SERVING THE MARINER SINCE 1920 - A FRIENDLY VOICE ON MANY A DARK NIGHT
With the coming of peace and the resumption of normal commercial working, it became necessary to re-organise the services provided by Portishead Radio. Despite the restrictions imposed by war work, plans were being made as early as 1944 to improve the service, which included the expanding of Portishead Radio with new purpose-built extensions, the installation of extra consoles to handle the anticipated increase in traffic, and new traffic handling procedures.
A description of the work at the UK coast radio stations, published in 1945, today makes interesting reading;
“Wireless Telegraphists are normally employed at nine Coast stations, one special service station (St.Albans), and on two cable ships. They are liable for duty at any station. Service aboard the cable ships is compulsory on staff entering the service in 1929 and later. The duties aboard the cable ships are rotated among the whole of the wireless staff and have been filled by applicants volunteering for two-year spells. The operator’s work aboard these ships is similar in character to that of the normal duties of the sea-going wireless operator. The following is a list of general duties performed by Wireless Telegraphists.
From January 1st, 1946, British and Commonwealth ships used an enhanced version of the 'area scheme' developed during the war. In this new scheme, now known as the 'British Commonwealth Area Scheme', the world was divided into a number of areas, each having its area transmitting and receiving station. Traffic was sent along Admiralty routes to the station in whose area the ship was sailing, and then broadcast at four-hourly intervals; 0000, 0400, 0800 etc. Acknowledgement by the ship was given as soon as possible after receipt. Ships would notify changes of area and position to any station in the scheme and these details passed to Portishead Radio, where a 'ships' bureau' maintained an up-to-date card index of all ships' positions. Consideration was also given to allowing USA-flag vessels to use the scheme, but this proposal was shelved when the American authorities would not be prepared to make a ‘substantial’ contribution to the scheme by providing 2 or 3 new Area Stations. It was also felt that the much-increased workload which would result from these new stations would cause problems at Burnham.
A new building,occupied on November 16th, was fitted with the most up-to-date technical equipment. The receivers to be used for H.F. wee Marconi type CR150, and thirty directional aerials were used."
Twenty-eight H.F. and four L.F. (low-frequency) receiving consoles at the Highbridge receiving site were installed, and ten H.F. transmitters at the Portishead site were made available, together with two L.F. transmitters. An additional L.F. transmitter at Criggion was also provided. Eight of these H.F. transmitters were capable of providing two-channel (duplex) working. The newly installed receiving aerials now comprised of omni-directional systems for initial receipt of calls, and a 'fan' of ten rhombic and vertical-vee antennas, whose highly-directive properties made them ideal to receive signals from all parts of the world.
A switching system ensured that all aerials could be used simultaneously by any number of operators without interaction, and that both omni-directional and directional aerials could be selected from any console. The aerial signals were amplified before distribution to the consoles by means of multi-band amplifiers with six narrow pass-bands corresponding to the six maritime frequency bands of 4, 6, 8, 12, 16 and 22 MHz.
The building itself comprised a main control room of some 1,296 square feet, built on to the rear of the original building. From three sides of the control room, prefabricated buildings stretched out into the station grounds. The control room, which accommodated the ships bureau, the circulation positions and the telephone switchboard, was a room some 36 feet square and over 16 feet in height. The room was dominated by three colour maps, covering a wall area of 976 square feet. A map of the world completely covered one wall of the room, and was flanked by maps showing the North Atlantic and the waters surrounding the British Isles. These maps showed radio receiving and transmitting stations, the main seaports and shipping routes of the world, and the chief airports and air routes. The maps were painted on steel plates, and by moving small magnets bearing the callsign of a ship, a vessel’s movements were plotted.
The three wings, each having a floor space of some 1,440 square feet, housed the radio and land-line equipment. The facilities comprised of 32 radio operating positions (16 in each of two wings including apparatus for high-speed working); four positions for the automatic broadcasting of traffic; 12 teleprinter positions including through-switching equipment and the various associated apparatus. Each radio operating position was a self-contained unit complete with radio receiver, transmitter cabinet, aerial selecting switches, morse transmitting key, intercommunication facilities with other positions in the building, pencil tray, ash tray, waste-paper receptacle and even a recess underneath the desk for the operator’s cup of tea.
