A 1940s radio, called a wireless, next to a bowl of nuts
for scale. Note the three knobs for on/off, volume and tuning; the dial
and the fabric covered speaker. Photographed in Milestones Museum, Basingstoke.
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.)
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who still used the term 'wireless' was considered very out-of-date.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 was a large contraption in a polished wooden box. It had a speaker
covered in some sort of rough fabric, a dial and three knobs. Twisting one knob
turned the wireless on and twisting the second adjusted the volume. The third
knob was for tuning, and rotated a needle over a dial.
Some families had wirelesses with only two knobs, with the on-off knob also
The range of types of radios / wirelesses
A 1940s 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 or three 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 makers, each producing their own range
It turned out that all the wirelesses that I remember had been bought in
the relatively affluent 1930s, before the Second World War. In the first years
of the war it was probably difficult to buy new ones, unless of course you 'knew
somebody who knew somebody'.
Manufacture of radios during World War Two
Radios were manufactured for the home market during
the war. They were very basic indeed and 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.
photo on the page shows one of these radios. David's
vintage radio collection is on a
Advert in a 1943 magazine, telling readers that Pye radios will be ready
when 'better days' come.
Although there were no new developments in 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 right. The advert is somewhat wistful in the way that it speaks of 'better
days'. Click the thumbnail for an enlarged, legible version.
The wireless 'extension' status symbol
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, which 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.
Channels, stations, sides
Even as a child I was puzzled at why, with only one programme being
transmitted, the dials of all the radios seemed so wide-ranging.
The answer came from a TV programme Ration Book Britain. I learnt
that British people frequently listened to European radio stations in
the 1930s, ie before the war. I canít 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.
According to Ration Book Britain 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.
I particularly remember Music while
you work which broadcast very lively music with a quick 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 when 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
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.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.