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Ship of Hits: The Radio Dorothy story

Take a bunch of out of work umpires, a leaky ship and a box of records - modern radio is born on the high seas.

As the light faded over Lord's on the last day of the 1967 cricket season umpire David Constant put his counters away, handed Fred Titmus his cap and trudged off the field.

It would be 6 long months before he would don his beloved white coat again.

It had been the Summer of Love: a cultural melting pot of hippie ideals, freaky new sounds and sexual liberation. Radical American psychedelic umpire Timothy Dreary had blown the minds of his British counterparts with his mantra: "turn on, tune in, give it not out."

photo of unemployed umpires
Winter 1958: Unemployed umpires attempting to emulate the success of Syd Buller by trying to pen Mills and Boon novels during the course of an afternoon at the Cricketers Club of London.

But on that early September evening David Constant was not feeling like celebrating. His first year on the umpiring circuit was coming to an end and a long stretch of penny pinching and unemployment beckoned.

"In those days umpires had the winter off and had to find alternate sources of income," remembers Constant today. "Some of them just signed on at the Labour Exchange and spent months hanging around coffee bars and Laundromats but others tried to get jobs. None of them were really fit for anything that involved manual labour. I know that the late Syd Buller spent his winters writing Mills and Boon novels under the name Jasmine Muff. They gave him his own series called Umpires in Love which he claimed was very popular with women who were going through the change. Closey (Brian Close) always had one on the go but they never really appealed to me".

photo of Nobby Pylon
"Sorry! Santa's sack is empty": Lancs League umpire Nobby Pylon in the Wigan branch of Woolworths 1965 consoling a young mother.

Others occasionally secured jobs as lollipop men, road sweepers or boating lake attendants. In the weeks before Christmas every department store and toy shop in the country was inundated with requests from umpires applying for the job as Santa. In reality it was a position they were singularly unsuited for due to an in-built hostility towards small children and a predilection for hoarding jigsaws.

The ground breaking new sounds from the likes of The Beatles (Sgt Pepper), The Rolling Stones (Their Satanic Majesty Requests), The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground and Nico) and Mrs. Mills (Everyone's Welcome at Mrs. Mills' Party) had captured the imagination of a new generation of young people who were angry at the ongoing war in Vietnam, and even angrier at Harry Pilling's continued absence from the test team.

photo of Christopher Martin Jenkins
A young Christopher Martin Jenkins playing Soul Limbo on the short lived pirate Radio TMS in 1966.

However, anyone who wanted to hear the glorious music coming out of the Summer of Love had a problem - the BBC didn't play it and the first commercial stations were still 6 years away.

It was to fill this void that the first 'pirate' radio stations began to broadcast.

Friends of Dorothy

London based clothes shop magnate Chris Hogg, was one of the first to recognise the commercial potential of pirate radio, and was keen to be a part of it. Hogg - an MCC member and cricket fanatic - knew that the public appetite for pop music would inevitably lead to a demand for new radio stations that actually catered for the tastes of young people.

Hogg was well placed to gauge the moods of the post war baby boomers. He owned the legendary Kings Road boutique Granny Takes A Run and helped fund such underground publications as Owz and the feminist cricket magazine Spare Grip.

In the summer of 1967 an opportunity arose to borrow a boat that had already been used for broadcasting. The ship had been owned by the short - lived station Radio Carol; a Dutch organisation that broadcast Christian worship and skiffle in equal measures. The demise in popularity of both God and skiffle led the station to close.

photo of skiffle band
My Old Man's the Twelfth Man: Skiffle mania hits London 1960.

Hogg acted quickly. He leased the boat for a six month period and set about finding the people who could bring his dream to reality. He wanted a dedicated team of disk-jockeys and technical staff who would be happy to spend half a year on the high seas creating innovative and exciting radio, and being sick.

By September 1967 Hogg was getting worried. His plan of launching the new station was being hindered by the unavailability of suitable recruits. With only weeks to go before the ship set sail Hogg had no-one signed up. Things were getting desperate.

