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BBC Engineering at War

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Wood Norton during the Second World War

By L.G. Smith*

* Complied and edited by Martin Ellen, from several articles written by L.G. Smith between about 1970 and 2004.

Since the War, Wood Norton has been the home of BBC Engineering Training and it is well known by thousands of broadcast engineers.  This link provides information on the Training Centre as it is today - use "Click for a map of the sight" to see the location of some buildings mentioned below.  The site is now split and Wood Norton Hall is an hotel.
 

Wood Norton at the start of the war

After the Munich agreement of 1938 it was appreciated that war might come and Wood Norton, Near Evesham in Worcestershire, was purchased by the BBC in early 1939.

I arrived at Wood Norton on Saturday 26 August 1939 and I was one of the first engineers there following the arrival of Bruce Purslow in Easter 1939 when he took up residence in the south lodge by the Golden Gates.

The only brick buildings then on the site were - The Hall, Smith's Cottage, Steward's House, part of the present Pear Tree complex and the present restaurant complex which was then an open courtyard surrounded by stabling accommodation with a cowshed along the north east side of the courtyard.  This cowshed formed our canteen and Bruce Purslow obtained a drinks licence for a bar where the present Norton Room is located.  In 1940 the stable yard was roofed over to provide a much larger restaurant since the total staff, including Monitoring, by then exceeded a thousand.

About a dozen wooden huts had been erected on the site now occupied by the present brick buildings of Avon, Wyre, Malvem Wings and the TV complex.  Wood Norton was to be the wartime home of Equipment Department, so one of the huts had been equipped as a workshop with lathes, drilling machines etc and another was filled with raw material - steel, brass, wires and cables - as a technical store and these facilities were to prove invaluable in the next few months.  Other huts had been earmarked for monitoring and recording but were unequipped at the outbreak of war.

At the outbreak of war a detachment of the military were stationed at Wood Norton for protection where they used a small hut adjacent to the top gates to the Hall by the mini roundabout at the top of the drive.  Here they established a guardroom and examined passes.  They were later withdrawn, I think when a company of the L.D.V. (Local Defence Volunteers), later called the Home Guard were formed from BBC staff with Bruce Purslow as Company Commander.  We had parades, drills, and weapon training and manned an observation post at the top of the hill giving a good view over the Vale of Evesham.  This was manned every night at dusk and sunrise.

An electrified fence was erected round the whole of the compound using low voltage electricity to sound alarm bells if anyone attempted to enter the compound other than by the gate.

The ornamental fountain now placed outside the entrance to the Hall replaces one which existed in Sept. 1939 but which caused much trouble.  In the blackout of wartime, and it is difficult now to realise how black a real blackout can be at times when the moon is not shining, many people fell in the fountain.  There was no grass surrounding the parapet wall which was just knee high and electric hand torches could only be used very sparingly - batteries were very difficult to obtain and air raid wardens were very strict about "no lights to be shown".
 

Wood Norton – Secret Site

After the 1938 crisis (Munich), steps were taken to devise an emergency control room in Broadcasting House (London), down in the basement as distinct from the eighth floor, and emergency premises at Wood Norton, which were referred to as ‘Hogsnorton' until after the main body of staff had been transferred there, i.e. after war had broken out.  These premises were very secret; nobody knew even where they were - such knowledge must, I think, have been restricted to about a dozen people.

Although it was to become a major broadcasting centre, in August 1939 Wood Norton was in no fit state to do any broadcasting at all.  The control room had a false floor, a Post Office distribution frame had been erected and some Post Office cables laid in, but that was all.

One of the BBC’s very few mains-operated control rooms was in the Training School premises in Duchess Street (near Broadcasting House in London).  These premises had, I think, three studios, a small control room of four bays, and a small, six-channel dramatic control panel.  This, looked at in its entirety, formed a complete broadcasting unit and, on the Friday before war broke out (Friday 25 August 1939) Mr. Colborn came to me in some considerable haste, and it was unusual to see him hurrying, before lunch and asked me how long I thought it would take to take way the equipment at Duchess Street and re-install it in a secret place.  Now at that time we usually, took about three months to install that sort of equipment, and that was provided we had all the drawings, plans etc. ready.  I said that I thought that, with unlimited labour, we might be able to get it done in a month.  Mr. Colborn went away, again in rather a hurry.

