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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Listening to the radio at home in
1940s wartime Britain and afterwards

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When I was a child in England in the Second World War, there was one radio in the house. (Televisions were still many years away.)

UK Murphy wireless (radio) 1938, A46

The wireless that I grew up with which I know to be a Murphy A46 because I still have the receipt of purchase.

Photo courtesy of Radiomuseum.org, owner Christian ADAM France

The radio was called the 'wireless'. I don't know why the name changed over the years to 'radio', but I do know that some twenty or so years later, anyone who still used the term 'wireless' was considered very out-of-date.

The wireless in our house was a particularly attractive one. It was in a large polished wooden box which could lay claim to being a piece of furniture in its own right because it was so elegantly contoured and veneered in cross-ways veneers. I am very fortunate indeed to have a photograph of it - see the photo.

The wireless had a speaker covered in some sort of roughish fabric, a dial two, large knobs and two smaller ones. The left hand round knob clicked the wireless on and off and further twisting adjusted the volume; the right hand knob searched the stations; the right hand lever-knob adjusted the tone (bass or treble); and the left lever-knob selected long, medium of short wave.

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The range of types of radios / wirelesses

A 1940s radio with two knobs: one for on/off and volume and the other for tuning.

A basic radio with two knobs: one for on/off and volume and the other for tuning.

What always struck me was that every family seemed to have a different-looking wireless, housed in its own individually shaped box. Even the woods were different.

Although all fitted the same description of a polished wooden box with either two, three or four knobs, a dial and a fabric covered speaker, to me, as a young child, they all looked very different. Clearly domestic radios, unlike home telephones which were all identical to one another, must have had a number of manufacturers, each producing their own range of styles.

It turned out that all the wirelesses that I knew had been bought in the relatively affluent 1930s, before the Second World War.

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Manufacture of radios during World War Two

1940s radio, called a wireless. Note the three knobs for on/off, volume and tuning; the dial and the fabric covered speaker.

The radio1940s radio manufactured during the Second World War - next to a bowl of nuts for scale. Note the three knobs for on/off, volume and tuning. Photographed in Milestones Museum, Basingstoke.

Although radios were manufactured for the home market during the war, they were very basic indeed. They were made to government specifications by several manufacturers. A feature was that they could not receive long wave, which meant that we in England could not listen to or be influenced by the propaganda transmitted from Germany.

David White
See his vintage radio collection

The second photo in the above section shows one of these radios.

Advert in a 1943 magazine, telling readers that Pye Radios will be ready when 'better days' come after the end of World War Two, thumbnail

Advert in a 1943 magazine, telling readers that Pye radios will be ready when 'better days' come.

  

Although there were no new types of radio for the home market during the Second World War, manufacturers seem to have thought it worthwhile to keep their names in the public eye. Hence the advert in the thumbnail on the left. The advert is somewhat wistful in the way that it speaks of 'better days'. In order to read the small print, click for an enlarged, legible version.

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The wireless 'extension' status symbol

An extension speaker, typically run from a 1940s radio / wireless to enable programmes on one radio / wireless to be heard in another room

An extension speaker. Photographed on a Watercress Line event..

Even as the 1940s merged into the 1950s, radios must have been rather expensive in real terms. I never knew any families who had more than the one. The better-off families had something called 'an extension', ie a run of cable from their one radio to a speaker in another room. This meant that the radio could be listened to in either room.

I asked my mother if we could have an extension too. Looking back, I don't think I was particularly concerned about being able to listen in a second room. Rather, it was my first awareness of the existence of a 'status symbol'. Anyway, my mother said 'no' and that we couldn't afford it - but that was her response to most requests. During and immediately after the war, money must have been tight.

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Channels, stations, sides

The dial on the radio

As a child I was always puzzled at why, with only two programme being transmitted, the dials of nearly all the radios seemed so wide-ranging. I have since learnt that British people frequently listened to European radio stations in the 1930s, ie before the war. I can't say whether the programmes were in English or whether only the music was popular. Early in the war, however, with the Nazi insurgence, the Nazis closed most of these European stations, making the German station, Radio Hamburg, the only European one that could be heard in Britain. The Nazis took advantage of this to broadcast propaganda to demoralise the British people, as explained above by David White.

The Government closed all cinemas and radio channels bar the Home Service at the outset of the war. However people became so demoralised with lack of entertainment, that the cinemas were opened again and the Light Programme was allowed to transmit on the radio.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

A radio channel was also known as a station or a 'side'. In fact, for us ordinary listeners in the war years, there were only two channels, which made the term 'sides' particularly appropriate. Both were broadcast by the BBC, ie the British Broadcasting Corporation. One called the Home Service seemed designed to inform about the progress of the war, while the other, the Light Programme, seemed to be for light entertainment.

Just after the war, a new channel was broadcast by the BBC, known appropriately as The Third Programme. It was dedicated to what my mother called 'highbrow music'. It may have been popular but we never listened to it.

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Favourite programmes

I particularly remember Music While You Work which broadcast very lively music with a rapid beat, designed to encourage the women working in the factories to speed up.

Being a child, my favourite programme was the daily Children's Hour, which my mother and I listened to over tea.

My mother and grandmother - and my father when he was home from the army - listened to the Light Programme during the evenings while I was supposed to be asleep. The News, of course, on the Home Service, was not to be missed, because it reported on the war, but I was too young for it to mean much to me.

More programmes of interest were introduced after the war. My mother seldom missed Woman's Hour. It was broadcast just after her lunch when, presumably, women were deemed to be allowed a sit-down after the morning's housework.

My parents liked In Town Tonight which was broadcast on Saturday evenings and presented interviews with well-known people who happened to be in London at the time. I was not particularly interested, but in the late 1940s, as in previous years, it was accepted practice for all family members to be together in one room. So I could not help but hear what my parents were listening to, especially in winter when there was only heating in one room, with its single coal fire.

As I grew older, after the war, I liked the programmes in which people phoned in special requests for individuals still serving overseas in the forces. The requests were invariably for pop music which appealed to me at that time.

Europe was transmitting again, and Radio Luxemburg provided non-stop pop music requests. For some reason which I cannot now understand, I seemed perfectly able to listen to the music while doing my school homework to an acceptable standard.

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