"I was moping around the Long Room at the last county championship match of the season at Lord's feeling very despondent. I had put adverts in all the underground press saying that we would be broadcasting from October 1st and there I was with no DJs or anyone," Hogg wrote in his 1977 biography. "As the players came off the field after the final session I overheard the umpires having a conversation about how little they have to do over the close season. I had always assumed that these gentlemen had business interests to attend to or sub Post Offices to run. In actual fact they did nothing."

Chris Hogg soon realised that he had a ready made workforce available to him but he was uncertain as to whether they would be fit for the task ahead. Umpires were not known for their knowledge of popular culture or enthusiasm for the new sounds coming from the underground. However, after speaking to some of the younger members of the profession Hogg knew that his crazy idea might just work.

The trend at the time was to give the new stations girls names such as Caroline or Jacky. The reason behind this has been lost in the mists of time but Chris Hogg thought it best to carry on the tradition. His favourite member of the England Woman's cricket team was Dorothy Pegg and for that reason alone Radio Dorothy was born.

photo of the crew preparing to leave Ostend
"... but what if I'm pregnant?" The crew prepare to leave Ostend after stocking up on supplies and meeting the locals.

However, things didn't always go according to plan. At one point Hogg placed adverts in the music press for interested parties to come forward either as volunteers or investors. His advert began "are you a Friend of Dorothy?" and contained an invitation for interested parties to an open meeting in Hampstead Heath.

"Thousands of men turned up," Hogg later recalled "but the vast majority of them appear to have misunderstood the true nature of the meeting. Apart from some wild cheering when I mentioned 'sailors' the whole thing fell flat."

Hogg and a group of interested umpires, cricket writers and scorers met at Great Western pub in Paddington in the last week of September. During a long session - in which a great amount of beer was drunk - Hogg outlined his demands: the ship would sail the next day, facilities would be basic and there was no guarantee of any pay. It would be hard work but it would be fun.

"I'm not saying we were all press-ganged," says David Constant "but Mr. Hogg gave us all a double of our choice and the next thing any of us remember was waking up on board the Dorothy."

Pirates of the airwaves

Life on the ocean wave did not suit everybody on board. Arthur Fagg for one found it difficult to adjust to his new surroundings. In his 1974 autobiography Fagg Ends he wrote: " After the shock of waking up on board a leaky 10 ton rust bucket had subsided we had to get on with the hard work of running a radio station from scratch. This was difficult as Station Manager Chris Hogg had forgotten to bring any records along. We had to make an emergency stop at the Ostend branch of Woolworths for a trawl through their LP section, which was not exactly well stocked with cutting edge rock sounds. All we got were a couple of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson albums and an album of British bird song."

The first programme was broadcast at 7am on 1st October 1967 with the dulcet tones of Harold 'Dickie' Bird alternating records and breezy chat.

"It was pretty groundbreaking stuff" remembers David Constant. "We were in a bit of a pickle because of our lack of records so we called the show: Up With The Bird and asked Dickie to do it. He turned up at 4 o'clock in the morning nervous as anything; but as soon as he got in front of the mic there was no stopping him."

Original recordings of the shows are few and far between but a reel to reel tape of the first Dickie Bird show recently resurfaced ...

" ... that was the smashing sound of the Mallard. Marvellous ducks them. When you are a batsman you don't want to get a duck. We have lots of nice ones in Barnsley. I once played a match for Barnsley alongside my great mate Michael Parkinson. Lovely man Parky. He said 'Dickie Bird you is a legend'. It's ten to eight. Here's Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson."

Other first day shows included The Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson Hour with 'Psychedelic' Syd Bullen and the 'Nature Time' a rambling discussion on identifying birds and recent developments in light metre technology.

photo of Radio Dorothy DJ
"This one goes out to the MCC massive."

