Thames Radio & Radio Britannia
Thames Radio & Radio Britannia
A brief tale of landbased UK pirate radio 1968-1975
Like most of Britain's youth, I was devastated when the MOA came to pass on 14th August 1967. On that day we lost not only vitality and choice in radio entertainment, but also something much more sinister; freedom of speech in broadcasting.
I was a young radio enthusiast living in South London, and although a member of the local ham radio club, my interests went beyond experimenting on the shortwave bands. My school friends & I were all keen devotees of Radio Caroline, but her increasingly flagging transmissions were not getting the message to Government, and after hearing landbased Radio Free London emulate the former "Big L", we decided to launch our own station.
It wasn't hard to modify ham radio transmitter circuits to the medium wave, and the parts were all readily available from war surplus shops in London's Tottenham Court Road, or simply scrounged from old TV's and radiograms. Before long our shed in suburban Coulsdon became the source of a 15 watt signal playing an eclectic mix of records at strange hours and variable frequencies. With financial help from friends and donations from a local record shop, this evolved into Radio Thames on 220 metres, broadcasting briefly each Sunday using a long wire aerial across the garden. Our first transmission was on 25th August 1968.
Our downfall came in early 1969 when we attempted our first all day transmission while my parents were out. Commencing at 10:00, things were going well until a lookout noted two serious looking men approaching on foot, one with an earpiece. It was pretty obvious that the house with several long haired youths out front was the source of the station, and I nervously answered the front door whilst my pals scattered. Having no knowledge of my "rights" and being quite scared, I obeyed their instructions to cut some of the transmitter wiring and hand over the valves. The next evening the two men returned to discuss my activities with my father, and introduced themselves as GPO Officers Mr Crow and Mr Smith. They commented on the signal being "of quite good quality", and heard as far as Battersea which I was secretly pleased about. They then demanded I hand over the transmitter, but I had foreseen this and had prepared a dummy, which they happily took away. I was never prosecuted and I believe this was because (a) I was still just 17, (b) one of the first stations raided, and (c) they surely didn't follow correct protocols, and any decent lawyer would have got me off.
Of course, to any true pirate operator, being caught and shut down simply makes you more determined to continue, and my group was no different. By good chance, a friend's father was a freelance journalist by profession, and had some mysterious background in wartime radio equipment, as well as a subversive streak. He suggested that we build a more powerful transmitter, and using the (then) new cassette tape technology, pre-record programs and move the transmitter around each Sunday, hopefully delaying being tracked down by the authorities.
As the GPO became better at locating the growing number of landbased pirates around S.E. England, many other groups had adopted this operating model, notably Radio Jackie who eventually became the most famous. Again, like other groups, we financed our station through daytime jobs and running discos and used the equipment to record our shows. Each Sunday we would set up at someone's house and transmit programs under the new name of Radio Britannia ("Britons never, never shall be slaves") on 254 m (1183Kz). We also adopted a middle-of-the-road music format not unlike Radio 355, and carried paid advertising and various appeals for charities. Often we completed the full 2-3 hour transmission, but sometimes the familiar faces of Stan Smith and his bully sidekick, Eric Gotts in a slow passing car forced an early closure of the station. By 1970 our audience across London, & Surrey was increasing, but we were running out of locations, and resorting to hooking into public phone boxes, railway waiting rooms, and other strange sources for mains power.
Our benefactor then came up with a new solution. Together with my main ally Adrian (aka Stephan West), we purchased several DC-DC converters (and some VERY heavy ex-military batteries!) which although inefficient, ran silently and generated the necessary high voltage to run the 807 PA valves in our 100 watt rig. We now scoured the lovely Surrey countryside for hidden spots not too far from a road (we had to carry the batteries!), string up an invisible and expendable aerial between two tall trees, banged in some earth stakes, and tuned up the rig. Using lookouts with walkie-talkies, we never got close to being raided, and never lost the gear.
In 1972 we reverted to the callsign Thames Radio International (this being more palatable to some parliamentary supporters working behind the scenes on licence applications). Using pre-recorded programs on cassette tapes, we broadcast almost every Sunday (and Xmas which was a GPO accepted amnesty day) until 1973, with semi-regular transmissions and Xmas specials into 1974 and 1975 (with joint transmissions on 49 m shortwave). On medium wave we moved to 260m due to interference on 254m. Our music mix was mainly a "Gold" format with some contemporary pop. I still produced a 30 minute program under the name John Dale, but most programs were supplied by a professional DJ under a pseudonym. We carried no paid advertising, but supported free radio events, charities and advertised our own 'Paintbox' mobile disco*.
After a while, we got smarter and arranged the equipment in the boot of a car and found sites at the ends of country lanes. This meant we no longer had to lug the heavy gear across fields, and could immediately drive away if the GPO arrived, just sacrificing the aerial if found. For those technically minded, the transmitter was crystal controlled with oscillator, buffer, and driver into the PA, which was plate modulated by 4 EL84s series-parallel. We used a standard pi-tank and RF ammeter to tune max power into a long wire aerial. Our transmitter was once loaned to Radio Jackie in the early 70's to keep them going for a couple of weeks.
We used an address in Coulsdon, Surrey for fan mail and requests, and often received reports from places beyond our service area of South London and Surrey, and several European countries especially in winter. The mail always got through, probably because it is (or was) an offence in the UK for anyone to interfere with Her Majesty's Mail.
I sometimes wonder why Radio Britannia is hardly ever mentioned in histories of landbased UK pirates, but I think maybe because our target audience was slightly older than most stations, and our small group didn't mix much or QSO with others, so we were largely unknown in pirate circles. We still have the equipment in my friend's loft in Surrey, although looking at those power hungry valves and heavy batteries and transformers, it's a wonder we didn't consign them to the bin years ago!
Sydney, Australia 2007 * Our Paintbox Disco consisted of a twin deck DJ mixing console, mixer, amplifiers, speakers and lightshow that could be set up anywhere. It was a real money-maker. In 1972 we toured Holland and Denmark, ending up at Scheveningen where we were tempted to join the Caroline ship being secretly prepared for sea. After seeing the condition of the Mi Amigo, we both decided it was not for us, and returned to the UK.