For more than 70 years Portishead Radio in Worston Road. Highbridge served the world’s shipping, providing two-way long-range communication both on long and short waves. Today we have undoubtedly witnessed vast and undreamed of change in maritime communication techniques and it is perhaps timely to pause for a brief reflection upon this important part of maritime history. An importance underlined by the visit of Queen Elisabeth II.
Below is a film by Burnham filmmaker Norman Gobey of the Queen arriving at Highbridge Station, followed by her visit to King Alfred School and the radio station. Shot in December 1958 on 9.5mm this silent film was part of a collection donated to Somerset Film by the North Sedgemoor Local History Group.
At the close of the Great War, the General Post Office reopened its short-range coast stations for commercial two-way ship-shore traffic. Although broadcasting had been directed to ships from the great long-waves stations like Poldu and Caernarfon, no formal long-range two-way service existed. Late in 1919 the GPO agreed a contract with the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. to convert a redundant Imperial Wireless Chain receiving station at Devizes for long-range maritime use. Comprising a receiver and a six-kilowatt valve transmitter, GKT opened for service early in 1920 with a guaranteed range of 1,500 miles.
Housed in old army huts, its service advertised telegrams to and from ships up to five days from any British port at 11d (old money) per word. A small team of operators manned the station and radio traffic was keyed to and from the London Central Telegraph Office. This two-way long-range communication proved both successful and popular and by 1924 it became necessary to expand Devizes. The GPO constructed a second long-wave transmitter at Devizes and built a separate receiving station in Somerset, to which most of the operators transferred. By 1926 the value of short-wave communication was being proved by Marconi and Franklin and their confidence in the cheap and effective worldwide means of communication was fulfilled in their building of the Empire Beam Wireless System. The GPO in the same year constructed at Devizes the first maritime short-wave transmitter, keyed, like the long-wave transmitter, by operators with receiving equipment in Somerset. Tests were carried out with the SS Jarvis Bay and quite outstanding global results were achieved. By 1927 long-range two-way communication had become so firmly established that further expansion became necessary and a completely new transmitting station was built at Portishead near Bristol comprising initially of three long-wave transmitters and by 1929 a new shot-wave transmitter resulting in the final closure of the old Devizes station.
Throughout the 1930’s the long-range service expanded with a gradual decline in the use of long waves and rapid growth in short wave. Early in the thirties a new form of maritime customer was heard on the short waves, the flying boats, and their radio operators passing telegraph traffic to Portishead by Morse from as far as South Africa and India. The great liners, who had relied heavily on long-waves for their two-way communication, were making much greater use of short waves. By 1936 Portishead Radio, using three long-wave and four short-wave transmitters with its control and receiving centre handling well over three million words of radio traffic per year with a staff of sixty operators.
In common with all technical services, the war years brought great changes to the Portishead Radio. The station’s role of two-way communication changed to broadcasting to ships without acknowledgement of receipt. However distress calls, enemy sighting reports, and news of the North Africa landings, the sinking of the “Scharnhorst” and clandestine signals from Europe also kept the station busy.
Early in 1943 work had grown to such levels that naval operators from HMS “Flowerdown” augmented the civilian staffs. Many of Portishead’s civilian staff was seconded to Government services at home and overseas not only to man the radio station but also to train the many new additional radio officers required for convoy work. A special aircraft section was constructed for communications with patrol aircraft in the North Atlantic (Catalina’s).
Peacetime brought once again a return to commercial activities with an almost overwhelming demand for long-range communications. Largely from wartime experience the Area Scheme was set up in 1946 to enable British and colonial registered vessels to use naval station around the world with free relay of their traffic to Portishead.
Nineteen forty eight saw the opening of two new operating rooms with a landline room and a central control room with a steel plotting map of the world measuring 36 by 16 ft. A bureau file of both ship and aircraft positions were maintained and many were plotted with magnetic indicators. During the late forties and the fifties the transatlantic liners provided high volume traffic, particularly when VIP’s were amongst their passengers. Throughout this period all communications were still telegraphic, largely hand keyed by Morse code. The development of the shore telex service at this time enabled customers to deposit and receive messages direct from the station, with high traffic users installing their own private circuits.
