Chelmsford and the history of radio transmitting
PUBLISHED: 16:43 12 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:43 12 January 2016
Being so thoroughly immersed in today’s digital age, it’s easy to take for granted the ground-breaking origins of modern communications and how they helped shape the last century in so many ways.
During World War II, Chelmsford housed two targets for German bombers: Hoffmann’s, the manufacturers of ball bearings which were used in munitions, and Marconi’s radio factory. This is the place where production and research contributed greatly to the military effort. Unfortunately for local residents, few bombs hit the designated targets, landing on nearby houses instead.
The site of Marconi’s New Street Works Factory is now mostly given over to housing for a thriving and popular community of businesses, retail outlets, education facilities and recreational amenities, but back in the early 20th century, the site was a symbol of how one man’s determination would open the doors to exciting new methods of communicating and broadcasting entertainment.
Guglielmo Marconi was the son of an Italian aristocrat and landowner whose fascination with physics and electricity as a young man led him to study the works of Heinrich Hertz at the University of Bologna. Further trials at his home were conducted with the aim of creating wireless telegraphy through producing and detecting electromagnetic radiation.
His experiments were successful and showed great potential, but he was unable to get sufficient funding in Italy, so he travelled to England armed with receivers, transmitters and antennae to prove that his discovery could be commercially viable, and highly useful militarily as well. Following a successful and historic transmission on Salisbury Plain in 1896, Marconi filed for the first patent for a ‘system of telegraphy using Hertzian Waves and it was to Chelmsford that he headed to begin production and development of radio broadcasting.
In 1920, from the second Marconi site, the New Street Works Factory, soprano Dame Nellie Melba made the first ever entertainment broadcast in the UK via a signal that was received across Europe and reportedly went as far as Newfoundland in Canada.
Marconi’s expertise was a great coup for Chelmsford and, during its heyday, more than 4,500 people were employed in the factory, offices and the research laboratory.
All that remains in the town today of The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company is the Art Deco-styled factory frontage and the listed water tower. However, thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers and two highly enthusiastic owners and local businessmen, Matt Eaves and Hal Maclean, radio is still very much alive and well in Chelmsford.
Chelmsford Community Radio is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week station, run by a not-for -profit organisation, dedicated to serving the community by providing entertainment and supporting local causes, charities, schools and businesses. Hal, the co-owner, explains how the station came to be. ‘Matt and I met at Anglia Ruskin University, where we worked on a series of projects based around digital creativity,’ says Hal. The two went on to work on further creative projects with the BBC as part of the 2006 Blast Tour, which featured video, animation, writing and drama.
Matt continues: ‘We didn’t consider ourselves experts, but facilitators. It was the radio workshops that really hit a note with us. We soon discovered that many disaffected young learners and those with Aspergers found that, through the medium of radio, they responded in a way they hadn’t previously. Instead of having to sit and listen they were being invited to talk in what they saw as a non-threatening environment and, for many struggling with education and communication, it was a pivotal moment.’
Both Hal and Matt, increasingly aware of the educational benefits of radio, were also keen to bring a radio station to Chelmsford and, in 2008, met with representatives from Chelmsford City Council to discuss plans to convert the town’s derelict buildings as part of a project to invigorate and regenerate the area. Here they discussed the old Marconi site and whether they could possibly do something with the water tower which, due to its listed status, had been left out of the overall project to turn the old factory and buildings into homes. The challenge to bring a modern station back to the very home of radio seemed too hard to resist and the deal was done.
Hal explains: ‘The equipment was bought and we moved in, initially serving as a play-out system just playing music, but pretty soon we were ready to be what we’d always intended to be – a community radio station. It was time to recruit! We advertised for volunteers via Facebook and 16 came to audition and all proved to be good in front of a microphone. In 2013, another appeal saw a further 100 people willing to give their time and that’s how we continue to operate – we don’t turn anyone away.’
Hal believes firmly that the station is there to provide opportunities for the volunteers and quotes two great examples.
‘One day, two men, twins called Scott and Greg, arrived at the station with their carer,’ begins Hal. ‘Both lived with dyspraxia and struggled with co-ordination and with speech. They just wanted to get involved, whether it be helping deliver leaflets or with the database. They ended up hosting a show for two hours and, as they had quite a network of friends and contacts, it turned out to be the most listened to show at the station. They went on to be regular presenters with quite a fan base. Also, one young girl who auditioned as part of the original 16, an A grade student, has chosen to go to Leeds University to study broadcasting, purely due to her experience with us.’
As well as these two success stories, many of their volunteers go on to work with other regional radio stations (such as Hear) to further the experience that the station has inspired and motivated.
Up until now, Chelmsford Community Radio has been available only digitally, but this is all set to change after the station was granted an FM licence earlier this year.
Hal adds: ‘We are awaiting an inspection from Ofcom and, pending that, we will be all set to broadcast to Chelmsford and the area on the frequency 104.4, enabling us to extend our service to a wider audience.’
Chelmsford’s Community Radio does what it says on the tin. It allows local voices to be heard, events to be flagged up and, most importantly of all, for ordinary people to be involved and to experience what really does still seem to be the magical voice of radio, once more coming out of Chelmsford.
Surely a fitting tribute to the memory and vision of Guglielmo Marconi.