Larry Bennett is telling us all about probably one of the world's most famous radio stations, which was based in Highbridge. Why was it so famous and who listened? Want to find out more? Then listen in to this fascinating chat with Larry Bennett?
You're listening to the Highbridge podcast, celebrating the people, places and history of the Highbridge area in Sedgemore
And welcome along to another edition of the Highbridge podcast celebrating the history people and places in the Highbridge Sedgemore area of Somerset. This season is funded by Seed which is a consortium of community organizations in Sedgemoor comprising of Bridgwater senior citizens forum Bridgwater Town Council, Community Council for Somerset homes in central Somerset film, and young Somerset, which is funded and supported by Arts Council England, creative people in places lottery funding, and the Arts Council. This episode, I'm chatting with Larry Bennett, who is going to tell us all about probably one of the world's most famous radio stations, which was based in Highbridge. Why was it so famous and who listened? Want to find out more then listen in to this fascinating chat with Larry Bennett? To start us off, Larry, tell us a little bit about what the radio station was all about.
Right? It was probably at its time the world's largest maritime communication station. If you think of today, when you pick up a phone, you can speak anywhere in the world by a satellite anywhere and any aircraft, any ships anywhere in the world, you can do that. Back in the 1920s. When it was formed, the only way to communicate with a ship was via radio. And that's using Morse code of all things. There was no telephony at the time, everything was in Morse code. So if you wanted to get the message to a ship, you sent a message to your local post office, who would then forward it to the radio station at Highbridge. And then they'd relayed by Morse code to a ship over the radio link. And if they wanted the message returned, the ship's radio officer would send a message back via the radio station, and it would then be forwarded to the destination. And that carried on for 30 -40 years from 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. Right up to the 1960s when radio telex came into operation, which made it much easier for shipping companies to send messages direct. There was also rated telephone communication but that didn't come to Highbridge till 1972. Prior to that it was done through a station at Rugby with a receiving station that Brent in Essex and also at Baldock.
So basically, the station was going to let everyone communicate with the ships at sea and vice versa. And that was the whole point. At the time, the British merchant navy was huge. One of the largest fleets in the world. And the station was and probably was even when it closed down the biggest maritime communication station in the world.
In Highbridge yeah,
The other thing that threw me when I first discovered it was it's called Portishead radio.
Yep. In maritime communication parlance. The station is named after the transmitting site. The station was formed in 1920. The original transmitters were at Devizes in Wiltshire. That was a site of an old point to point station which was converted to Army use in World War One. And in 1920, the post office took it over but transmitters there and it became Devizes radio station. The problem with that it was nowhere near the sea. It was a high power transmitter that was causing all sorts of problems to the receivers in the same location. So what the post office did was they put a receiving station in Highbridge away from all industry close to the coast. And then transmitters were about Devizes, the receivers were at Highbridge. But then in 1926, they moved the transmitting site to Portishead on Porterhead Down. And that's how the station got its name for so from 1925 It was known as Portishead radio. And that's how it stayed until the bitter end in 2000.
So when they actually moved into Highbridge they kept the name and that's why it stayed Portishead?
Exactly yeah the Portishead transmitters closed in the 1970s. But the station was so well known throughout the world. They just kept the name even at the closing down time the transmitters were at Rugby, but the main Portishead radio so so synonymous with shipping, they kept the name all the way through.
So when did you work there?
I was there from 1980 until the bitter end in 2000. So, unfortunately, I never got a job at sea, they preferred sea-going radio officers who knew the business backwards, but the turnover in staff was so high in the 1970s. They took people straight from college basically and that's how I managed to get a job. Obviously, there was quite a stiff entrance test you had to take a morse test and you had a year to prove yourself, otherwise, you were just chucked out. So you had to take a 27 words a minute morse test a French test of all things, which I was exempt from, because I had a French O level, and what's called a station and walk around, the station manager took around the station. And you had to tell him what every single part of this station did, from basic communication theory to how to power up the auxiliary power supply in case of failures and so on.
So that would be just in case of emergencies. And you were the only person in the building?
Exactly, yeah, the station never closed, it was 24 hours a day, three, six 5.25 days a year, for over 75/80 years.
