Pirates, Pirate Radio and a Music Lockdown

Wednesday, June 03 2020

Pirates, Pirate Radio and a Music Lockdown

Reading the Times on Thursday 23rd April, I turned to the Obituary section and was immediately struck by a moment of sadness and nostalgia, Ronan O’Rahilly had died.

In these days of internet radio, DAB radio, YouTube, music streaming and downloads, many would not know of the significance of this man and his campaigns to allow the UK to listen to the music people wanted to hear.

The days pre-Ronan were very different. Yes, there were pubs, clubs and coffee-bars with their Jukeboxes, but radio…… we had the BBC’s Light Programme! Even my Mum with her love of Skiffle groups and Rock and Roll and my grandparents with their love of Swing found the Light Programme hard to bear, with its easy-listening, sanitised version of the music available. The UK government report of 1962 decided the BBC would continue to rule the airwaves and rejected the idea of commercial radio. O’Rahilly set out to change that, buying the former Danish ferry Fredericia, kitting her out as a radio station and moored 3 miles outside of UK territorial waters, so not subject to the British broadcasting laws. Both ship and station were named Caroline after President Kennedy’s daughter. Setting off from the Irish port of Greenore, Radio Caroline anchored 3 miles off Felixstowe and began broadcasting on 27th March, 1964. Pirate Radio was here!

A rival appeared in the form of Radio Atlanta broadcasting from the Mi Amigo (ex Bon Jour, ex Magda Maria, which had broadcast off Sweden in 1961). Ronan soon took it over and moved Caroline (ex Fredericia) to the Irish Sea to broadcast as Radio Caroline North, while Mi Amigo remained in the North Sea as Radio Caroline South. The radio ships became a training ground for many famous disc jockeys including John Peel, Kenny Everett, Emperor Rosko, Simon Dee, Tony Prince, Tony Blackburn and Johnnie Walker. Blackburn was the first voice to heard on BBC’s new station Radio 1, when launched in 1967 and he and Johnnie still broadcast on BBC’s Radio 2 today.

Mi Amigo

Caroline was soon joined by many others including Radio London, broadcasting from the converted minesweeper Galaxy (ex USS Density) and Radio Invicta broadcast from Red Sands Fort in the Thames estuary. The stations brought us a musical choice and a format that is now common, with fun, jingles and commercials. I cannot hear the Fortunes Caroline without thinking of Radio Caroline; it was the station’s theme tune.

All was to change with the introduction of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in 1967. As the time approached midnight on 14th August, all of the stations signed off for the last time, one by one, except Caroline, she kept going. And boy were we relieved! Caroline remained on air and continued to give us a great choice of music. The station ran out of money in 1968 and the two ships were towed away for unpaid bills. A new station Radio Noordzee Internationaal appeared in 1970 operating from Mebo II.  It switched its name to Radio Caroline and began to lobby for introduction of licensed commercial radio, right in the run-up of the UK General Election. The UK government resorted to jamming the station and Mebo II returned to the Netherlands after the election.

In 1972 the UK government enacted the Sound Broadcasting Act, leading to the launch of independent local radio. LBC was the first, providing talk radio to the London area from 8th October, 1973. Capital Radio, a music-based station for same area went on air 8 days later. They were followed by many others covering specific areas around the UK, but it took a further 19 years to see the launch of the first independent national radio station, Classic FM, covering all of areas of the UK.

Meanwhile Mi Amigo and Radio Caroline returned to the UK airwaves in 1974 to broadcast in Dutch in daytime and English at night. Plus there were others joining the growing fleet of Pirate Radio ships in the North Sea including Radio Veronica broadcasting from the converted lightship Borkum Rif and Capital Radio (not the same as the land-based station) broadcasting from the King David in the early 1970s.  The Mi Amigo was also used by other stations including Radio Seagull and Radio 199. And the North Sea wasn’t the only place; there were many ship-based pirate radio stations around the world.

The Dutch anti-pirate law was enacted by 30th August 1974 and many of the stations closed down, except Caroline, by this time anchored in the Knock Deep area off the Thames estuary. Once again she became the last radio ship broadcasting to Europe.

On 19th March 1980, Mi Amigo broke free of her mooring and drifted in heavy seas and shallow water. Springing leaks, the crew, DJ’s and ship’s canary ‘Wilson’ were rescued by the RNLI lifeboat Helen Turnbull. Mi Amigo sank the following day on the Long Sandbank near Walton-on-the-Naze.

A new ship was purchased, the Ross Revenge, an ex-Icelandic side-trawler built in Bremerhaven in 1960 as Freyr. Fitted out in Santander, the ship and Radio Caroline were back in 1983, joined for a brief period by Laser 558 transmitting from the Communicator, both operating 14 miles north-west of Margate outside the UK’s newly extended 12 mile territorial limit. Ross Revenge and Caroline rode out the hurricane of October 1987 only for her to lose her radio mast in another storm a month later. Replacement masts soon ensured she was back on air, but on 19th August 1988 she was boarded by both Dutch and British officers who took control of the ship and shut down transmissions. Caroline managed to restart broadcasting on 1st October 1989 using makeshift equipment but by 5th November 1990 had to stop due to lack of fuel and supplies. In November the following year, the ship lost its anchor in a storm and drifted onto the Goodwin Sands. The remaining crew were rescued by RAF helicopter and everyone thought that would be the end of the Ross Revenge and Radio Caroline. Amazingly the ship was salvaged and since 1991 the Ross Revenge has been looked after by the Caroline Support Group. This amazing group ensure that the ship is still here and that Radio Caroline is still broadcasting via the internet and from the Ross Revenge once a month. Guided tours of the ship cover fishing and radio history.

The Ross Revenge is now anchored in the middle of the River Blackwater between Bradwell and Tollesbury, no longer battered by North Sea waves or troubled by Government raids, legal at last.

Ronan, thank you for the music!

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the opinions or views of either the Lloyd’s Register Foundation or the Lloyd’s Register Group. 

Barbara Jones