Conveyor belts carried the messages from the operating points to the main circulation position and on to the land-line room for transmission over the Inland Telegraph network. Many a radio officer learnt the knack of signing off the from-ship telegram (otherwise known as a ‘green’) and sending it on it’s way into the conveyor belt with one flick of the wrist; another skill lost for ever.
An article which appeared in the May/June 1955 'Marconi Mariner' (reproduced by permission) best describes the facilities of the Portishead Radio receiving site at Highbridge;
"The new building consists of three wings (A, B, and C), each approximately 80 ft. by 24 ft., radiating from a central control room approximately 41 ft. by 35 ft. The old buildings are used for administrative and staff welfare accommodation.
The central control room is the nerve centre of the station and accommodates the following three main departments:
(a) 'Ships Bureau' where all to-ship traffic is routed and a comprehensive filing system containing the latest known positions of all British and foreign ships is maintained.
(b) 'Traffic Control' where the daily serial numbers of traffic to and from ships are checked and information of all kinds is supplied for the handling of ship-shore traffic.
(c) 'Finished Check' where all traffic handled at the station is checked before being filed away.
Conveyor belts feed the traffic into this room from all receiving points in wings A and C, and to and from the teleprinters in wing B.
This room also contains three large wall maps painted on steel plates. The large central map of the world measures 14 ft. by 31 ft. and shows the divisions of the area system with the chief air and sea routes. The two smaller maps measure 12 ft. by 14 ft. and show (i) the normal distress area round the British Isles which is covered by the short range coast stations, and (ii) a large scale map of the North Atlantic with air and sea routes. Small magnetic holders to carry the call-sign of a ship and an arrow to indicate sailing direction are available for use with these maps which are provided mainly for air-sea rescue services.
Wing A is the main receiving room accommodating sixteen receiving positions equipped with Marconi communication receivers type CR150.
Wing B is the teleprinter and broadcast room and also accommodates in a partitioned section, the short range coast station Burnham-on-Sea Radio (GRL).
The teleprinter arrangements comprise:
One duplex circuit to the Central Telegraph Office, London.
Nine through automatic switching circuits (three in reserve). This system enables the operator at Portishead to set up his own connection, and transmit the message direct to the terminal teleprinter office, dispensing with the assistance of intermediate offices.
Three circuits to Admiralty London.
One circuit to Dunstable Meteorological Office.
One circuit to Lloyd's London.
Four positions in this wing are available for the broadcast transmission of traffic to Areas 1A, 1B and 1C.
Wing C is the reserve receiving room accommodating sixteen receiving positions, twelve equipped with Marconi communication receivers type CR150 and four with Marconi receivers CR100 for L.F. working (GKU). Four H.F. and two L.F. receiving positions are equipped with high speed recording apparatus."
Throughout the 1960s the station continued to expand dramatically with traffic figures reaching record levels. Radiotelex equipment was installed to provide cost-effective communication to passenger ships and other high-traffic vessels.
The radiotelex system was deemed to be extremely successful, and many ships became equipped with the required equipment; this allowed them to communicate directly with their company’s telex machines without the need for radio officer involvement; and shipping companies could send telexes directly to their ships once radio contact had been established.
The Daily Telegraph arranged a daily transmission of news to the newly-launched QE2 cruise liner in 1968, which used this new technology to great effect.
1968 also brought one of Portishead Radio’s most famous episodes; the Times newspaper had organized a round-the-world yacht race, for which the station was involved. One of the entrants was Donald Crowhurst, whose yacht “Teignmouth Electron” communicated with the station regularly. It soon became clear that the position reports transmitted by the yacht bore no resemblance to the aerial bearing of the radio signals, and it became clear that Crowhurst was simply sailing around the South Atlantic and providing false positions. The story is well-documented and the recent films “Deep Water” and “The Mercy” provide an excellent narrative.
Staffing continued to expand to cater for the increased traffic levels, which reached unprecedented figures.
However, early experiments with satellite communication took place at the end of the 1960s, and although the tests were crude and unreliable, the signs of progress were there, and further tests would take place during the 1970s, which signalled the demise of the radio service.
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