So the size of this transmitter, it must have been huge
Initially, yeah, at the time when the 1920s, they hadn't investigated shortwave very well. So to increase the range, they thought they had to increase the power. So the Devizor transmitters were sort of 10/15 kilowatt, huge transmitters. But as they develop shortwave communication, which the radio amateurs at the time were quite keen on doing, they found they could cover the world on maybe two or three kilowatts. So back in the day, you'll see pictures on the website, which I'll tell you about later on, have the original transmitters, and they were absolutely immense. And of course, those days, it was all spark transmitters, and so on. Modulation didn't come till later in the 1920s.
So when the station originally was broadcast, and in its heyday, how many ships and how much traffic was actually going past or communicating with Highbridge
Oh immense, probably at its heyday, we take over 2000 telegrams a day, from probably well over 1000 ships, all in Morse code.
So that that is also time-consuming because you've got to translate it and then put it back and then send it out and then reply, an
it's not as bad as it sounds. But the good thing about Morse code, it's built up letter by letter. So we can send and receive messages in any language in the world, we used to take loads of messages in Greek. And because the letter by letter, you didn't even have to understand it. So we'd sit their headphones on, message form in the typewriter. And as the guy would send it from ship, we just type type it in, letter by letter on the typewriter. Once that's done, we check it out to count the number of words, make sure there's nothing missing, and then just pass it down the belt to be sent off by telex or telephone.
It's a completely different world to how it is today with just picking up a mobile phone and contact somebody.
It was an art form, basically, I think. You know, some of the skills you'd see people there, they'd had the other headphones on drink a cup of tea, sending Morse code, and having a conversation at the same time with the guy behind you. You know, and second nature to some I couldn't do it. But some of the guys they've been doing it for 30-40 years. And they were absolutely immense. Absolutely brilliant to see see them in action, and sometimes busy periods, Christmas and New Year and everything. That'd be 40 morse code positions in the same room. And everyone sat there typing away. The noise was fascinating to hear.
You retired from this role, but you've sort of taken on the role of becoming a local historian for the station.
Yeah. BT weren't very good at their heritage side of things. The station closed in 2000. And in the afternoon, or the closing day, the engineers were dismantling it and basically skipping everything, I thought this can't be right. So I managed to purloined a lot of equipment, which I still use. And then there was all the paperwork going back right back to the 1930s. This has just got to be kept. So I rang the BT archives and managed to get as a secondment to them. And for six months, I spent all my time collecting all the historical information I could. Then pass to the archive some stuff they didn't want, which I kept from my own use. And it's such an important part of the local history scene. You know, people don't realise how important the station was, you know, people say thing for the radio station. Oh, I had a great social club, cheap beer, and that was it. But it was, you know, the world's largest maritime communication station. You know, unless there's nothing left at all to commemorate it. The station was demolished in 2007. a housing estate built on the site. There's nothing there. Absolutely. Not a brick, not a fence. Nothing.
Absolutely. That's what threw me. I mean, I first came across your project, because you set up a Facebook page. Up until then, I'd kept looking around and suddenly this Facebook page appeared. And I went how have I miss this radio station. And then I started to read more and more and realised that she's this is a huge project. This is so if people want to just join the group if they know somebody or their family members, what's the Facebook page?
Right? There's two groups. One is one for ex-staff only and families and that contains personal information about people what they're doing or anyone who sadly passed away and so on, and very in the house that at just type in Portishead radio. And that's where you get to the site. The open one, which is for local historians, or anyone with an interest in this station is Portishead Radio, GKA, which is the call sign for the station. That's open to everyone, although I do check profiles just to make sure there's nothing untoward or sinister going on. And there is a website, of course, www.Portisheadradio.co.uk, which is immense, having maybe hundreds of photos of the station, video recordings, audio recordings, a bit of history, and basically, hopefully, everything you want to know about the place.
Yeah, I can certainly agree that the site is huge, and it's obviously a labor of love. Because there's so much information in there and, and just the historic, I was amazed at the amount of historical video clips that people have done and posted on YouTube, that are now, you're able to, like combine into one place, so you don't have to hunt around for them.