After a more successful record buying trip in Amsterdam the fledgling station reshuffled its schedules and began to form its own individual identity. Each DJ was given his own regular slot to reflect their personal tastes although it took time for the less dextrous officials to master the art of the studio. Most of the umpires were confused by the new record decks and spent hours trying to locate the handle.

"Some of them hadn't played a 45rpm record before" chuckles David Constant. "Just about everything was played at the wrong speed for the first week or so. Many of the early listeners never came back because they thought we just played Pinky and Perky. They didn't realise it was Tom Spencer playing a Bachelors' album at 78rpm."

The only member of the crew with previous broadcasting experience was its solitary non umpire, ex Warwickshire seamer, Jack Bannister, then forging a career as a journalist. Bannister had a deep interest in the alternative music scene and had been the resident DJ at the ground breaking LBW Club in Tottenham Court Road where heads, freaks and hippies mingled with Lord's groundsmen and various overnight not out batsmen.

Bannister had been keen to broaden his horizons with a stint on board but had been horrified to be asked to present the Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson Request Show in the first week prior to the arrival of a crate of his own records. Once he had access to his own discs Bannister quickly created the influential late night programme The Perfumed Pavilion. The show combined beatnik poetry, acid folk and news from the Birmingham and West Midlands District cricket league.

Other popular shows included:

Tin Pan Alley - Bill Alley's classic '50s pop show.

Constant Craving - David Constant playing the finest love songs.

Smokin' A Fagg - Jazz and blues round up with Arthur Fagg.

Spencer the Rover - Folk, new and old, with Tom Spencer.

Sydedelica - Freaky sounds with 'Psychedelic' Syd Bullen.

The Price is Right - 'Shock Jock' Fred Price.

Talking Crapp - Jack Crapp and guests discuss umpiring matters.

What'choo talkin' about Willis?

Word soon got around about the exciting sounds emanating from the new station. One early devotee was a 16 year old Bob Willis, then a trainee hairdresser in Sunderland.

"Radio Dorothy changed my life," recalls Willis today: "I was training for my advanced certificate in bubble perms all day and listening to the Light Programme on the BBC. I stumbled across Radio Dorothy one day in the salon. I was giving the vicar a comb-over and I accidentally tuned in to Charlie Elliot playing Bob Dylan on his Rambling Charlie Elliot show. From that moment on I was hooked. I used to listen to the Perfumed Pavilion with Jack Bannister under the bedclothes with a torch and a set of Carmen rollers. It was such an exciting show; one minute he played the Incredible String Band then it was some beatnik reading a poem about the best way to bowl an off cutter. I remember hearing Allen Ginsberg reading 'Howlzat ... I saw the best bats of my generation destroyed by Malcolm Nash.' It inspired me to take up fast bowling".

Other fans of the station included John Lennon, who was so enamoured with it that in 1969 he invited his favourite DJs - Tom Spencer and Syd Bullen - to join him in the Amsterdam Hilton for his Bed In for Peace. Unfortunately it co-incided with a pre season friendly season match at Fenners and they were unable to attend; much to the chagrin of Bullen who had bought a new jar of Horlicks especially for the occasion.

But not everything was quite so rosy. The crew soon realised that the main enemies were not sea sickness or rough weather but the traditional enemies of umpires everywhere: boredom and hunger.

photo of MCC Young Cricketers
MCC Young Cricketers tune into Radio Dorothy on a stolen transistor after a close season shoplifting trip to Harrods.

David Constant: "God it could be dull. You have to remember that Sudoku hadn't been invented and umpires aren't always the best conversationalists. There was a lot of Eye Spy and Bill Alley's colouring-in books were very popular, at least until Dickie Bird ate his crayons one evening. He started crying and saying that they were just like his old mum used to make back in Barnsley."