After lunch he came running back to me and said, 'You must do this as soon as you can’.  I asked what labour would be available and what assistance, and was told that by then all the workshop Manual labour had been dispersed to various places doing work of one kind and another, most of them being in B.H., and at that time Equipment Department did not have a very large staff.  However, there was left one man who couldn't lift things because of some stomach trouble, another gentleman who threw fits, a gardener, Bill Bailey, and the handyman, Jack.  We did find that there was a large pantechnicon in the garage at Avenue House, but engineers also had been dispersed to various places doing things that nobody knew much about.  Mr. Patrick, I remember, had disappeared about a week before, and nobody knew where he was - he had just not come in one morning; I later found that he was at Wood Norton trying to make one of the Blattnerphone recording machines work.

It was suggested that I should take one other engineer and, with him, dismantle the equipment - this was Mr. Petre - and go to B.H. for a wireman, because I said that I must have at least one good wireman.  I therefore went to B.H, and took two of the wiremen that they had: one, the Charge-hand, Bartlett, and his assistant, who was a good man.  We went that very afternoon to Duchess Street and started dismantling the control room and studios.  We worked up till about ten o'clock at night, when I and the three wiremen that we had by this time, that is, the two whom I had taken from B.H. and the one who couldn't lift anything heavy, went home and left Petre with the gardener and the handyman to dismantle the rest of the equipment and get it down into the entrance hall by 8 a.m. the next day.

At 7.45 o’clook the next morning we collected together; I was on a motor-bike, the wiremen were in a car and we had the pantechnicon which we loaded up and we set off at about nine o'clock to go to Wood Norton, but at that time the only person who knew where this Hogsnorton/Wood Norton was in England was the senior wireman who had been on a very secret job some months before.  We got there at 3.15 p.m. (Saturday 26 August), and for the next week we worked all the hours that there were - we didn't move out of Wood Norton and we slept on the floor of the control room.

One must remember that it was not just a matter of putting a mains lead on to this equipment; the l.t. rectifiers and the two mains transformers had to be installed down in the cellar and heavy, lead-covered 7/.036 twin filament cables had to run from each rectifier back to each amplifier.  These were not just soldered on; they had to be put on by lugs and with a blowlamp, so it was no easy matter to terminate this sort of run of very heavy lead-covered cabling.  Similarly, all the h.t. leads were of single .036 lead-covered cable, and of course, 1-pr./10 was used for all the programme circuits.

We had no facilities as far as building labour was concerned and when we collected the equipment, I remember that Petre had got down every single movable object that could possibly be called technical, even to the ashtray and carpets!

We used for the main control position a large microphone decoupling box, about 8ft. high and about 2ft. 6in. x 2ft. 6in., which we tipped on its side.  The whole exercise was a very ‘make-do-and-mend’ effort, and we put the old dramatic control unit out of Duchess Street on top of this microphone decoupling unit box - this was the main control position! However, by Tuesday 5 Sept we could have put out a programme from our lashed-up microphone on to the Post Office cables that were then terminated in the control room.

From then on, we gradually tidied up the equipment, scrounged core equipment - fortunately we had access to the wartime Avenue House emergency store hut, which was full of all sorts of devices, mostly 'raw materials', such as steel, brass, cable, wire, resistance wire, and we had the emergency workshops, so we had no bother on that side.  From that time, equipment gradually became available, and by November time we began to receive the real wartime TV/17s, TV/18s and the rack-mounted APM/1s that had originally been ordered for installation at Wood Norton.  As these became available, they were installed, and we slowly developed comprehensive control and studio equipment.

There was an earlier aspect of Wood Norton, and that was a small control room installed by Mr. Wynn and Mr. Colborn, who had one wireman, Bartlett, with them.  They hurriedly equipped Steward's House with very temporary Outside Broadcast equipment to provide three small studios with a tiny control room in the pantry and lines to Evesham telephone exchange.  This was at Easter 1939, when Italy under Mussolini invaded Albania.  An amusing small incident of this installation was that Mr. Wynn and Mr, Colborn, in their wisdom, took their main earth to a very fine lead water-pipe on the Inside of the house, but, when one looked out- side, it was just the pipe that went through the wall to the drain and didn't go to earth at all.  After the main emergency control room was built, this very lash-up emergency control room was dismantled and the studios became studios 10, 11 & 12, wired back to the main Wood Norton control room.
 

