Town’s solution to fiddling the knobs on ‘steam radio’

BROADCASTING HOUSE: the two properties on Hall Quay in Great Yarmouth which comprised the headquarte

BROADCASTING HOUSE: the two properties on Hall Quay in Great Yarmouth which comprised the headquarters of Great Yarmouth Radio Relays. The left-hand building was once Lacon's Bank. The mast above the roof might have been part of the radio relay system. Picture: MALCOLM FERROW COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Good naturedly, we used to dub it “steam radio” - yesteryear’s principal home entertainment medium after it was usurped by that new television standing in the sitting room, promising viewers a wealth of variety and pleasure.

ARE YOU SITTING COMFORTABLY? A photograph in the company's promotional brochure. Picture: SUBMITTED

ARE YOU SITTING COMFORTABLY? A photograph in the company's promotional brochure. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

Listening to the radio between the Thirties and Fifties never quite lived up to the promise depicted in some of the advertising seeking to encourage people to buy the latest models: a “something in the City” pipe-smoking father, conservatively dressed middle-class mother and two angelic children comfortably seated close to a blazing fire and a chunky wireless.

The number of stations was very limited, particularly in wartime. The main tenor of BBC programmes was highbrow and instructional rather than enjoyable, and oscillation and crackling caused by poor reception necessitated irksome retuning to locate the precise spot on the dial.

Or, as a perfect trouble-free alternative, householders hereabouts could subscribe to Great Yarmouth Radio Relays. I have been sent its promotional brochure by former Gorlestonian Mike King, of Lowestoft, and I was impressed by its pledges!

“What the Great Yarmouth Radio Relay Service offers to its subscribers,” announced the pre-war blurb, promising: “First-class wireless for 1s 6p (seven pence today) a week. Wireless with no upkeep costs. Choice of two programmes always available.

TUNING-FREE: a cartoon from the brochure. Picture: SUBMITTED

TUNING-FREE: a cartoon from the brochure. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

“Fool-proof reception that needs no tuning. Programmes from which interference has been almost entirely eliminated. No aerial or earth wires. Free installation, including loudspeaker.”

Who could ask for more?

Most Read

The company was based on Hall Quay in Yarmouth, in adjoining premises later occupied by two friends of this column, antiquarian Malcolm Ferrow and his wife, Joy, now resident on Marine Parade in Gorleston.

The innovative service was inaugurated in 1933 by the mayor. In 1937, Kelly’s Directory listed the relay company’s secretary as C E Thrower. It operated until the mid-1960s, one of the two premises being the shop of the Gibbard Television national chain that possibly operated Radio Relay in its final years.

According to the relay company’s promotional literature, “the very last word in modern radio receiving apparatus is being installed in duplicate in a position out on the marshes. In each receiver there has been incorporated the latest automatic balancing device which now practically overcomes fading

“Land lines are being laid from this dual receiving station to a central amplifier established in a convenient position in the centre of the town. From this central amplifying station, lines will radiate to each subscriber’s house and finally will terminate in a small plug fitted in a convenient position into which he may plug the loudspeaker provided by the Relay Company.

“By this means those connected with the service will enjoy almost as perfect a wireless reception as it is humanly possible to obtain for the ridiculously small sum of 1s 6d a week.”

As tastes differed, each subscriber was given the choice of two programmes. When the speaker was plugged in to whichever programme was required, “there is no question of tuning or the bother and trouble sometimes experienced in searching for a station and perfect reception is instantly forthcoming.

“To ‘turn on’ the wireless is so simple that the smallest child could do it without the slightest fear of doing any damage and, of course, with the absolute impossibility of ‘oscillating’ and so annoying the neighbours.”

Because the receiving stations were located as far out of town as practicable, “it is obvious that reception should prove free from unpleasant noises, such as those made by interference from trains, motors and other electrical machinery.

“The wires carrying the programme will be brought to your home as unobtrusively as possible and it is obvious, therefore, that no aerial will be necessary outside the building. This point will be appreciated by many who have difficulty in erecting an aerial owing to the position of their homes and by those who have any fear of the effects of lightning.

“The relay system will be installed in your homes entirely free of cost. All the expense is borne by Great Yarmouth Radio Relays and, further, a splendid loudspeaker is also provided free of charge.

“Arrangements can be made at slight extra cost for subscribers to have speakers to match their furniture – that is to say, speakers may be obtained in oak, walnut or mahogany. Moreover, it is possible for a special volume control to be fitted so that if it is required in some circumstances to reduce the volume of sound to a whisper – as in cases where it is necessary to consider sleeping children or invalids – this can quite easily be done.

“Additional plugs can be fitted in other rooms, such as the nursery or kitchen, to suit individual subscriber requirements.”

As far as I can remember our only choices during and after the war were the BBC Home Service and Light Programme, and I presume that these were the two offered by Radio Relays at the time.

That probably prevented listeners of conventional radio, like me, from the naughty pleasure of delicate knob twiddling with an ear pressed to the receiver to pick up Radio Luxembourg, Hilversum and Athlone although their clarity was often poor and required patience.

If luck was in, the American Forces Network broadcasting from mainland Europe provided some programmes less stiff and starchy than much of the BBC’s output and, therefore, more pleasing to little lads like me.

But deliberately straying from our national broadcaster and picking up entertaining interlopers from the continent had its risks. Having seen films in which the Gestapo caught people in occupied countries illicitly listening to broadcasts from the free world, I always expected a severe bowler-hatted man from the BBC to rap on our front door to administer a severe rebuke at best or dragging me off to the naughty listener Borstal at worst.

In that era at least one foreign station was transmitting sponsored programmes. For example, there was Alfred Campoli and his Orchestra - sponsored by California Syrup of Figs, that dreaded liquid forcibly spooned into my reluctant mouth by my mother every Friday night to ensure my regularity...