The ship was permanently running out of food. Umpires who were used to calorific lunches and teas on the county circuit found it hard to adapt to being on basic rations. David Constant remembers it well: "We were a couple of weeks away from the next delivery of food and things were getting pretty desperate. After Dickie Bird ate the crayons there was a bit of a free for all on the food front. Arthur Fagg had a couple of bottles of bubble bath that he'd picked up in Ostend. These got drunk by Charlie Elliot just before he was due on air. He tried to introduce the new Roger Whittaker single and all that came out of his mouth was foam."

As a young writer on the New Musical Express Nick Kent was sent to visit the station for a few days to write about life on the ocean waves.

photo of typical Radio Dorothy listener
Listeners in England put up posters of their favourite umpire/DJs.

"I'd hung out with the Beatles and the Stones, dropped acid with Lieutenant Pigeon and partied at Warhol's Factory but nothing prepared me for spending three nights on board Radio Dorothy. A couple of the DJs had been up for days playing Owzat. There were frequent food fights - not in the traditional sense of people throwing food at each other - but actual fist fights when someone produced something edible. I remember a near riot when Fred Price pulled a tin of Plumrose Bacon Grill out of his pyjama bottoms."

"It was obvious that the ship hadn't been adequately stocked with food and water. One of the Djs told me that he had brought up the subject of water supplies with Chris Hogg before the ship sailed off and was told 'what do you think the ship will be sailing on? Custard?' Then there was an outbreak of Rickets due to a Vitamin D deficiency. A number of the umpires on board actually thought that they might get jobs as jockeys when they got back."

"I couldn't wait to go home."

Land ahoy

Rising tensions amongst the crew signalled the end for the station a mere 2 months after it started. As winter approached the weather turned severe and the old boat's shortcomings were shown in frightening relief.

The prospect of spending Christmas at sea was too much for the majority of the crew. The long running Umpires Christmas Lunch at The Playfair Club in the West End was the highlight of every umpire's social calendar and few were prepared to miss out on their complimentary glass of Harvey's Bristol Cream.

"In the end it was mutiny," wrote Arthur Fagg in Fagg Ends. "Starvation, sea-sickness and Dickie Bird wittering on about how much he missed Barnsley meant that we weren't prepared to go on. We did our last shows on December 1st and pointed the ship at the nearest coast."

photo of Syd Bullen
An exhausted Syd Bullen is taken straight into Lord's to sign copies of his latest romantic novel: Tea and Crumpet written as Rachel Hey Ho Bint.

The umpires were in poor condition by the time the boat reached dry land. Weeks of vitamin deficiency and continued exposure to Russ Conway records had left them weak and disorientated.

Although the station closed after only a few weeks of broadcasting its influence was long lasting.

When, in 1967 The BBC created its brand new flagship pop station - Radio 1 - the station's controller made enquiries amongst ex Radio Dorothy jocks to see if they might be interested in joining the Beeb's exciting new enterprise.

"The first Radio 1 Breakfast Show was between me and Tony Blackburn," remembers David Constant. "Tony had been a hit on Radio London but the Programme Controller at Radio 1 really wanted me to do it. I had to say no because I the launch date co-incided with Derbyshire against Kent at Chesterfield. Fred Swarbrook said he would drive me up to London and back for the duration of the match as long as I played something from Winifred Atwell every day - he was a massive fan - but I knew it just wasn't feasible."

photo of Fred Price
"And another thing ... tea intervals should be half an hour.": Fred Price on The Price is Right.

Later radio stations drew inspiration from Dorothy's eclectic style. That late night staple of commercial stations in the '80s and '90s - The Shock Jock - was a direct copy of Radio Dorothy's, brief but ground-breaking, Price is Right; in which Fred Price shouted into a microphone about the cost of moth balls.

Gradually as the Dorothy jocks got their land legs back the enormity of their achievement dawned on them.

David Constant: "We were treated like heroes when we returned. I'd had no idea just how much ordinary people had appreciated Radio Dorothy. Some kids said to me that it was the only place you could hear Jess Conrad, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and a discussion on the best way to starch wicket-keeping gloves - all within 20 minutes of each other. That's got to be good, hasn't it?"