while others were exposed to the elements, except for metal safety grilles. Fortunately, the weather during the evening that we visited was not exceptionally windy!

Concretopia

I’m currently reading the book Concretopia, by John Grindrod, which provides a fascinating history of Britain’s postwar architectural projects, both public and private.

Cover of Concretopia Book

One chapter of the book is dedicated to what was originally called the Museum Radio Tower (referring to the nearby British Museum). It provides detailed descriptions of the decisions that led to the construction of the tower, and reveals that at least one floor is still filled with the original 1960s-era communications technology.

Due to subsequent changes both in communications technology and British government policies regarding state involvement in such industries, much of the original function for which the Tower was built has now been rendered obsolete or moved elsewhere, leaving the building as something of a huge museum piece (ironically, in view of its original name).

The Once-and-Only Visit

In October 1971, a few months after my school class visit, a bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower Restaurant. Initially it was assumed that the IRA was responsible, but in fact the attack was accomplished by an anarchist group.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, but it drew attention to the security vulnerabilities created by allowing public access to the Tower. The result was that the public viewing galleries were immediately closed down, never to be reopened, and Butlins’ Top of the Tower restaurant was informed that its lease would not be renewed after that expired in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Tower continued to appear in the media as an instantly recognizable icon. At around the same time, it was supposedly attacked by a particularly unlikely monster—Kitten Kong [link plays video]—in the British TV comedy series The Goodies.

My younger brother took the same school trip to London two years after me, but it was already too late; the Tower’s public viewing galleries were closed, so he never got to see the London twilight from that unique vantage point.

The Unexpected Technologist

On that first visit to London in 1971, I had no notion that I personally would ever be a participant in the kind of exciting technological innovation signified by the Tower. In my family’s view, such advances were just something that “people like us” observed and marveled at, from a remote state of consumer ignorance.

I never anticipated, therefore, that I would return to London as an adult only ten years later, to begin my Electronics degree studies at Imperial College, University of London. I had to visit the University’s administration buildings in Bloomsbury to obtain my ID and other information, and there was that familiar building again, still looming over the area. (The University Senate House is also famous for its architectural style, but I’ll discuss that in a future post!)

My 1982 photo below, taken during my undergraduate days, offers an ancient-and-modern architectural contrast, showing the top of the Tower from a point near the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury.

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

The Museum Tower

The photo below shows the Tower again, during a visit in 2010, now with its “BT” logo prominently on display. Externally, the tower looks little different from its appearance as built, and, given that it’s now a “listed building”, that is unlikely to change much in future.

BT Tower, 2010

BT Tower, 2010

For me, the Post Office Tower stands as a memorial to the optimistic aspirations of Britain’s forays into the “White Heat of Technology”. It seems that, unfortunately, the country’s “Natural Luddites” (which C P Snow claimed were dominant in the social and political elite) won the day after all.

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

A Californian in Manchester (or a Mancunian in California)

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

I took the photo above in August 1981, showing a “Californian” in Manchester, England. It’s not really Californian—of course—it’s just a “California style” tram that used to be operated by Manchester Corporation Tramways. Manchester abandoned its electric tramway system even earlier than most British cities, and this preserved car is the only surviving Manchester electric tram.

At the time of my photograph, the restoration of Car 765 had recently been completed, and it was giving rides to the public on a special track in Heaton Park. When riding that ancient tram, during a long-ago summer Sunday, I never even guessed that, within 10 years, I’d be riding modern trams (albeit called trolley cars) in the real California!

I described in a previous post how I accepted an offer of an apprenticeship in Electronic Engineering from Ferranti, in Manchester, and so moved there to start working for them in July 1981.

For all its (deserved) reputation as a grim Northern industrial city, Manchester nonetheless has a fascinating history, having been the cradle of an Industrial Revolution that massively changed the world. The city not only features many world-famous industrial landmarks, but was also the source of early reactions to the industrialization of society. For example, the German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote his master work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in the city in 1842-44. Engels met Karl Marx a few years later, and together they went on to promote Communism, which of course has had a substantial effect on the subsequent course of world history.

One among many “world’s firsts” located in Manchester is the oldest surviving purpose-built railway station; Liverpool Road Station, built in 1830 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and shown below in my 1983 photo.