Exactly as a one stop shop if you like. And so if you want information about the station or see a video, or hear a recording, it's all there. And of course, there's other ancillary pages and book reviews and some of the funny events which went on which can be made public, some obviously can't. But there are some which are quite legendary.
We'd like to share one that springs to mind.
There's one, there's a nice one. Some of the guys who worked at this station, were a little bit eccentric, if you great people, wonderful characters. And one day this guy was taking a telegram and then all of a sudden he stood up and still taking a telegram and they were looking at what's going on. And so why are you standing up taking this telegram and he turned around and said, I am receiving a telegram from Her Majesty the Queen. And of course, the most famous one, which is on the website is at Christmas, people used to have to book telephone calls to ships and booked them days in advance because it was so busy ships were limited to maybe a half hour slot, which had to be booked in advance. So one Christmas morning, we received a call from the chairman of Cunard, who would like to book a call to the QE2. And in typical radio officer parlance, we said sorry, you can't have the call, the QE2 is fully booked. To which the corner said Do you know who I am? The usual thing? No, no. Who are you? I am Sir Basil Smallpeice, chairman of Cunard. And their response came I don't care if your Basil Brush, you still can't have the call to the ship. A few days later, we received a letter of complaint from the chairman of Cunard who appreciated that the fact he couldn't have the call. But he wasn't too pleased with being referred to as a furry rodent, I think was a phrase he used. But yeah, there's a few characters in this station. And there were a few interesting episodes, some of which are on the site.
So you've also written books, you've given talks, and you must have an immense collection. Is it all self-generated? Or is it stuff that you've gathered from other people?
A bit of both. As I said, when the station closed, I basically tried to salvage everything I could. So I've got boxes of stuff upstairs in the attic and folders and so on. A lot of people knew icollected it, so they were kind enough to let me have stuff. And they sent me videos, I've got CDs of recordings, and so on loads of photographs, the BT archives have been superb and letting me have access to their stuff. Obviously, I did work for them for a time, which helped. And also through Facebook, lots of radio officers around the world. They're happy to send me stuff stories and everything. which culminated a few years ago, and people said, Why didn't you write a book about it? So I did COVID came, we are all locked down. So that was my COVID project. So the book had been prepared for a few years before so I resurrected my documents and archive stuff, finished it off and sent it off, checked it out and in 2000 or 2000 and, yeah, 2020 The book was published, Portishead radio a friendly voice on many a dark night.
Oh, that's an excellent title.
That was given to us by our former station manager, a lovely guy called Ernie Crosscall, who some people may remember. And he always referred to it as a friendly voice on many a dark night. I thought that'd be a perfect title for a book. So the history is in there, it's on Amazon, if you want to buy it and also available on the website as well.
Excellent. Portishead Radio, okay. And if they want to find out more information, as you say, it's all on the website as well
As well as a few more information or a few more bits of information in the book all about the station. And that led me on to another book, which is about the smaller stations around the UK, now Portishead was worldwide it communicated all over the world, but not around the UK coast. It was too close. So the post office had a network of stations at Land's End, Niton, North Foreland, Humber all around the coast. And their main job was to communicate with ships up to 250 miles away. And I've combined a history of this their operations in one rather immense book, over 500 pages. And it's called all ships or ships, which was the phrase used when calling ships over the radio, all ships or ships, this is Niton and radio and so on.
And to remind the listeners, again, that the website to be able to find links to all this sort of stuff is
It's www.Portisheadradio.co.uk And it's also available on Amazon, but if you want one of the very you're now very rare signed copies thats through the through the website. Absolutely.
So do you run the whole website yourself? Is it just just you?
It's just me. Yeah. Wow. Okay, the labor of love. I mean, having retired, there is a bit more time not a lot. But it does need updating a little bit. It's a little bit out of date on some pages, but it's on my list of things to do. Time permitting.
The website today. Is it something that you always messed around with websites? Or is this another skill you have to learn?
Not really, it's the original website was set up in about 2005 when it was hosted by BT, and BT stopped hosting websites a few years back. So the site went dormant for a few years and I resurrected it with financial help, but we got it back on the on the internet again. And it's it's thriving, really is thriving, good reviews, and we're we're getting 100-150 hits a day. From all over the world
And I noticed the Facebook page as well. He's very active. There's lots of comments and people are having conversations just odd stories that have been told.