Multicore cable

Until Wood Norton, the BBC had never used, for programme circuits, any multicore cable; we had always used single 1-pr./10 lead-covered cable for all programme circuits, but when we came to install Wood Norton control room, this cable was in rather short supply and, in order to cable the distribution frame to the Jackfield we used, for feeding all the lines, a piece of 38-pr. quadded cable.  This, to my knowledge, was the first time that a multicore cable had been used inside any BBC premises.  We were fortunate, in this instance, in having Mr. Holmes around the place, who told us how to connect up this quadded cable, which had neither been used nor seen before by BBC engineers.  I remember discussions taking place between myself, Mr. Holmes and Mr. Patrick, in which, although we had always insisted on 1-pr./10, it was said that multi-pair cable is used for Post Office lines, and it carries circuits of varying levels and so there seemed to be no reason why we shouldn't use it inside BBC premises, provided it was balanced at both ends.  This we duly did, and I think that this particular piece of 38-pair quadded cable was provided by the goodness and courtesy of the local (Evesham) Post Office.  I remember that from that day we used multicore cable increasingly in the Wood Norton installation, particularly for feeding programmes that we now refer to as ‘ring—main’ programmes.
 

Continuity working

The theory of  continuity working was first thought about as a result of the famous Tommy Woodrooffe broadcast of ‘the fleet's lit up’, but although there was much discussion about it, particularly by Mr. Wynn, the actual carrying out of the exercise, which relied on a very close co-operation between programme presentation people and engineers, really happened at Wood Norton in the operation of the Abbey Manor studios (near Wood Norton) for the ‘Red’ Network.  This was something that happened in the spring or summer of 1940, when the BBC took over Abbey Manor and installed in there, I think, three studios and what we would now call a continuity suite.  Out of this continuity suite the programme was fed down the line to Wood Norton control room for distribution to the S.B. network.  It was the very great degree of close co-operation and discussion between Bruce Purslow as E.i.C. and Tom Chalmers as the Chief of the Presentation of the programmes which put into practice the close liaison between programme and engineering people, and those two gentlemen had the cubicle so constructed that one could link the studios together and send the output to line from Abbey Manor to Wood Norton and have a presentation assistant sitting alongside the engineer in doing this mixing, fading and communication.
 

One of the largest broadcasting centres in Europe

From Sept 1939 the studios were in frequent use for Music Productions (from a large studio formed in the Pear Tree Complex), Schools Programmes, Features and Drama, these departments having moved to Wood Norton in the first few days of the war, although they were later to move to Bristol, Bangor and Bedford.

The permanent equipment continued to be installed as it became available in early 1940 as Wood Norton became one of the largest broadcasting centres in Europe with an output averaging 1300 programme items per week or about 83+ hours of Broadcasting.

News Agency information was provided by teleprinters associated with Press Association, British United Press, Exchange Telegraph and Reuters.

Other communication facilities included private lines to various Government departments and to Fighter Command Main and Reserve RAF Headquarters.  This to receive instructions to close down various transmitters if required to prevent the Luftwaffe using BBC transmitters as direction finding aids on their air raids.
 

Recording

In the early 30's the first sound recording equipment consisted of a large machine with reels about 2ft in diameter holding a little over a mile of steel tape capable of recording about 30 minutes of programme.  These machines were later developed by Marconi Ltd into apparatus about the size of a sideboard still using the large reels of steel tape.  The original machine ended up in a "museum" in Equipment Dept.

Other methods of recording were to cut grooves in an acetate disk, as used in the manufacture of the old "gramophone" records, and these machines could be installed in a van to provide "mobile" recording units.

A third method used a photographic type of tape cut by a stylus.  This machine was very heavy and very difficult to install.  All methods were in use by the BBC in 1939.

