Change & Wartime

5PY was determined to carry on for as long as possible. Finally in January 1934 the local output ceased but the transmitter sites at Plymouth and Bournemouth were kept on air to fill in gaps in  coverage  from the new regional transmitter at Washford Cross in Somerset.  The new BBC West Region had been inaugurated in 1933 but controversy reigned because the region contained Wales and the Welsh language. Wales naturally wanted their own service, and the West of England  had no connection to the culture and language of their neighbour. It wasn't until 1937 that the situation was resolved with separate regions for Wales and the West. 

Plymouth was set to be an outpost for the West region during the next era, providing links to the national and regional services with a base for outside broadcasts. 

To coincide with the closure of the Plymouth studio, a manager was duly sent from Cardiff, the west headquarters to answer concerns and criticisms from local voices and to deflect bad publicity directed to BBC head office. Mr J. Sutthery , programme director west region  toured Devon & Cornwall and attended a public meeting.  The Mayor of Plymouth had previously staged  a vigorous protest against the cutback in local services.  

The region's idea was to continue serving the region by covering ceremonies and events unique to the south west counties. Mr Sutthery stated:

It is our intention to reflect as far as possible the life of the West, in programmes from both the West regional transmitter and the national station

The policy broadly followed existing BBC policy which was to prevent the regions making programmes which 'London could do better'...... say no more!

The Rubinstein Discord

One of the world's top pianists Artur Rubinstein was booked to play at Dartington Hall in South Devon. This was a great opportunity for West Region to organise an outside broadcast to showcase the artistry of a great musician. BBC head office were contacted to approve the transmission - they declined, reasoning that as Mr Rubinstein had not yet featured on the National network it was unacceptable for a region to cover the event.  Meetings were called where Mr Sutthery made the case for his region to cover the event. Eventually BBC head office agreed to approve the broadcast so long as it was transmitted on the National network. A good solution, but West region had to assure London that technically it would be satisfactory. It's unlikely that they would have sought the same assurance from London based engineers - hardly a level playing field.

The Wind From The Tors And The Scent From The Mayfield

Despite the closure of the 5PY station,  Plymouth still had the opportunity to host occasional programmes. In the same week as the Rubinstein concert, a drama was produced in Plymouth 'The Farmers Wife' , written by Eden Phillpotts, some of the actors were familiar names from the 5PY era. Eden was well known for a series of novels set on Dartmoor.  This Plymouth programme even made the front cover of the Radio Times.  

Alumni - introducing Bill Ward

1932 was a significant year when a local 16 yr old boy joined 5PY as an engineering assistant. He was to go on to become one of the original team of Television pioneers at Alexandra Palace. Never losing his local accent he went on to be known as the ‘juggler with the stars’ and became one of the first TV directors at Alexandra Palace progressing through the operational engineering ranks from sound engineer and floor management. A pre-eminent television light entertainment producer he worked with the top stars of the day and was the first British director to work with Bob Hope and a whole raft of British actors and comedians. With the start of commercial tv in Britain he was ‘head hunted’ by Lew Grade to take a leading role in ATV.  

Bill Ward pictured at the world's first TV OB at the coronation
of George VI in 1937

Listen to Bill recounting his early broadcast memories 
in this oral history clip above.

Bill Ward (1997) The British Entertainment History Project | Bill Ward |. Available at: (Accessed: 07 March 2023).

The West region takes shape

As the focus of the BBC shifted from the local stations to a new regional structure, BBC West began its evolution. Watch a video story of those early times below. 

Introducing Frank 

We have just seen Frank Gillard in the featured video, and at this juncture it is worth remembering the huge contribution this Devonian made. 
His broadcasting career had achieved distinction in four different fields: at the microphone, in the BBC corridors of power, as a consultant to broadcasting organisations world-wide and in the creation of a unique archive.
 Find out more HERE 

The Poor Relations

Bristolian Charles Siepmann had been appointed as director of regional relations. He undertook a thorough survey into the state of the regions, and was highly critical, recognizing that opportunities and investment out of London were lacking. Having spent a week in Plymouth he described the facilities as 'disgraceful'   
Since the old Athenaeum offices had received next to no investment since the lease to the BBC was started in '24 perhaps that was not surprising. The lease had been renewed in 1933 for 7 years at a cheap rent of £200 per annum but the 'writing was on the wall' for the old premises and the new base in Bristol together with planning for hostilities was sensibly going to take priority.   

