Memories: Joe Latham

My early days at the BBC by Joe Latham

Joe in the Washford Control Room on 1st February 1949.
I joined the BBC at the Droitwich Transmitting Station on 24th May 1943. I was just 17 and still had my Higher School Certificate to cope with later in the year.

I joined as a Youth in Training and the first five weeks were taken up with an excellent course run by Mr Lowry - the On-Station Instructor. I had vaguely heard of Ohm's law but little else that would help towards my understanding of the workings of high-powered transmitters.

Before I left Droitwich in November I had started up the 5XX 230kW transmitter on my own, without supervision, so that it was ready to go on the air.

Starting it up meant starting the water pumps for valve cooling and "peeing" each of the valves to make sure there were no air locks in their water jackets.
5XX Droitwich
Then switch on the air cooling---each of the large CAT 14s had a ring from which cool air was aimed at the joint between the copper anode and the glass. Each of the large valves had it's own motor/generator set to heat the filament. These were started up by switches on the control desk and the voltage adjusted by means of motor operated rheostats. These had handles which are visible on the photo (right, taken in 1937) and the voltage had to be increased gradually up to about 21 volts. Next the doors on all units had to be closed to complete the 160 volt interlock circuits before higher voltages could be applied. At this point an Engineer arrived....!

I often cycled from Worcester for nightshift which started at midnight 'til 0930 and sometimes was accompanied by a few German bombers flying overhead. They never stopped at Droitwich I'm pleased to say! It was a wonderful station, with its 700ft masts, and I really enjoyed my first taste of the BBC.

Next I went to Maida Vale for the A1 course and after Christmas to Daventry for the B1 course - I was then promoted to Technical Assistant Grade II and posted to Washford - I'd never heard of the place until that moment.

TX Hall
This view shows the control desk and the C2, D and C1 units. C1 & 2 were the final amplifiers working in push-pull each having 8 (one spare) CAT (cooled anode transmitting) valves working in parallel - their outputs were combined in the D unit and then via feeders to the ATH (aerial transformer House) and thence to the aerial.

One of the earliest BBC transmitting stations. It opened in 1933, housed the first broadcast transmitters in Somerset and was the first high-powered broadcasting station in the SW of England. It currently radiates BBC Radio Wales.
Washford is in Somerset a couple of miles from Watchet where I had digs. It had two 50kW medium wave transmitters and directional aerial aimed at South Wales. The masts were a mere 500ft high! It had wonderful views of the Quantocks from the rest room (which also had a splendid snooker table!) The shift system was interesting and followed this Sunday to Saturday pattern: seven evenings (1400 - 2200), with a quick change-over to seven days (0700 - 1400), then seven nights (2200 - 0700) and back to another seven evenings - and so on.

We had one day off a week starting on Monday one week then Tuesday the next and so on, so that every seven weeks you had a long week-end off i.e., finish Friday at 1400 and start again at 1400 the following Monday.

B and A units
This picture shows the B and A units. The carrier was modulated by the programme signal in the A unit and the B provided the first stage of amplification.
Holidays were two weeks in the Summer and one in the Winter. Incidentally, weekly pay for a TA ll was £2/5/0 (£2.25) at sixteen going up to £2/10/0 (£2.50) at seventeen, plus about £2 subsistence allowance, but no other payments for nights or anything else - I wonder if this had any bearing on my feelings later when in discussions about overtime, interrupted meal breaks and so on - ah well!

In October 1944, a young lady arrived from Weymouth H-Group transmitter and was posted to our shift - Sylvia Beechey by name. Years later, in 1949, we met again at 200 Oxford Street. She became Sylvia Latham on November 25th 1950 and we shared 61 years of marriage.

To get from TA ll to TA l you had to take a practical test on station with the EiC in attendance - starting up one of the diesels (450 hp marine driving one of the 220volt DC generators) and connecting the latter's output on to the main switchboard; starting up various sets of machines; putting batteries on charge; answering questions about the transmitters and so on. Sylvia and I both passed this test during our stay at Washford.

D and C1 units
The D and C1 Units
Washford was in a group of three medium wave stations all on the same frequency so that German aircraft could not use the carriers for direction finding. If any one of the transmitters in the group was off the air for more than three minutes the others had to close down. This gave plenty of incentive to get a move on when a fault occurred and to get back on the air. Mains failures were fairly frequent and this meant the inevitable shut-down for the whole group. I well remember rushing down the corridor to the engine room to get three out of the four diesels started up to cope with the station load - five minutes at least! Incidentally the station mains were DC and mercury arc rectifiers were used to convert the incoming 415 volt AC into 220 volts DC. The two control rooms were powered by batteries. There were three sets of batteries, one on each Control room and one on charge. These had to be changed over from time to time by using three banks of knife switches - plenty of scope for the odd error there!

