Among a host of anniversaries celebrated in 2016, the thought occurred to me that the date also coincides with eighty years of the first public transmissions of television pictures from Alexandra Palace in London in the Autumn of 1936. Most people know that the first person to demonstrate a working television was Scotsman John Logie Baird who in 1926 gave a demonstration of his invention to 50 scientists in an attic room in central London. Baird was able to transmit images over telephone lines between London and Glasgow and he also achieved the first transatlantic television transmission between London and New York in 1928. The system in use by Baird was basically a mechanical 405 line set-up but this was rapidly becoming obsolete as electronic systems were developed by Marconi – EMI in Britain and in America. After side-by-side trials, the Baird system was dropped and subsequent development was based solely on the Marconi system.
Rather surprisingly, the first Courier advert for a television was placed by the Birmingham company Radio Rentals in April 1945 before the ending of the Second World War. Curry’s of Bath Street had also realised the huge sales potential of this piece of new technology and their advert in the same year invited prospective purchasers to fill in a coupon expressing their interest and this also included the reassuring phrase that the new sets ‘will soon be coming through‘. At that date, the only transmitter in Britain was at Alexandra Palace in London and it was pot luck as to whether the signal would be picked up successfully a hundred miles away.
This fact hampered sales until such time as the BBC could erect a local transmitter serving the Midland counties. In October 1947 plans were announced for such a transmitter which would be built near Sutton Coldfield, then in Warwickshire. The following year, at the 1948 Midlands Ideal Home Exhibition, held each October in the old Bingley Hall in Birmingham, TV viewing booths were set up so that visitors could watch live programmes from London. The Courier reported that ‘Leamingtonians are already placing orders for sets’.
One store manager told the reporter that he had already sold the first dozen sets to be delivered and that he confidently expected demand to exceed supply ‘which has not been the case with radio for some time’. He added that the type of set that his (unnamed) company would be featuring would cost £56.3s (£56.15) inclusive of purchase tax which he thought represented ‘broadly speaking, years of entertainment at the cost of the family’s fortnight’s holiday by the sea’. Another local electrical contractor, Sims in Regent Street, opened a new demonstration studio and according to their advertisement ‘will have models from twelve manufacturers.’
By the Spring of 1949 a number of commercially produced TV’s came off the production line and for the first time the demand locally for sets was met. Hansons on Lower Parade advertised an HMV television for 36 guineas (plus tax)(£37.80). The following month Parsons & Hodges ran their advert for Pye televisions and Curry’s ran a full page ad in the Courier offering sets on ‘easy terms’ which was I imagine some form of hire purchase arrangement. Interestingly the editor of the Courier drew attention to the fact that this was the first full-page ad that the paper had run since the start of the Second World War after which newsprint had become increasingly difficult to obtain. The Courier also ran adverts from a London based company named View Master who for an outlay of five shillings (25 pence) would send you a 36 page booklet and full plans which would enable you to construct your own TV set ‘as easy as ABC’.
Experimental transmissions in the Midlands began in August 1949 when the BBC sent out test signals from a mobile pilot transmitter in Frankley Beeches in Worcestershire. The Leamington Courier (19 August 1949) reported that a Leamington radio dealer Mr K Jones had picked up the test signals at his showroom on a £170 set using the ‘H’ type aerial. Many of the older generation will still remember the K J Radio company owned by Ken Jones whose shop was on the corner of High Street and Church Street in Leamington.
The Courier also reported that four licences had been taken out in the district at a cost of £2 for a combined wireless/TV licence. Just before Christmas 1949 the BBC began transmissions from the newly-erected transmitter at Sutton Coldfield which was at that date the most powerful in the world. In this area, there was no scramble to take out TV licences and in Leamington only 66 licences had been purchased from the Post Office – Stratford had just 19 sets by the end of 1949.Nationally,in August 1948 the number of TV licences taken out was about 61,000 but in the following year the public’s caution about buying new receivers had faded and by the end of 1949 over 90,000 licences had been issued nationally. There was in any event considerable opposition to the requirement to have to purchase a licence before owning or using a TV set. The Mayor of Leamington Alderman Bill Wallsgrove told the Courier that he wouldn’t be getting a television as they already had a radio which was switched on all day and they didn’t even listen to that. “A TV set would need concentration and our time is always occupied” said Bill. In the Autumn of 1949, Mrs Gardner of the Stockton Womens Institute became one of the first local people to appear on live TV when she was interviewed by Raymond Glendenning at the Royal Show for a twice weekly magazine programme titled ‘Picture Parade’.
At a time when sets were being advertised at prices upwards of of 39 guineas (£40.19s, £40.95) it is small wonder that there were few of the tell-tale H or X aerials in evidence on local chimney stacks. Given that the weekly wage of a male factory worker was less than £5 a week this comes as no surprise.
It is said that the coverage of the Coronation in 1953 was a major reason for the tremendous increase in sales of television sets in Britain. It is certainly true that many families, my own included, first acquired a television in the early nineteen-fifties. Both my uncle and my grandfather acquired a bakelite Bush set with a nine inch tube on which to see the Queen’s Coronation.
Television viewing was attended with a certain amount of ritual in those early days. My grandparents kept their set covered with a chenille table cloth which was removed with due ceremony as the appointed time approached for the start of the evening’s programmes. Broadcasts did not commence until early evening and time had to be allowed for the set to ‘warm up’ before the picture appeared on screen. It was thought necessary and indeed advisable to put out the room lights when watching TV in the evening.
I never knew quite why this was. It may have owed something to the way in which films were watched in the cinema but I suspect it had more to do with the rather low contrast of the early sets. I well remember how we kids sat huddled on the floor round the magic box in eager anticipation of the Newsreel or What’s My Line on Sunday evenings. My grandfather subsequently decreed that it was harmful to the eyes to watch TV in a darkened room and henceforth the room lights were left on.
After a few months I recall a large magnifying glass being produced which was attached to the front of the little nine inch Bush. This made a marginal difference to the size of the picture if you happened to be more or less in front of the set but was fairly disastrous if you were viewing from one side as we kids were when the picture was distorted like a fairground Hall of Mirrors.
A television repair engineer who was working in the early days recalled how his customers looked on him as almost like the family Doctor. When required he attended in white coat to offer sympathetic care and a quick diagnosis as if for a member of the family who had been taken ill.
Since those early days, television has become an integral part of all our lives. I know people who have a television set in practically every room in the house. If you are a serious viewer you can buy a screen the size of an old master painting.
For myself I am still re-living the bleak March day in 1951 when in the University Boat Race ‘our’ crew, Oxford, sank in the grey waters of the Thames within a few minutes of the start. For a ten year old boy to witness such a happening now that was unforgettable. My brother still has in his loft the little bakelite Bush on which as children we had watched these events all those years ago. Strange to reflect that nineteen-fifties state of the art technology has become a museum exhibit during one’s own lifetime.
Alan Griffin March 2016
British Television OUP Paperbacks 1994
British Newspaper Archive (Leamington Courier back issues)