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Things to Come

In those days, Manchester was still in the process of shedding its industrial past (as fabulized later in the TV series Life on Mars). Despite the fascination of its history, Manchester for me couldn’t compare with the opportunity to live in London (to where I moved when I began my studies at Imperial College that Autumn). I lived and worked in Manchester for three summers, and I look back on those days now as a boldly-taken but rather shaky stepping-stone on the way to everything that has happened to me since.

I admit that the title of this post is stretching the truth a little, because I’m not really “Mancunian” (someone from Manchester), but I did live there for a while, during an interesting part of my life!

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Ruins of Yorkshire

 

Byland Abbey, West Front, 2010

Byland Abbey, West Front, 2010

The photo above, which I took during a visit in 2010, shows the still-impressive ruin of the West Front of Byland Abbey, in Yorkshire. Prior to its destruction, the most impressive feature of this facade would have been a huge rose window, the lower outline of which is still visible here. Apparently, that was the inspiration for a similar rose window in York Minster, which remains intact (although it narrowly escaped destruction in the 1984 fire, and required substantial renovation, as described here).

For my Yorkshire Day post this year, I wanted to draw attention once again to the remarkable assemblage of monastic ruins that exist in that county. There are, of course, also many military ruins, such as Scarborough Castle, but the religious buildings are perhaps less well-known.

Just to avoid any confusion regarding my intentions, I should make it clear again that I have no interest at all in religion. My interest in these buildings is and always has been architectural and historical.

I’ve mentioned my early experiences with these ruins in previous posts, and I must admit that I tended to take them for granted when growing up. I just assumed that there must be huge ruined churches lying around everywhere, and it was only later that I realized that this was a rare environment.

Illustrating the degree of integration of these ruins into the landscape, the photo below shows the modern remains of Byland Abbey’s gatehouse, the surviving arch of which stands over a public road.

Byland Abbey Gatehouse Ruin

Byland Abbey Gatehouse Ruin

A Long-Forgotten Social Disaster

The process by which all these huge religious institutions came to be abandoned and ruined is fairly well known, as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place between 1536-40. The event occurred because King Henry VIII picked a fight with the Pope, over his desire to divorce one of his wives. The key to success, as he saw it, was to crush the power of the Catholic church in England. All the monasteries owed allegiance to the established church, so it seemed to him that abolishing them would not only be a way to reduce the church’s power, but also to grab the land and valuables owned by those institutions, and the income streams created by them.

As the extent of the remaining ruins suggest, the monasteries in Yorkshire formed a major part of the local economy and social organization, so their abolition and deliberate destruction must have been catastrophic. Although the King was able to seize the land and the monasteries’ treasures, his hoped-for income streams never materialized, because he had destroyed the organizations that were generating them! Henry sold off most of the seized land to his favored nobles, and then squandered the proceeds on his wars.

Rievaulx Abbey, also in Yorkshire, built one of the world’s first blast furnaces for iron, and it has been suggested that, if it had not been for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Industrial Revolution would have begun in Britain a century before it actually did.

In State Care

Following the Dissolution, the institutions’ land and buildings passed into private hands, and stayed that way for centuries.

Many abandoned religious buildings that were close to settlements gradually disappeared, as they were stripped for building stone. It was probably the relative isolation of the Yorkshire abbeys that permitted the survival of significant portions of the structures.

At the start of the Twentieth Century, the British Government began to take an interest in preserving what was left of the ruins, and eventually took most of them into state ownership, by purchasing them from the private owners.

Fountains Abbey: a Spectacular Setting

While the ruins of Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys are impressive, perhaps the Yorkshire ruin with the most ideal landscape setting is Fountains Abbey.

The photo below shows the ruin of the church at Fountains, in its breathtaking setting in Studley Royal Park. This was taken during a visit in 1977, and the individuals in the foreground are my mother and her friend.

Fountains Abbey, 1977

Fountains Abbey, 1977

In those days, the visitors’ car park was at the Studley Tea Rooms, which necessitated quite a long (but pleasant) walk alongside the River Skell to the actual ruins. The modern car park is closer to the ruin.

Fountains was somewhat unusual in that it was not purchased by the Ministry of Works at the same time as most of the other sites. It remained in private hands until 1966, when it was bought by the County Council. In 1982, the estate was transferred to the National Trust, and is now maintained by English Heritage.

If you’re visiting Yorkshire, and if the weather is reasonable, then all these ruins are well worth a visit!