Goodbye Old Hello New

The Plymouth staff were expressing their feelings in the staff publication 'Ariel' . In 1938 and 1939 the engineering staff were to be disbanded and sent to other sites, three being based at the new transmitter at Start Point. The BBC Club motorboat had been sold and nostalgic stories exchanged.  In the December 1938 issue of 'Ariel' they contemplated change and the loss of outside broadcasts:

 ….what will those who leave us do without O.B's? They can be imagined discarding pocketsful of chewing gum and string (not, we understand used on modern transmitters)....Penzance to Exeter, Devonport Dockyard to Camborne Skating Rink, Dartmouth R.N. College to Foster Hall. Plymouth Control Room with its ghost. Will they remember the night when a celebrating rugby team came in, after ten o'clock to 'broadcast please', or the relief that 'only a door banging' brought. The transmitter that an intelligent  moth could shut down if it knew where to alight and was tired of life. Who else can boast of chimneys for transmitter masts, or Badminton courts adjacent?......

At the turn of '39 the final annual-cum-farewell do had taken place not far from the studio, 'lest any happy guest should lose their way'. After the mandatory after dinner speeches the happy revelers made their way back to the studio for their favorite highlight 'musical chairs'. It was written that 'many husbands found their wives sitting on their knees- the first time in many years! and loved it, and so on far into the night'. 
Simple pleasures of a far-off time, with war looming, the story advances with foreboding yet with a drive to serve the listeners. 

Introducing Ingledene

By the closing months of 1938 the BBC had shortlisted several sites in the city for a new broadcasting building to house studios and control for the new Start Point transmitter. Having reserved some properties, the BBC made a bid of £6000 for the former home of Mrs Alice Douglass-James. The corporation quickly developed 'cold feet' having costed the conversion and eventually negotiated a revised price of £5600. 
The house had an interesting history and place in Plymouth society. Originally built in around 1892 as a small estate in a quiet northern backwater of the town, it was bought by the James family. Mr Charles Henry James was a senior justice of the peace, his father having been Mayor of Plymouth twice. His wife was the eldest daughter of esteemed lighthouse engineer and designer Sir James Douglass who had built the Eddystone lighthouse. It is apt that to the present day, weather permitting, the lighthouse can be seen from the roof of the modern building. Mrs Douglass-James led a privileged life, the house having several servants, she contributed much to the community. Garden parties were hosted in aid of  Dr Barnardo's homes and Charles Cross Church was supported. The grounds also accommodated the 'Georgians Tennis Club' where 60 guests could be hosted for tea. Mr James died in 1932 and Alice Douglass-James died in June 1938, the property put up for sale soon afterwards.        

With the sale complete and planning applied for, work continued apace but with some delays due to the pressures of war looming. The old city-centre site kept going, with the last programme transmitted on the 13th June '39 corresponding to the start of transmissions for the new 'West Of England' service from Start point the following day.


The villa and over 2 acre site has  proven to be a good investment for the BBC and remains one of the few properties the BBC owns freehold. At 80m elevation with line of sight to the moors beyond and to Plymouth Sound, it is well located for radio links.

As war took hold, dramatic changes were in store for the community, institutions and the substance of the city. In the following video many elements of the story are recalled. 

The wartime team led by Ronald Stafford


Colonel Stafford had an eventful life in the military before returning to take up a position in BBC management in London. Middle Eastern affairs had taken a significant place in his formative years which led to him writing a book titled 'The Tragedy Of The Assyrians'. His appointment at Ingledene followed a period of short term Plymouth management placements - typically of elderly military men due to wartime shortages of suitable candidates. Ron Stafford was to lead the BBC Plymouth team until April 1951.