In August 1939 an engineer, Reggie Patrick, who had been involved in the installation and development of the original machine in Broadcasting House, was working in Equipment.  He "disappeared" from his office in August and, in fact, had taken the recording machine out of the museum and was trying to get it operational in what became the billiard room at Wood Norton.  This he succeeded in doing and, in fact, recorded the Prime Minister's declaration of war.

The first mobile recording van with disc recording equipment was sent to Wood Norton and as the months passed more recording equipment of all types then available was obtained from British and American sources and installed there.

One incident of interest was associated with tapes of readings of the Koran which were played from Wood Norton as a contribution to the Arabic Service.  On one occasion a tape on one of the large reels was put on backwards.  Now, a reading in Arabic to the uninitiated sounds very much the same backwards as forwards and none of the engineers in the Wood Norton recording room or the control room realised what had happened.  The only man at Wood Norton that could have noticed the fault was the Arabic announcer and he was on his knees facing Mecca with his head on the carpet!  It was some time before someone down the line phoned us of the error!

Recording equipment required for the Monitoring service, where high quality sound was not so necessary, consisted of wax cylinders similar to those used in the very earliest "gramophones", before "gramophone records" of "His Master's Voice" were used.  These wax cylinders could be "shaved" and re-used.
 

Monitoring

The monitoring service had no connection with the main building, Wood Norton Hall, nor with any of the then permanent buildings on the site except for a few weeks at the beginning when Smith's House was used until the two huts, situated on the ground now occupied by Wyre Wing, had been equipped with listening facilities and teleprinters.

The main reception was located in two huts on the top of the hill, staffed mostly by engineers responsible for sending the signals to the two huts on the main compound.

There was another monitoring hut situated in the main compound on the site now occupied by Studio C.  This was "very secret" guarded by troops and was a 'Y' unit monitoring Morse and other transmissions in connection with Bletchley Park decoding work.

The huts at the top of the hill had a similar electrified fence to that around the main compound.  Both fences were patrolled by BBC manual staff from Alexandra Palace, as TV had closed down on the outbreak of war, and organised by H Lyton-Fletcher (after the war he became Recorded Programmes Ex).

The successful running of the teleprinter and communications side of monitoring owed a great deal to John Holmes and Jock Norwell, both from BBC Lines Dept, who went to Wood Norton in August 1939 just to test the lines and then just "stayed there" for the duration, and in particular to a junior engineer from the small local telephone exchange - Maurice Hughes.  He found himself responsible for to PO/BBC work on lines and communications of national importance.  He had no experience of teleprinters but rapidly learned to cope with the maintenance of them and became almost one of the BBC staff with the time he spent at Wood Norton.  He was very willing to turn out at any time of the day or night to deal with emergencies and "acquire" for us any items of engineering equipment to assist us, conveniently forgetting the usual "red tape" associated with this and his own hours of work.
 

Evesham in 1939

It may be of interest for those not around in 1939 if I mentioned one or two features of everyday life at the beginning of the war which affected life at Wood Norton.

Petrol was severely rationed so no private cars were available for transport between Evesham and Wood Norton.  No sleeping accommodation was available on the site, all the BBC staff were billeted in and around Evesham for which the people on whom they were billeted were paid £1.1 0p a week for board and lodging.

I was found a bed in the ballroom of the Northwick Arms where about a dozen beds had been arranged.  I spent a few nights there, then a few more at the Bear pub in Port St and then fixed up with a proper billet in a house in the High St. opposite the present site of the BBC Club.  This was not very satisfactory since as soon as war was officially declared engineers were sent from London to operate the control room on a full 24 hour basis and I had to share the bed in the billet with another engineer as long as we were on different shifts.

By the middle of November the more permanent equipment began to arrive for installation and some of the BBC staff began to rent houses around Evesham and bring their wives and families out of the London area.  In this way a good billet became available for me at a flat in Waterside where I was very comfortably looked after by a widow and her daughter who was a receptionist at the Northwick Arms.  We were married in 1942 after I had been recalled to London to install equipment for a big expansion in the Overseas Service.

Since, in those days, anyone from outside the immediate vicinity of Evesham was regarded as a "forriner", relations were sometimes rather strained between the townspeople and those forcibly billeted on them, who could not explain, due to the secret nature of the project, what they were doing at Wood Norton.  This attitude was very much aggravated, when real foreigners - Russians, Poles, Hungarians and other Europeans arrived to work in the monitoring service.

