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United Kingdom
Presenting some of LIFE's ODDITIES and plenty of RANDOM JOTTINGS


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

"WHAT A LARK" A story of Pre-war Pirate radio

I discovered this document while clearing out the house of a deceased radio amateur.

It presents an account of how one enthusiast started into the magic art of  WIRELESS.

For the provenance of this document, read the opening paragraph and the tail credits. 



by P. (Ben) Bennett ZS1AAQ/G3HEH

The Author recounts his early interest in pre WW2 wireless and his adventures into 'Pirate Radio Broadcasting’. The story was transmitted, using CW, in instalments to George Holtum GW4SLZ to type and edit for submission to Radio Bygones for possible publication.

My earliest introduction to wireless

 The story I am about to tell is a product of the time during which it took place: it was a time when the magic of wireless captured the imagination of many a schoolboy, and I was one of them in the late 1920s. My Father bought me a second-hand crystal set complete with headphones from a stall in the Bromley, Kent market for the princely sum of three shillings and sixpence! It was in a flat polished wooden box and labelled Gecophone BBC, the headphones also had a BBC label. I can still remember the thrill when my Father connected it to his large outside aerial, it was really quite a loud signal, possibly because we were less than ten miles from the transmitter. It was this simple experience that was the spark that determined the course of my life

It was after this that I made an electrical buzzer, wound the coil on one of those old fashioned cotton reels, the core was an iron bolt, and with a couple of razor blades bolted together and a few pieces of Meccano which were all fixed to a piece of wood, it worked very well from a 2 volt accumulator.

My cousin, who was two years older, and lived next door, also made a buzzer and we ran twin flex between his bedroom and mine. Using two homemade Morse keys we used to send make believe messages to each other, neither of us knew the Morse Code, but I think that it impressed visiting aunts and uncles

Carbon microphones

 Through my cousin I learnt of a boy who had just made a microphone during his training to be a telephone technician, which he had brought home to show his parents. I managed to persuade the boy to bring the microphone to my home for me to see, and to demonstrate how it worked. He ran a long twin flex down the garden to which he connected his microphone, and a pair of headphones to the other end of the flex inside the house. We could hear the birds twittering and all the other everyday noises including a train passing by about four hundred yards away across the field. My immediate thoughts were that I must find out how to make one of these microphones. After the demonstration he took the microphone to pieces and explained how it worked. He said that the quality of the carbon granules was extremely important. He removed the diaphragm in order that I could see them they looked like polished black sugar. I inquired if he could obtain some granules for me. A few days later I had some in my possession, a small box of carbon granules, to me, this was a box of polished black magic

Change of QTH

Before I had time to make my microphone, my Father announced that we were to move to Herne Bay and live by the sea. He was going to be a garage proprietor. My brother and I were to be weekly boarders at a school five miles from Herne Bay. At first this restricted my wireless activities some what. I fixed up another aerial for my crystal set, and was surprised that the signals   were still quite strong. Next door to the garage was a sweet shop where the owner lived with his wife and their son who worked in London as an engineer for Standard Telephones and Cables. He had a workshop in a shed in the garden where he made wireless sets for friends. This was extremely fortunate as far as I was concerned. At the weekend I was introduced to their son, Len, who gave me enough parts to construct another crystal set, which did not take me long. "It was Just as good as my Gecophone. I learned the art of soldering in Len’s workshop, and he also got me started on electrical fundamentals, understanding circuit diagrams. It was 1933 and I was twelve years old, an ideal age to start.

Another move.

 In less than a year my Father decided to sell the garage and to become a landlord of a country pub halfway between Canterbury and Herne Bay. There were three other houses in the vicinity of the pub, but no children. Because of this isolation I decided to concentrate on my wireless and made my microphone. I still had enough carbon granules to make another which I did and fixed up a telephone to the house at the end of the garden. The old chap who lived in this house used to talk to me whenever he was at home.

At this time commercially manufactured sets were replacing the homemade ones. Living in the pub, I soon realised that some of the customers might have a homemade set that they no longer needed, and soon my bedroom looked like a second hand wireless shop! Most of the homemade sets were very badly constructed. I rewired some of them, and actually sold a few to friends. One day in the tuck shop at school, I asked the master about an old wireless set that had stood there ever since I became a pupil. Without hesitation he gave it to me and told me that one of the Brothers had made it about ten years previously and had returned to France shortly after he had made it. This set was another milestone in my wireless career: it was wired with square tinned copper wire; it had one valve and a basket coil. I always remember the slogan on this coil, it said, "What are the wild waves saying?" I took the set home with me and found that it worked very well.