Exactly. Yes. It's not only is it read officers or staff members contribute to the site, its local people as well, who remember the station or their father right there or the neighbor right there. And it's bringing it's back to life, which is the whole point. It's been close 22 years now coming up. And, but it's still it still lives on the internet.
What are the plans for the future? What are you hoping to try and do?
Right, the most obvious thing we love to do is to get the station and remembered on the site. There is money available. The builders donated, I think a sum of around about 15,000 pounds for something. The original plan was to have an obelisk or memorial on site that changed. But there is a dispute between the developers on the county council. So until the council have full ownership, they can't do anything. I've seen the plans, they want to put some sort of aerial shape climbing frame, which is but what I do want is some sort of plaque there, and also an information board, which gives the history of the station and maybe a few benches with plaques on remembering the staff who work there. But until we get that sorted, we're stuck. And it'd be lovely to have some sort of museum as well. Yes, just to clear my attic if nothing else. But the Americans are big in museums. The Germans have a station that the German station at Nordac converted their old building into a museum that Dutch having museum even Ilfracombe has a museum with an old Ilfracombe radio console. Highbridge has nothing, absolutely nothing. Even the names of the roads on the station site have a very tenuous link with radio we got Marconi drive, which is fair enough and Tesla but Suzeny and Stockley and Maritime walk, it's all very vague. We did suggest that we'd call the station something along the lines or call the development, something along the lines of Telegraph Park, with all the names of the Co-stations Knightonway in Northorland walk. Portishead Drive things like that, but you can't talk once the developers made the minds up they're not for changing
Which is a shame because if as you say, it stamps the heritage and history on a location as opposed to people just saying it used to be here and there's there's no evidence
Exactly. Yeah. It needs something. I know the BBC did an interview years ago back in the 90s. When they went around Highbridge asking people what do you know what the station does? Nobody did even then when it was operating. You know, people thought it was in our something really secretive and GCHQ it was not it's fully public. You can pick up any radio list in the road, and it's all there all the frequencies. Obviously, you weren't supposed to listen to it, but only with special dispensation, but people did.
So do you remember, Highbridge back to the period that you were there? So during the 80s period, do you do you have fond memories of Highbridge town? Is there anything that stands out
It was a thriving place you know as live industry, there Woodberry & Haines of course, the railway station I remember sitting in the waiting room down there but the original buildings and it was a nice warm station that was it was more of a community there is more shops, there's more facilities there and it's more of a community. These days it's just flats and houses, there's nothing there. I don't know why that is hopefully things will change in the future but it's become a sprawling suburb of Burnham if you like these days?
Yeah. People are speak to it becomes very evident that it feels as though it's an appendage of Burnham that people have forgotten. It's got its own history, its own catalogue of events.
Oh, gosh. Yeah. I mean, certainly the rollway. It was immense and they're sort of early 1900s 1920s. But sadly after Beaching that sort of fell away rather, but you know, some of the industry there and Highbridge Wharf, you know ships, ships and Highbridge. People don't understand that now. But of course, the main thing my interest is, is the radio station, which, you know, formed a massive part of the community, you know, 250-300 people worked there. And it should be commemorated somehow, someway. But sadly, it isn't.
Well, hopefully, somebody that hears the podcast, may, may think, Oh, I could help with this, or here's something I can do. Yeah,
I know, we're in touch with the local heritage group and the Local History Society, and they've been brilliant. But it's just getting people with influence on side. You know, I've managed to get our local MP involved in the radio station side of things, and he's asked to be kept informed. But you know, the history group needs a push to gets some location somewhere for some sort of museum or exhibition somewhere to recognize the place otherwise, a lot of people it's a place you go through on the 38. But there's, there's so much more to it so much more.
Larry, that's a perfect way to finish our conversation. Good. And thank you very much for your time and every success with the book, the website, and hopefully getting some recognition of that the site and where it was.
Oh, that'd be wonderful. If we could, I can sleep easy then.
Creators & Guests
What is The Highbridge Podcast?
Celebrating the history, people, and places in the Highbridge, Sedgemoor Area. A podcast from the people for the people