Wood Norton was a very secret place, no mention of it was made in any local or National paper, particularly no mention of the BBC, no photographic record is available and since photographic films were unobtainable it is unlikely that any private photos exist.

The winter of 1939/40, particularly February 1940, was very severe, the river at Evesham froze over and in the subsequent thaw it overflowed such that residents in the Northwick Arms could only reach their rooms by taking a punt right into the entrance to the hotel and parking on the stairs; I think a mark on the entrance wall is still visible to show the height of this flood.  Telephone lines were brought down by the sheer weight of ice, up to 4" thick, which surrounded the wires, stretching them till they reached the ground between the telegraph poles.

Life outside work was virtually confined to what was available in Evesham since the bus services were severely curtailed, the timing being such that it was not possible to get to Cheltenham or Worcester and back in a day.  I was fond of walking a lot in Kent and Surrey, but around Evesham I found no footpaths and the only walking seemed to be through vast fields of cabbages and brussel sprouts - both vegetables which I hate! It is nice to see now more footpaths marked with signposts.  One could go to the cinema, however, there were two in Evesham - the Regal and the Clifton - now I think a bingo hall.  There was also an occasional dance in the Town Hall.
 

Wood Norton Transport

In 1939 the Wood Norton estate was covered only by gravel paths, and one could only get around in gum-boots.  We had equipment to get to the top of the hill, and very fortunately we had an Engineer-in-Charge who was not very interested in red tape, did realise the urgent necessity of getting things done, and, when for instance we had to get equipment to the top of the hill, went down to the town and purchased a tractor.  The idea of doing anything like this without the necessary approvals, schemes and all the paper work was at that time very unorthodox; so was the fact that anybody who wanted to get to the top of the hill would drive the tractor up there!

In a similar way, transport between Wood Norton itself and Evesham was very freely used by everybody who had to go back and forth.  We had a certain number of bicycles, one or two small 150-cc motor-bikes, one old Austin 12 car, a shooting-brake, and generally the idea was that if any person wanted transport between Evesham and Wood Norton, they took whatever vehicle was available and drove it from Wood Norton to Evesham, leaving it in the courtyard of the Northwick Hotel, and if anybody wanted to come back, they went to the courtyard of the Northwick and took whatever vehicle was there and drove it back to Wood Norton.  (Never having driven anything as large as a shooting brake, I remember trying to drive it up Bridge St, with about half a dozen passengers when I stalled the engine and we ran backwards towards the Workman bridge till I managed to operate the hand brake! Some of the passengers wanted to walk back to Wood Norton).

This was, of course, gradually sorted out after the first few weeks and some order was brought into the use of transport.  Two old double decked London General Omnibuses with solid tyres had been purchased for this sort of emergency some months earlier, repainted green, and garaged at Avenue House, Clapham, the headquarters of Equipment Department.  I think their first use was to transport Mr. Ralph Wade, prewar Director of Office Administration in London, to Wood Norton when he came with the 'advance party' on 24.8.39, but they broke down several times on the way.  There was a little difference of opinion between him and Bruce Purslow as to who should have priority on the buses, Mr, Purslow's engineers or Mr. Wade's administrative gentlemen.  That occasion was one of the few in the Corporation's history when the engineers obtained priority in everything.  On arrival of the busses at Wood Norton, and after overhaul, a proper timed transport service was arranged.  To enable the buses to get up the drive, the top of the Golden Gates was removed and stored in Evesham museum until the gates were refurbished and officially opened by the Mayor of Evesham on 30th May 1985. 
 

The Fire

On the day of the fire at Wood Norton - 4 Sept. 1940, I was enjoying a rare "day off and on the road between Evesham and Wood Norton, I saw the smoke and hurried to the scene.

Now, between Evesham and Wood Norton was a large house called Abbey Manor owned by Squire Rudd who had a hobby of fire fighting.  He owned an old London Fire Brigade solid-tyred fire engine, full uniforms with brass helmets for his staff and a silver helmet for himself.  He had a private telephone line to the local telephone exchange and would be informed of any rick fire in the district whereupon he and his male staff would set off in the fire engine driven by his chauffeur/handyman.

