The End of Savoy Hill

BBC Genome

Savoy Hill, the BBC's headquarters from 1923 to 1932

Today the main home and headquarters of the BBC is Broadcasting House on Portland Place, at the top of Regent Street in the West End of London. The BBC formally moved into that building on 15 May 1932, but for the preceding nine years, its London base had been a couple of miles away at Savoy Hill, on the north bank of the Thames between Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges.

Unlike Broadcasting House, the building known as Savoy Hill was not purpose-built for making radio programmes. It was the headquarters of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, a logical enough connection for providing house room to the fledgling BBC. And it was here that all but the very earliest foundations of the BBC were laid, and many of the early innovations of broadcasting took place.

Broadcasting in Britain began in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. In the 1920s various companies were manufacturing radio transmission and reception equipment, and at first, the engineers at the various companies doubled as broadcasters in the very brief test programmes. The Postmaster General, whose remit covered all kinds of communications, decided that things needed to be put on a formal basis. Thus the British Broadcasting Company was formed in 1922, to provide the programmes to fill the airwaves, and linking together the companies transmitting in the major cities of the United Kingdom. London was chosen to be the hub of broadcasting, even though it was not immediately easy to share programmes until more powerful transmitters were provided, though they could be relayed by Post Office landline between transmitter sites.

The Marconi Company, based in the Strand, had been transmitting experimentally since May 1922 using the call sign 2LO, and this continued from 2 November when the BBC was officially founded.  When John Reith was appointed General Manager of the BBC in December 1922, its staff consisted of four people. By the time the BBC moved to Savoy Hill a few months later there were about 30, and as broadcasting took off, more and more personnel were appointed to cope with ever-greater hours of broadcasting, more complex production, and all the backroom activities required to support programme-making.

Studio 1 at Savoy Hill after it had been remodelled in 1928

Reith himself, and colleagues Arthur Burrows and Cecil Lewis, all wrote accounts of the early days in 1924, and it says something about importance of radio and its adoption throughout the country, that they put their thoughts in print at so early a stage. While Reith’s “Broadcast Over Britain” is more concerned with philosophical mission statements about the purpose of broadcasting, Burrows’ “The Story of Broadcasting” and Lewis’s “Broadcasting from Within” describe the chronology of events with the technical development of broadcasting and the establishment of the BBC itself.

The rapidly-expanding BBC moved into part of the IEE building on Savoy Hill in March 1923, but it encroached on ever greater parts of the building and by the middle of the following year its operations required it to take over the adjoining Savoy Hill Mansions. Even this soon became inadequate for the BBC’s requirements, and over the succeeding years staff were scattered into assorted buildings nearby: it was not until the opening of Broadcasting House that most were gathered together again in one place.

The 2LO transmitter, originally relatively low-powered and not reaching much beyond London, was upgraded in 1925, with twice the power, and relocated to the roof of Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street. At the end of 1924 a high-powered long wave transmitter based at Daventry, call sign 5XX, was established to relay broadcasts to most of the United Kingdom. The establishment of Daventry meant that the London programme would increasingly dominate the output of the BBC. The transmitter on top of Selfridges was replaced by masts at Brookmans Park in October 1929, and it was soon after possible to provide a second BBC network.

During this period, the range of programming provided by the BBC consisted of music of various kinds, talks, drama and readings of literature and poetry. Outside broadcasts were a relatively early innovation, mostly consisting of concert performances. It would be the late 1920s before sporting events started to be covered live, though descriptions of them had already happened, in the manner of newspaper sports reporting. Until the 1930s most output came from a single Productions Department, and producers were not divided by genre, though naturally some favoured and were better at different kinds of programme than others.

Early programmes included Children’s Hour – which included many regional contributions, and at first went under a variety of different names. There was also a Women’s Hour – not to be confused with the post-war programme Woman’s Hour which continues to this day. Dance music was provided by regular late-night broadcasts by the Savoy Orpheans from the nearby Savoy Hotel, as well as by studio groups. Personalities emerged like storyteller A.J. Alan, and the first radio comedian John Henry. There were already programmes consisting of gramophone records, decades before the advent of Radio 1. Christopher Stone, who became known as the first regular Disc Jockey, was first billed in Radio Times in 1927.

BBC Director General John Reith hands the key of Savoy Hill back to the commissionaire on 14 May 1932

During the 1920s the BBC established itself as a news provider, even though it was reliant on outside agencies for newsgathering. During the General Strike in 1926 it was virtually the only source of news, other than the government’s British Gazette. A government enquiry before the strike had already concluded that broadcasting should be taken out the hands of the privately owned Company and be established as a public corporation.  John Reith, by then Managing Director, was appointed Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and all BBC staff and assets were transferred to the Corporation on 1 January 1927.

By the turn of the 1930s discussions were underway to establish an international arm of the BBC to reach, initially, the outposts of the British Empire, but this would not come to pass until the end of 1932. At the same time, the BBC was rather less enthusiastic about the television experiments of John Logie Baird, although by the end of 1929 they allowed him to use the BBC transmitter for experimental programmes, though Baird had to produce his programmes from his own premises, as there was no room at Savoy Hill.

By the time the Corporation was established it was clear that the BBC had more than outgrown the confines of Savoy Hill, and it was decided that a purpose built headquarters was required. A plot of land on Portland Place was acquired in early 1928, next to the church, All Souls, Langham Place, and the concert venue Queen’s Hall, both of which would prove useful in presenting programmes. By late 1931 the new building was ready to receive the first staff members, and the main move to Broadcasting House was over several weekends in April 1932. Finally, on 14 May, the last programme was broadcast from the BBC's first real home: a new era had begun.

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