Round about D-day the frequency of one of the transmitters was changed. Rumour had it that we were on the same frequency as Calais so that German aircraft could not use it for direction finding. The transmitter was "switched on" from somewhere in London and the whole thing was called Operation Bareback - I never did find out too much about it - hush hush, you know!

Joe briefly describes the rest of his BBC career:

Before the war ended, I served as a Radio Mechanic in the Royal Signals - my National Service lasted for two years eight months. On de-mob, I rejoined the BBC in Radio OBs for the period of the Olympic Games. Shortly after, I retrained as a Programme Engineer and worked as a PE, later Studio Manager, at 200 Oxford Street for over six years before becoming an Instructor with Staff Training for more than seven years.

In 1962 I got the job as SSM Central Unit at BH and later as Operations Staff Organiser, Chief Production Services Manager and eventually Head of Programme Operations, Radio. I retired at the end of December 1983 - over forty years since joining. The two jobs I enjoyed most in the BBC were being a TA I at Washford and working as an SM at 200 Oxford Street.

On retirement I was able to concentrate more on watercolour painting and have sold more than 550 pictures since then. In 1997 I was elected a full Member of the Guild of Aviation Artists and won the award for best watercolour - who says there's not life after work?

Joe was to enjoy many years of life after his retirement but sadly he died in February 2012 after a brief illness and just two months after losing his wife Sylvia. Peter Thomson remembers him...

Joe training in The Langham
Joe, left, training in The Langham in 1962.
I met Joe the day I joined the BBC, in June 1957 as a Trainee Studio Manager. Joe was an instructor. So we have been friends for a long time. I use the word "friends" deliberately, as it was not long before all of us on the course thought of Joe more as a friend, and not an instructor. I hasten to add that in no way did this diminish our respect for him and we appreciated his aptitude for showing us how to become good SMs, both in theory and practice.

I was delighted when Joe was appointed Head of Programme Operations, and I am sure everyone else in the department was too. Even in this position, I think staff had no qualms about approaching Joe for help on difficult matters, and I'm sure they received sympathetic and helpful advice. I know I did on several occasions. Secretarial staff, too, had affection and respect for Joe. One of his secretaries, Chrissy, left to manage a pub with her husband in Notting Hill Gate, called the Sun in Splendour, and it became a habit of some of us to visit this establishment from time to time. I'm not sure of the exact sequence of events, but probably after retirement, we continued this practice inaugurated by Joe, and met in pubs near Broadcasting House. It is with great pleasure that I can say these meetings still take place once a month, and are known as SinS, and recently we have been joined by friends from Control Room and OBs.

Joe was a founder member of the Ariel Wine and Beer Society, and again I am grateful to him for introducing me to this group. The meetings are most enjoyable, and I have made a number of new friends from other departments. Another bonus is that Andrew, his son, has been the Chairman of the Society for a number of years.

Sadly, Joe had not been able to attend any of these meetings for quite some time because he was uneasy about leaving Sylvia, although I am sure he must have had offers of help from the family.

A painting by Joe Latham
One of Joe's many paintings of Broadcasting House and All Souls Church.
I have kept Joe's main hobby, painting, till the last. I think his "trade mark" scene is that of BH and All Souls. I don't think even he knew how many paintings of this subject he has done, and not all from the same point of view. I am very pleased to have one myself, in addition to quite a few others. Again, I am grateful to Joe for introducing me to another one of his great loves - aircraft. Some years ago he was elected a member of the Guild of Aviation Artists, and I have enjoyed visiting the Guild's annual exhibitions. Joe usually had several paintings accepted, as did Andrew and his daughter and sons. Just to complete the picture, Andrew's wife, Janet, is the Treasurer of the Guild.

Having looked after Sylvia for so long, her death must have affected Joe profoundly, although he seemed to be coping remarkably well afterwards, and I was very pleased that a few weeks later, we met for lunch in a pub. Joe was quite cheerful, and said that we must do this again, and invite a few friends to join us. So it was a shock to receive Andrew's e-mail telling me that Joe had been admitted to hospital, and a greater shock when Andrew rang me a few days later to tell me that Joe had died earlier that morning. Just could not take it in.

I was pleased that I was asked to play the organ for Sylvia's funeral, and Andrew asked me if I would play for Joe's too. I decided that I would not, as I felt I would rather sit in the congregation and be a part of the Service. I'm glad I did, as I was amongst other BBC friends.

We will miss Joe, but will continue to remember him at our SinS and AWBS meetings, and of course, when we look at his paintings.

May Joe and Sylvia rest in peace.

Peter Thomson.

Next page