By now I had made a one valve amplifier and I had positioned one of my microphones in the bar in order that I could hear what was going on there. One night after all the customers had gone, I was listening to my Mother and Father talking. The wireless was still switched on in the bar, and as I tuned in the one valve set from school I heard a loud heterodyne, and the BBC disappeared completely. The other wireless set could not do this. The following day after the morning session, my parents were sleeping. I switched on the one valve set and went into the bar, and was able to tune in a very strong carrier from my school set. When I ran my finger over the serrated aerial terminal I noticed that a ‘Zip’ type of noise could be heard. I reasoned that if I connected my microphone in series with the aerial that my voice would be audible on the wireless down in the bar. Now I had to enlist the help of my brother, who confirmed that my voice could be heard. I had reinvented the wheel! I got him to talk but it wa not very loud. Then I connected the microphone to the one valve amplifier in series with the aerial, but alas no carrier!. Now I wanted to broadcast, but how to do it?. I had a large red book it was by Terman, Radio Engineering. It contained circuit diagrams of high power broadcast transmitters. I picked a 1Kw audio circuit, which at the beginning looked similar to my one valve amplifier, but with a few more stages. Then I saw that the output of this audio amplifier, which was called a modulator was connected to the output of the RF input stage via a transformer described a modulation transformer, but not connected in serieswith the aerial, but in series with the HT supply to the RF amplifier. Now I knew where I had gone wrong!                                                                         

      Another move!    
 Disaster struck again! My Father decided that he had enough of being a publican, and advised us all that we were returning to Herne Bay once again. I had to pack up all my wireless equipment. It was another six months before I could resume experiments as where we were living was rented accommodation. Eventually we moved into a very nice house less than 400 yards from the Police Station. I unpacked everything again, and put up another aerial. The wireless that was in the Bar was now in the sitting room. The secondary of the output transformer on my now two valve amplifier was connected in series with the HT supply of the one valve set from school. I set the dial of the sitting room set on a clear frequency; I spoke into the microphone and it was unbelievable, success at last! Now I wondered how far it would transmit. About half a mile up the road there lived a girl and her mother and I decided to go and ask them if I could listen to their wireless. I had fixed the microphone on the sideboard of our house knowing that my parents would be home soon as the pubs closed at 2 pm. Before proceeding any further, I should mention that both my parents were town characters, and my Mother was invariably very abrasive towards my Father especially after a few drinks. At 2.15 I switched on everything and dashed up the road to the girl's house. Her Mother opened the door and said that I could listen to the wireless. I tuned in a strong signal , and was surprised to hear the sitting room clock ticking; mother and daughter were having a discussion about a dress they were making. I heard my parents arrive home, but they did not speak while preparing lunch. I could hear the sound of knives and forks on the plates, but not any speech. After about ten minutes my Mother got up from the table and said to my Father, "Ken, come and help me with the b............ washing up!" My Father replied that he was too tired, and was going to have a rest. My Mother shouted in colloquial English to the effect that he was a very ‘Indolent fellow’! My Father said, "Kit, don’t shout everybody will hear you!" My friend's mother came over to the wireless to listen and said, "Ben, that’s your parents on the wireless, what’s going on?" She laughed so much to hear a broadcast of my parents that she nearly fell off the arm of the chair she was sitting on. I dashed home on my bike as fast as I could go. The news soon got around that I could broadcast from my home that I became quite a celebrity among my friends.

New Transmitter

At a distance of 3 miles the signals were not very good. The aerial to the one valve set was connected to the grid circuit of the valve; signals were much improved when I transferred the aerial to the valve's anode. One day a chap who had left school and was studying electrical engineering in London said that he would like to talk to his girl friend who lived at the other end of the town. He mentioned that he had heard me talking on the wireless but it was very weak. He inquired what was necessary to make it more powerful. I explained about using battery valves etc., and said that I needed five or six hundred volts, and some big gun valves. Well, after a few days he visited the house and said that his father had given him ten pounds to spend. He drove me around the area visiting all the wireless shops, even as far as Chatham. We purchased a PX4 and a couple of PX25 second-hand, some 4 mfd capacitors, and a large Varley High Tension transformer - 500 volts 120 m/amps. Decided to make a completely new transmitter, and with the aid of another friend, we had it ready for testing in about three weeks. Using the same circuit as the one valve set but with the PX4 as the oscillator; fed from a 250 volt separate supply, this drove a single PX25 with 600 volts on the anode. By this time I had left school and was working in the local wireless shop from where I had managed to scrounge a few old parts including a milliammeter - 250 m/a in a brass case. The modulator was a single PX25 driven by an MH4. The modulation transformer was two loudspeaker transformers connected back to back, which worked very well.. Without the big red book, "Radio Engineering" by F. E. Terman none of this would have been possible. My friend’s ten pounds was going to enable me to put into practice what I had been reading about in this book for two years. Neutralising the PX25 worried me as I had never made such an adjustment before; but it did not prove a problem and the PX25 stage was quite stable and tuned up very well. I paid a lot of attention to shielding, and all the old aluminium panels I had came in very useful. At this stage I was wondering what to say to the fellow, who funded the project, should it not work! My doubts vanished when a large car headlamp bulb, which had a coil of about five turns of wire soldered to it, lit up brightly when coupled to the centre of the tank coil. The PX4 provided the necessary M.O's drive, and the PX25 P. A. valve drew 120 m/amps; the plate voltage was 500 therefore the input was 60 watts, and if the efficiency was at least 60 percent, then the output would have been close to 40 watts. Compared with the original transmitter with two H.T. batteries in series with an output of perhaps two to three watts this was a big improvement! Now I was sure that I would soon be on the air. From 1938, when this new transmitter was put into service, until the outbreak of war, I was never apprehended despite the fact that the police station was only 400yards up the road. A better aerial was erected; it was 40 feet high and 120 feet long - there were two wires spaced 4 feet apart with a single lead in. A five turn swinging link on the P.A. tank coil fed via a piece of twisted lighting flex (no coax in those days) for a link coil on a parallel tuned circuit. The aerial was tapped onto this coil at the position that maximum brilliance to a small car bulb in series with the aerial lead in. I can still remember that it would have been advantageous to have been blessed with three hands to adjust this lot! The single PX25 modulator did not produce enough power to fully modulate the carrier, it only had about 6 watts output and we needed at least 30 watts or more. I also made a small audio mixer which drove the modulator, it had a grams input and a microphone input so that I could feed from one to the other. The reproduction from a good mains wireless set was at least equal to the BBC as far as one could tell by listening to a record, but my carbon microphone left much to be desired.

