Chelmsford centenary celebration of live radio broadcast

Mick Ferris
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On June 15, 1920, history was made in Chelmsford when opera star Dame Nellie Melba delivered the first live entertainment radio broadcast from The Marconi Company’s New Street Works.

For some time, the city has been planning a series of events to mark the centenary of this remarkable occasion.

Despite the coronavirus lockdown, people across the city have worked together to deliver a virtual programme of online lectures, tours, exhibitions and even an original play to homes across Chelmsford and beyond.

The centrepiece of the celebrations was a play about the original Melba broadcast and the origins of radio as we know it. ‘The Power Behind the Microphone’, written by Tim Wander and Felicity Fair Thompson, was streamed live from the Civic Theatre exactly 100 years after the moment Dame Nellie stepped up to the microphone.

The play, which is part of Essex 2020, is available to watch on the Chelmsford City Theatres YouTube channel.

To remember this centenary, Chelmsford Museum has also launched an online version of its exhibition ‘On Air: Chelmsford’s Global Experiment’. The exhibition opened just before venues around the country had to close, so few people have had the chance to see it yet.

The museum has now released three films on its website which tell the story of the science and people behind the radio breakthroughs of 1920.

Cllr Marie Goldman, the deputy leader of Chelmsford City Council, says these events have been a fitting tribute to the city’s pioneering past:

“Chelmsford is rightly proud of the legacy of the many hundreds of people who have worked in the city’s telecommunications industries over the decades.

The centenary of a legendary moment in radio history is an important moment for the city and it’s wonderful to see events going ahead this June thanks to the determination of our modern residents.”

For anyone wishing to find out more about the city’s historic contribution to wireless, local historian Alan Pamphilon has created a virtual walk from the former Marconi factory in Hall Street to the one in New Street.

And the play isn’t the only live event to mark the events of 1920. Over the last few weeks, Chelmsford Science and Engineering Society and Chelmsford Civic Society have delivered a series of live lectures by historian Tim Wander and Alan Hartley-Smith.

Minister for Media and Data John Whittingdale MP, said:”This centenary is the perfect opportunity to celebrate radio’s contribution to society and I am delighted that Chelmsford, as the birthplace of radio, is marking it with a creative programme of virtual events. Radio remains at the heart of our rich media landscape, with nine out of ten people tuning in over the last few months for news, entertainment and companionship. Here’s to another 100 years.”

Chelmsford City Council is supporting more events planned for later this year as part of Essex 2020. The Essex Record Office project ‘Communicating Connections’ will be using volunteers to help categorise the Marconi archive and bring some of the collection to the High Street and artist Elaine Tribley will also be exploring this archive to create some public art.

These activities connect to a wider programme on ‘The Future of Wireless’ which invites us to consider the links from this legacy to the present day.

All events will be listed on the Essex 2020 website.


Mick Ferris

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