Television transmission digital switchover took place in Dover in June 2012, which meant that analogue service was no longer available. That was the latest major change in the long history of television transmission and production that once Dover was a major campaigner. Later, the town had its own television station from which programmes were broadcast throughout East Kent. Now, its only claim to fame is when a national media person either broadcasts from the cliffs overlooking the Eastern Docks or walking along the seafront.
BBC inaugurated the world’s first television service on 2 November 1936 from Alexandra Palace but this did not reach Dover. The town had to wait until Whit-Monday 1947, following World War II, when television was demonstrated at the Duke of York’s Military School fete.
The town was impressed and the council took it upon themselves to ensure that Dover would be one of the first places in the country to have television and an application was sent forthwith to the Post Master General. At the same time, the council complained about the town’s poor radio reception and asked for that to be improved.
So sure that the Post Master General would be sympathetic that three different companies made applications to the council for consents and wayleaves (permission to use private land) for a radio relay system for sound and television. Former Mayor, Councillor Arthur Goodfellow and the Town Clerk, James A Johnson, were appointed to assess their merits.
The two looked at systems operating at Margate and Gloucester and an agreement was made with Northampton Wireless Relay Ltd, subject to two licences being obtained from the Post Master General. Once obtained, it was said, the company would have a radio relay in operation within a matter of weeks and television in about eighteen months.
The licence for radio was forthcoming but not the one for television. This was taken up by Dover’s MP, John Arbuthnot, who raised the matter in the House of Commons, but to no avail. Albeit, the BBC did agree to erect a low power ‘booster’ transmitter west of Winehouse Lane, Capel, to serve the Dover and Folkestone area. This came into operation on Sunday 23 December 1951 transmitting the BBC West of England Home Service – today it transmits BBC Radio 5 Live.
With the prospect of Elizabeth II’s Coronation looming, in 1952, the council tried again but failed to get relayed television for Dover. Again, John Arbuthnot brought the matter to the attention of Parliament and appeared to have succeeded. However, a clause in the Postmaster General’s consent stated that the receiving station was not to be ‘remote.’ When Northampton Wireless Relay Ltd proposed to erect this at the top of Lydden Hill, it was refused as being too remote.
The Coronation took place on 2 June 1953 and many householders in the country bought their first television set especially for the occasion. However, in Dover reception was very poor as the only available signal was from Alexandra Palace in north London. The council, sensing the mood, spent over £1,000 festooning the streets with bunting and there was a spectacular flowerbed centred by an illuminated crown in Market Square. The decorations were said to be the best in Kent and the best in the country for a town.
At the time the BBC were using the tower as a temporary repeater station to beam television across the Channel to Calais and from there, using repeater stations, throughout the Continent. The conversion from the British 405 lines to the Continental 625 lines was undertaken by the receiver stations but it did mean that viewers in Paris, Rome and Berlin were able to view Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on BBC but not the locals in Dover!
Hopes were raised in January 1954 when authority was given to the BBC to set up six new television stations, one of which was to serve Dover. This was not forthcoming although the introduction of transmissions from Crystal Palace, from 28 March 1956, did improve reception.
Rediffusion had been granted relay licences to Ramsgate in 1928 and Thanet in 1929. In 1945, this was extended from the Strait of Dover to the Bristol Channel and the use of polythene for cable encasing had been introduced. The first cable television experiments took place in Thanet in 1950. When the Crystal Palace TV transmitter came on line, broadcasts were relayed to an aerial at Ripple Mill and distributed through cables to subscriber homes in the Dover and Deal area. In August 1984, the Rediffusion Cablevision operation opened in Coombe Valley Road.
In 1956 a permanent two-way cable television link was established between London, through St Margaret’s Bay, to the Continent. The following year the BBC converted Swingate to receive Continental transmissions as well as sending them. This was to enable British who could get BBC, to see the Queen on a State visit to France and Denmark.
Exasperated by BBC’s continual procrastination, in 1957 Dover Corporation sent a deputation to see the Director General. They were promised a combined television and VHF (FM) station to serve the Dover and Folkestone area to be erected in 1958. Time passed and in 1959, the BBC informed the Town Council that it was unlikely their permanent combined television and VHF station to serve the Dover area could be built until 1960-61.
In the meantime, the Croydon transmitter was built to broadcast the London ITV signal. After fierce competition, Southern Television won the ITV franchise for the south and southeast of England. They went on air at 17.30 on Saturday 30 August 1958 from their studios in Southampton using Swingate masts as a relay to Dover.
In 1959, the Corporation leased land on Russell Street to Southern Television Ltd for television studios and offices. At the same time, the Independent Television Authority erected a 750-foot (approx. 228.6 metres, later extended to 798-feet, 243.2 metres) VHF television transmitter at Hougham that transmitted a 405-line signal. This came into full service on 31 January 1960.
The studios on Russell Street were mainly used to produce dedicated Southeast news bulletins as well as the Wednesday and Friday magazine programme Scene South East. The studios also made non-news programmes and documentaries such as Farm Progress, Guideline, Elusive Butterflies & Dougalling as well as the nightly Epilogue. Commercials specific to the area helped local businesses and gave the station a feeling of belonging to Dover.
It was in 1961 that the BBC eventually kept their promise. Initially they introduced low powered TV transmission from Swingate and later that year VHF (FM) radio from the same site. Use was made of the existing WWII Chain Home radar receiving towers. From 11 February 1967, BBC2 was broadcast to Dover using the Hougham transmitter. In 1968, the Independent Television Authority authorised the transmission of 625-line colour from Hougham. ITV transmission began on 13 December 1969 followed by BBC1 on 3 January 1970.
Southern Television ceased broadcasting at 00:43hrs on 1 January 1982 when they lost the franchise to Television South (TVS). Southern eventually sold their studios to the new company as well as a site at Vinters Park, Maidstone. There TVS built a studio complex closing the Dover studios in 1983. Adams the Printers moved into the building about 1983-4 and stayed there until moving to Dour Street, after which the studios were demolished.
- Dover Mercury: 14 June 2012
- Film of the opening of Southern Television in Dover, thanks to Nic Ayling, Managing Director, Southern Television: www.youtube.com/watch?v=V98-0OIrDcs