"Big Broadcast of 1938"

A slight diversion for another story which leads up to the formation of a broadcast team.

One night I was in the ice cream parlour with the friend who was helping me make the new transmitter. Also there was a pretty girl who I had admired since I was twelve years old when she brought into the garage a two volt accumulator for charging, she lived in the next road. She was with a fellow who I did not know. After a while he came over and asked if I was Ben, who did the broadcasting. I confirmed that I was, and he said that his girlfriend could not find us on her wireless set. So I offered to show her where to find us when we left the ice cream parlour. Arriving at her house, I was introduced to her parents, and went into the sitting room and I switched on their  wireless set. I tuned across the Medium Wave band and suddenly there was a big carrier, and my Father started talking, he was obviously in a mellow mood. The girls started laughing! I made my excuses and rode off at full speed on my bike once again. I had no idea that my Father even knew how to switch it all on. Several days later he informed me that he had been heard very well by all his friends. It was now 1938, and I had just turned 17 years. It was at this time that Hollywood produced a film entitled, "The Big Broadcast of 1938". It was about small broadcasting stations in America. We all went to see it, and afterwards in the ice cream parlour we decided that we would organise our own "Big Broadcast of 1938"! Various members of the group were appointed to different jobs. For instance, one chap had a very good voice, therefore he was to be the station announcer. We even had a Walter Winchell type who prepared his spot very well with local news about our colleagues. One girl was a singer with a sixteen piece dance band run by the son of the local police inspector. The son's name was Basil and he assured me that it would be OK. He went on to say that he and other members of his band used to play in clubs where there was after hours drinking, and added that his father never knew! On the appointed Saturday he came with a bass player, a drummer and he played the piano, also the accordion. I can't remember every performance, but it all took place in our large sitting room - a studio complete with "on air" lights and everything else! My parents thought this was great fun. One act I well remember was a simulated fighter aircraft dog fight with the participants making the appropriate noises with their mouths; a morse key operated near the microphone produced Lewis machine gun sounds - shades of scenes in the film, "Hells Angels"! Who would have thought two of the actors in this mock battle were to lose their lives doing just that a couple of years later. We were on the air for two hours and it all went well. We had reports from a friend by telephone to say that good signals were received in Loughton, Essex with only an aerial round a picture rail = a distance of 53 miles, our best Dx report! In the ice cream parlour the next day we all got the wind up and the station was dismantled and various parts of the equipment were distributed 'in friends' houses.

WW2 and enlistment with RAF

 Six weeks passed and nothing happened therefore we reinstalled the station, but now decided we were only going to play records. Various members of our group would prepare a record programme and present it. One day I had to do a public address job for the shop where I worked. It was a garden fete, and of course I was requested to do all the announcements. Half way through the proceedings, a pretty girl came up to me and said, "I recognise your voice from the wireless, are you anybody famous?" After that I tried disguising my voice somewhat for all further announcements! The last broadcast took place 2 days after war was declared, just played records of Carrol Gibbons for an hour. The next day the station was dismantled and placed into big cardboard boxes, never to be used again. Shortly after that I joined the Royal Air Force and went into Radar at Bawsey Manor in Suffolk. After two months there I was posted overseas to the Middle East. When I returned 4 years later, I found that my parents had given all my wireless equipment away. My Father said, "Surely, You didn't want us to keep all that old junk!" I was really upset.

"What a lark!"

One might think that was the end of the story, but not quite. After the war I went into sound recording in London, and then overseas to join a new Television station in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1966 I was appointed Chief Engineer and was sent on a trip to England also to the USA for general simulation visiting the BBC /ATV and RCA. When in England I paid a short visit to my home town, Herne Bay. I was standing outside the Queens Hotel where my parents frequented for their favourite tipple, and I was thinking about times past there, when suddenly I heard a commanding voice behind me say, “Hello young Bennett, how are you these days?" It was the Chief Inspector of Police, now retired. We shook hands, and he said, I always remember you with your Sunday morning broadcasts", he paused, then said, "What a lark!”


First published in Radio Bygones No 46 pages 27 to 30. HERE

Or visit Radio Bygones at their website: www.radiobygones.co.uk


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