SERVING THE MARINER SINCE 1920 - A FRIENDLY VOICE ON MANY A DARK NIGHT
This decade may be remembered for the numerous changes that took place at the station. In the first couple of years the aforementioned ‘Area Scheme’ was closed, the Naval presence at the station ended, and in 1970 the Radiotelephone service was moved from Baldock to Burnham-on-Sea, although still utilising the transmitters at Rugby.
The R/T service was housed in a small area at the end of “C” wing, but only 3 consoles were available. In order to provide enough facilities, existing terminals at Somerton (a former point-to-point station) were used, staff being transported there daily from Burnham-on-Sea by minibus.
The cessation of the ‘Area Scheme’ in 1972 was probably the most controversial, although it was actually out of the station’s control; many of the participating area stations were located in newly-independent countries who longer required Admiralty involvement. Although these stations continued to operate, they no longer provided a free relay of traffic back to the UK. This meant that vessels requiring to send messages back to the UK had to communicate directly with Portishead or pay the expensive landline charges of the nearest coast radio station. The station tried to assist vessels in such ‘hard to reach’ areas by introducing a ‘Pacific Watch’ and ‘Sector Watch’ where the station would listen for ships in the Pacific and South-East Asian areas at set times and on specific frequencies. Obviously this relied on good radio propagation conditions and the skill of the shipboard radio officer to select the optimum frequency and time to communicate with the station.
The Naval presence ended in 1972, the RN having established their own communications network. However, the station continued to handle personal radiotelephone calls from RN vessels on a regular basis until closure.
Traffic levels continued to rise; figures from 1974 indicated that over 20 million words were handled by a staff of 154 radio officers. A new operating wing was built in 1971 called ‘D’ Wing, with 12 new w/t consoles. These new consoles were of a totally different design, and although using the new Racal RA1217 receiver (which replaced the ageing CR100s), new Morse keys had to be ordered. No modified Marconi PS213A keys were available for the new wing, so new ‘Elektrisk Bureau’ (EB) keys were purchased. ‘D’ Wing also handled the ‘Trawler Watch’ which maintained contact with the deep-sea trawler ‘Miranda/GULL’ to exchange weather messages and trawler reports from the North Atlantic.
It became clear that the existing station would not be able to handle such an increase in traffic, so in 1976 plans were drawn up to construct a new operations building on land adjacent to the existing station. This would incorporate a new computer-based message handling and delivery system, automatic radiotelex and new communication receivers.
The Portishead transmitter site closed in 1978, and the aerials subsequently removed. Transmitters at Rugby, Leafield and Ongar were modified to cover the maritime service, and transmitters at Dorchester were also utilised for a short time. However, the station continued to be known as Portishead Radio.
The first new building at the Burnham-on-Sea site opened in 1979, which was the staff restaurant and welfare block, which also had a lounge area and bar – much to the delight of the staff on the evening shift. The restaurant was very well used and numerous social functions took place over the following 20 years or so.
The advent of satellite communications was becoming a real concern, although little impact was initially made. Experiments in transmitting and receiving messages to and from ships using basic satellite links had taken place in the early 1970s in association with the vessel “Atlantic Causeway”. However, terrestrial radio traffic figures still continued to rise, and recruitment of staff continued unabated. Newly-qualified radio officers without sea experience were employed, although a 6-month training course and a 1-year probationary period was required to bring them up to the high standard required.
The new operations building was opened in 1982, with the R/T service becoming the first section to successfully move across. Staff were trained in the new procedures required for w/t traffic handling in the old building before it too was moved across in stages – 22 MHz firstly, followed by the remaining sections. The w/t consoles were equipped with Racal MA1075 receiver front panels, the actual receivers and aerials being located at Somerton with a microwave link providing the control lines. Katsumi EK-150 electronic keys were provided at each point, together with hand-made Morse keys based on the Marconi PS213A model. These were made by the BT Engineering Workshops at Rugby and only 80 were ever made. Of course, staff could use their own keys if required, and provision was made on each console for this.
Radiotelegrams were handled using the new message handling system, which was controlled by a large Honeywell 606 processor, housed in its own temperature-controlled room. This system did away totally with the landline room, messages from ships being delivered directly from the w/t console, and to-ship messages being formatted by staff before being held in the processor for delivery by Morse code when the desired ship next called. An interesting combination of new and old technology.
The radiotelex system was the last to move across, and was virtually automatic – ships could enter the telex number of the desired destination without the need for operator involvement, and also receive any to-ship messages on request. There would of course be a degree of editing involved, but if shipping companies followed the formatting rules then no operator involvement was required.
Apart from ships, other services such as relief agencies, charities and industries located in countries when no land-lines existed used the radio telex service. This was known as the ‘Gateway’ service, and was extensively used by Oxfam, the Red Cross, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) for example.
The aeronautical radio service was re-established following trials with Dan-Air and other companies. Staff were tasked with investigating the feasibility of such a service, and it became clear that a market did exist within the UK. Two European stations (Stockholm and Bern) already provided such a service, although their call rates back to the UK were expensive. Therefore R/T consoles were modified to work on aeronautical simplex frequencies, and many UK-based airlines used the service for many years. Selcall units were installed allowing the station to alert aircraft that call from their Operations office was required, and quick-tune transmitters and rotating log periodic aerials were installed at Rugby. In fact, Eastern Airlines of the USA used the station as their European base station, and the station won an international award for the ‘fastest-growing aeronautical radio station in the world’. Users of the ‘Gateway’ service also used the aeronautical frequencies, which made the consoles extremely busy at times.
The remainder of the decade saw the closure of the transmitter sites at Leafield and Ongar, leaving Rugby as the only transmitter site for the maritime service.
Sadly this was to be the last decade of the service. Satellite communication had become firmly established, and the introduction of GMDSS (Global Maritime and Safety System) which would become mandatory for all vessels over 300 GT in 1999 forced vessels to install Inmarsat equipment.
Traffic levels fell considerably and the number of operating consoles were reduced accordingly; staff who left or retired were not replaced, and other BT groups moved into the building as the radio station contracted. The staff restaurant and welfare block closed and it was clear that the writing was very much on the wall for the station.
However, in 1995, the station celebrated 75 years of the service with various events designed to keep the station in the public eye, with TV reports, national press articles and the first of many staff reunions. Only 100 ships a day were currently worked on w/t, and the total establishment of staff was reduced to less than 50. Some staff were moved to other departments within BT, and in 1998 moves were made to finally close the service.
On Sunday 30th April 2000, at 1200 GMT, the last broadcast from the station took place, witnessed by a crowd of over 200 ex-staff and media reporters. Within minutes of the closure, engineers commenced work on dismantling the consoles. A sad day in many respects, and in many ways the end of an era.
The text of the last broadcast is reproduced below:
CQ CQ CQ DE GKB2/4/5/6 =
THIS IS THE LAST BROADCAST FROM PORTISHEAD RADIO. FOR 81 YEARS WE HAVE SERVED THE MARITIME COMMUNITY. WE SAY THANK YOU TO ALL THOSE 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 PORTISHEAD RADIO/GKB + VA
The buildings continued to be used by other BT departments but was sold to housing developers in 2004. The station was demolished in 2007 to make way for the ‘Mulholland Park’ development, named after the former station manager Don Mulholland and his father Robert, who also worked at the station.
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