Radio Ga Ga

My brother and I with the Radiogram, c.1965

My brother and me, with the Radiogram, c.1965

The photo above was taken by my father. It shows me at about the age of 5 (on the left), with my younger brother, apparently enthusiastically listening to a record being played on my grandfather’s radiogram.

If you’re not familiar with the term “radiogram”, that’s not surprising. It’s an obsolete British term for an item of furniture combining a record player and a radio receiver. These massive, wooden-crated units were popular until transistor electronics began to replace valve (tube) technology, after which they were replaced by smaller “hi-fi music centres”.

My grandfather’s pride-and-joy was his Bush SRG 100 model (British-made, of course). Other than the fact that it was a Bush, I’d forgotten many details of it until I found an example being offered online, in this post. The photos in the post provide a good indication of the sheer size of that device!

When the photo above was taken, I had no inkling of the role that that particular radiogram was to play in my future life. My grandfather died in 1967, and I ultimately inherited his Bush radiogram. During the 1970s, the enormous object resided in my bedroom at our house in West Street, Scarborough. I rarely played records on it, but I did spend innumerable hours listening to a wide variety of radio broadcasts.

Given that most people these days think of radio as being merely a source of music, mostly-mindless opinions, and perhaps traffic news, the quality and breadth of broadcasts in those days seems remarkable. The apparent decline in the quality of radio is appropriately lamented in Queen’s 1984 song, Radio Ga Ga.

For example, British radio comedy was a very creative field, partly because new programming ideas could be tested much more cheaply on radio than on TV. The radio comedies of the 1950s and 60s, from the Goon Show, through Round the Horne and eventually I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, eventually led to the TV “breakthrough” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Radio Monopoly

The landscape of British radio broadcasting during the 1960s was so different that it seems in retrospect as though I must have been living in some alien nation.

Essentially the BBC had a monopoly on legal radio broadcasting. Until 1967, there were only 3 BBC radio stations: the Home Service, the Light Programme, and the imaginatively-named Third Programme. Although it’s not visible in the photo above, the VHF tuning display of the Bush radiogram showed only those 3 selections! Except for the military, “ham” operators and emergency services, nobody else was allowed to establish a broadcast radio station in the UK!

Strange as it may seem from the perspective of history, most people didn’t seem to object to the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting. However, a problem developed during the 1960s, because the BBC refused to play rock-and-roll music on the Light Programme.

Due to tremendous demand from young people to hear pop music, various “pirate” radio stations came into being. These evaded UK law by broadcasting from foreign countries, or even from ships at sea. In a typically absurd way, although the broadcasts were legal, listening to the “pirate” broadcasts in the UK was illegal!

Our School Governor is a Pirate!

Probably the most famous of the music stations broadcasting to Britain (although not technically a “pirate” station) was Radio Luxembourg. In 1966, the owner of our local supermarket in Newby, Wilf Proudfoot, became the proprietor of a pirate station, Radio 270, which broadcast from a ship in international waters in the North Sea.

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Proudfoot was also a governor of our school—Newby County Primary. It was hardly inspiring when our headmaster introduced him at “Assembly” time as a local businessman, who was publicly breaking the law! Of course, compared to the criminal behavior and corruption that has been unearthed in Scarborough since then, Proudfoot’s actions now seem quite benign.

In 1967, the structure of BBC radio broadcasting changed, with the introduction of Radio 1 as the official pop music station. The Light Programme, Third Programme and Home Service were rebranded as Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 respectively. At the same time, the law was changed to close various loopholes, which put Proudfoot’s Radio 270 and similar stations out of business.

Waiting for the Sky Wave

It always seemed odd to me that, during my lifetime at least, my parents never listened to the radio. They certainly watched plenty of TV, though. It was as though they’d decided that television had made radio obsolete, so that was the end of that.

As a teenager, therefore, radio became the doorway to my private world, in which my parents simply took no interest. Nowadays I suppose I’d be spending my time on the internet, but that wasn’t even imagined back then.

Typically, I’d switch on Radio 2 at 6am, to catch the start of Terry Wogan’s show, and then be listening to one or other of the BBC channels for most of the day. After twilight, things began to get more interesting, when skywave reflections allowed me to pick up (temporarily) stations from further afield. Those gave me new perspectives on the world that simply weren’t available in my small-town environment. I was also learning French and German at school, so listening to European stations gave me a study incentive.

It was a gateway to a wider world that I was eager to get out and explore, and, eventually, that was exactly what I did.