The BBC had taken over the house to provide studios for the use of the Overseas Empire News Services leaving only the chauffeur/handyman of the Squire's staff in residence.

On my arrival at Wood Norton it appeared that the fire hydrants and hoses in the building were fed from a small pond halfway up the hill which had quickly been used up and the Evesham fire fighting equipment, in attendance, consisted only of a taxi towing a small trailer pump - this was a wartime arrangement provided in many small towns during the war and not of much use in fighting the Wood Norton blaze.

I immediately went back to Abbey Manor and found the chauffeur anxiously waiting to know if his fire engine could be of use.  We quickly took it out and with me ringing the bell on the engine drove to Wood Norton.  He took the engine across the fields to the river for a supply of water whilst I ran the hoses out up the drive from the Golden Gates.  Being used to the location of rick fires, away from a supply of water, there were ample lengths of hose and we soon had a better "squirt" than the Evesham fire fighters.

Soon fire fighting equipment appeared from Pershore and Worcester enabling the blaze to be got under control by about 1am the next morning.  We were of course very worried lest the fire should attract German bombers known to be in the vicinity and great efforts were made by all staff to rescue technical equipment, records, office furniture, filing cabinets, typewriters etc. all of which would have been very difficult to replace in wartime.  It was quite understandable in these circumstances that in their efforts to save a grand piano, staff not normally associated with orchestral activities should have sawn off the legs of the piano to get it out through a doorway not aware that the top was made to lift off the leg-framework for home transportation!

It was very noticeable that although at the height of the fire water was pouring down the main staircase such that no individual stairs were visible, due to the magnificent woodwork of the floors and ceilings, practically no water came through the ceilings and the extent of the damage was confined to the roof and a few rooms directly beneath the seat of the fire.

Fortunately, the control room was undamaged, and equipment removed was rapidly re-installed during the next day or so.

Several Post Office circuits were put out of action but these were quickly restored and broadcasting was not interrupted accept for an orchestral broadcast under the direction of Stanford Robinson which had to be cancelled.  By about 2am the following morning, however, Wood Norton was able to give a tape reproduction of the broadcast via the emergency control room in the Steward's House.

The cause of the fire was never definitely known.  The most likely explanation seems to have been that sunlight shining through a glass skylight had ignited insulation packing in the roof.

It was realised after the fire that to run hoses from the river via the Golden Gates to the site was a very long route to follow.  A much shorter route was therefore cleared through the woodland from the gates by the present fountain to the North Lodge and across what is now the sports field.  This route was suitably indicated by white marker posts.
 

The Flood

Another notable incident which took place at Wood Norton during my period there was the flood.  The Post Office had laid their usual 4"cable ducts down the main drive in the compound with manholes at suitable places - one opposite the Steward's House, for instance, one outside the control room and one opposite the monitoring huts which were on the site now occupied by Wyre wing.  From this manhole a duct lead to a position under the monitoring hut and finished level with the ground.  Cables then fed up a leg of the hut to terminate inside.  From the manhole opposite the control room a duct led into the room through a hole about 18" above the floor since the control room floor was below the level of the manhole.

I was on duty that night, after a day or so of heavy rain, and heard a dripping sound from behind the equipment which was traced to water dripping from the duct.  This was about 11pm.  We put a metal wastepaper bucket to catch the drips but these rapidly increased until water was coming out of the duct like two bath taps turned on.

In spite of a relay of engineers with buckets etc. the situation rapidly got out of control.  Since the water was coming from the Post Office manhole we called out the local P.O engineers who arrived first with a hand pump followed by power pumps from Pershore or Worcester.  In spite of these efforts the control room cable ducts and those leading to the PBX were flooded, putting the telephone system out of action.

Order was restored the following day and the cause traced.  Across the hill ran a dry ditch and this crossed the site of the monitoring huts.  When these had been erected by a London contractor, unfamiliar with country ditches and drainage, the ditch had been filled in.  Consequently when the heavy rain occurred the dry ditch, provided to drain the rainwater away from the Wood Norton site, overflowed when reaching the monitoring hut and then used the P.O duct under the hut as a natural drain.  Unfortunately this led into the Control Room.

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