On the morning of 5th December 1958 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Highbridge to tour the Radio Station and to receive a demonstration of the transmission and receipt of messages.
The sixties saw a continued expansion of the station, as a result of ever rising traffic and the introduction of new services such as the first experiments with telex over radio (TOR) and a Morse news press transmission. By 1965, eighty-six operators were handling more than eleven million words per year and communication with more than 1,000 ships each day.
In April 1970 the long-range radiotelephone service previously operated from Baldock Radio was transferred to Portishead Radio. Using transmitters at Rugby and Portishead, this service expanded so rapidly, it became necessary to operate temporarily, an additional control centre from Somerton Radio. By 1972 the Area Scheme came to an end and with it went the remaining Royal Naval presence. The demise of liner traffic had little affect overall, the oil trade and the deepwater fishing industry more than compensating for its loss. The advent of world yacht racing and single-handed events probably did more at this time to bring Portishead to the notice of the public at large than any other single factor. 1974 handled almost twenty million words of traffic by 154 operators and still traffic continued to grow.
Further major expansion of the service within the existing buildings in the Somerset control centre was impossible and in 1976 work commenced on a totally new building together with a computer-based message handling system. Radio telex continued to increase in popularity and by the late seventies it was obvious that no further expansion of the manually operated system was feasible. The advent of satellite point-to-point communication resulted in many short wave transmitting stations having spare capacity and in the late 1970’s it became necessary to rationalise the terrestrial services, resulting in the closure of the Portishead transmitting station.
The Somerset control centre remained using transmitters at Rugby, Leafield, Ongar and Dorchester but still announcing itself over the airwaves as Portishead Radio. In May 1981 the new control centre in Somerset was opened, initially for telephone and telegraph services and by 1984 for fully automatic radio telex. A new aircraft service was inaugurated in January 1985 providing a ‘phone patch’ and flight information on a worldwide basis.
Visitors to the town of Portishead, near Bristol will now find little trace of the old transmitting station, a beautiful building now sadly demolished. In its place stands the new Avon & Somerset Police Headquarters (with aerials) but the name Portishead Radio still echoes around the world – as a signal of service to mobile users on land, sea and in the air.
With many services transferred to Satellite via Goonhilly, BT will close virtually all of its commercial terrestrial radio services, in July this year (1999), bringing an end to Somerset’s involvement in Maritime and Aeronautical services.
Phillip Lewis retired from the post of Operational Manager at Portishead Radio a few years ago and his article, above, was written for “Seaways” the Journal of Master Mariners and was originally published in 1987.
The last transmissions were made by Mike Pearson (in morse code) and Larry Summers (radiotelephony).
ALL SHIPS ALL SHIPS ALL SHIPS
PORTISHEAD RADIO PORTISHEAD RADIO PORTISHEAD RADIO
THIS IS THE LAST BROADCAST FROM PORTISHEAD RADIO. FOR 81 YEARS WE HAVE SERVED THE MARITIME COMMUNITY.WE SAY THANK YOU TO ALL WHO HAVE SUPPORTED AND USED OUR STATION. WE PAY TRIBUTE TO MARCONI WHO MADE IT ALL POSSIBLE. HIS FIRST TRANSMISSIONS ACROSS WATER WERE MADE FROM NEARBY HERE AND SO STARTED THE RADIO ERA. WE ARE PROUD TO HAVE BEEN PART OF THAT ERA. AS THIS HISTORIC TIME IN THE COMMERCIAL MESSAGING WORLD COMES TO A CLOSE THE MANAGER AND RADIO OFFICERS WISH YOU FAREWELL FROM PORTIHEAD RADIO/GKB
The station was demolished in 2007 but its memory lives on both through a dedicated website and facebook group, set up by Larry Bennett, Burnham resident and Radio Officer at Portishead Radio 1980-2000. For further information visit here. The site has a forum, numerous photos and links to other films. We are grateful to Mr. Bennett for his corrections to the information held on this page.