How a radio ship and 7 men shook up Britain in 1964

Fifty years ago this week, a 35-year-old former passenger ferry was being secretly equipped with a 165-foot radio mast in the privately-owned Irish port of Greenore. The historic Ballymascanlon Hotel in nearby Dundalk was crowded out with strangers who spent their days mysteriously working at the port, which had been virtually disused for years.

While Swedish broadcast technicians were busy installing radio transmitters on the ship, others were buying up the entire stock of a small record store, and large quantities of baked beans, gym shoes and copper wire from bemused local shop-keepers.

The Dutch crew and English and Canadian disc jockeys took turns in painting the ship and building a studio. Inquisitive visitors were told that it was a maritime research vessel whose tall mast would help it find deep-sea sponges! But local pubs were full of speculation about spies and smuggling. The rumours were stoked by “discreet” night-time test transmissions which managed to block the town’s television reception and had the harbour lights blinking comically in time to the music. It soon became a race to get the ship ready before local journalists worked out what was really happening.

Within two weeks, the freshly-painted, Panama-registered vessel had left Ireland and sailed south through stormy seas and gale-force winds to take up an anchorage in international waters off Felixstowe on the UK’s east coast. But the weather was nothing compared with the political storm that erupted on March 28, Easter Saturday in 1964, when the ship began broadcasting as Radio Caroline.


Radio Caroline: the ship that broke the BBC’s monopoly – and became the world’s largest commercial radio station

It was the first of an armada of ‘pirate’ radio ships which shattered the BBC radio monopoly in the decade when almost everything seemed to change.

Radio Caroline would revolutionise the country’s broadcasting and usher in “The Swinging Sixties”,  a golden period of international success for British music, fashion and media. It was the era of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, James Bond, Twiggy, Michael Caine, David Bailey, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton, Tom Jones, David Frost, Doctor Who, Carnaby Street, the E-type Jaguar and Mini-Cooper.

Celebrated journalist Bernard Levin said: “We saw an old world die, and a new one come to birth.” But, until March 1964, the record-selling Beatles-led pop music which was thrilling the whole world was – for British teenagers – confined to a few hours each week on “The Light Programme”, on the stuffy State-owned BBC radio. Britain’s sole exposure to commercial radio was a fuzzy few hours of nightly broadcasts beamed from RTL’s Radio Luxembourg, hundreds of miles away in the tiny, land-locked European state.

In retrospect, the 1962 insistence by the UK government’s Pilkington Commission that there was no demand for all-day music radio seems almost satirical. And it was all changed by Radio Caroline.

Experienced broadcasters from Australia and the US – and learn-as-you-go DJs from UK discos – rushed to join offshore stations whose booming audiences were turned on by the sheer novelty of pop radio. Millions of Brits loved everything from the amateurism and informality of some stations to the slick Top 40 formats and American jingles of others. The inevitable storms, rough seas, drifting radio ships, lifeboat rescues, and needles sliding across turntables added to the excitement of listeners and broadcasters alike.

It had all begun quietly enough at noon on that Easter Saturday 50 years ago. A 23-year-old Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, in his best suit, was nervously trying to tune a bulky Zenith radio while journalists waited impatiently in the 300-year-old picture-book British pub “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” on London’s Fleet Street.

The hard-bitten reporters had come to hear about a new ship-board radio station. But O’Rahilly, who was involved in London music clubs and artiste management, struggled to get any kind of radio reception in the pub. His restless audience were soon muttering into their beer glasses about whether the story was all “blarney” when, suddenly, he led them out onto a cold Fleet Street.

The radio crackled into life. It was Radio Caroline repeatedly playing Ray Charles songs –  planned so that O’Rahilly could be sure of identifying the station’s test transmissions. Britain’s journalists got their first taste of  ‘pirate’ radio, and the young night club manager breathed a sigh of relief as he turned up the volume for the midday debut: “This is Radio Caroline on 199, your all-day music station”. Next came the Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away”, dedicated to Ronan. The radio revolution had begun.

O'Rahilly: rebel grandson of an Irish revolutionary

Ronan O’Rahilly: grandson of an Irish revolutionary

It didn’t take journalists long to discover that the smooth-talking Irishman was better known back home as the grandson of Michael O’Rahilly who had been immortalised as The O’Rahilly in a poem by W.B.Yeats. The revolutionary hero had been killed while single-handedly charging a British machine gun post in Dublin’s 1916 “Easter Rising”. The street where he fell was now called O’Rahilly Parade. The rebellion had led to the foundation of the Irish Republic after centuries of hard-fought British colonial rule.

Now, here was “The O’Rahilly’s” grandson, leading his own Easter Rising almost 50 years later – against the British broadcasting establishment.

He told reporters he had launched Radio Caroline in order to challenge the duopoly of record companies. Most UK records – in days when vinyl “singles” were the biggest earners – came from EMI or Decca, two companies that had dominated electronics and entertainment in post-war Britain. The two companies even sponsored much of the airtime on those hazy evening broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg.

O’Rahilly said he was just trying to find a way to promote fledgling artistes like Georgie Fame, the Animals, and Alexis Korner; and a girlfriend had told him about the Radio Veronica ship off the Netherlands. He said he had named Radio Caroline after the daughter of President Kennedy, assassinated four months earlier, although some colleagues suggested it was named after his actress girlfriend Caroline Maudling, daughter of the UK’s then Finance Minister. The neat story of the young entrepreneur “trying to give young people what they want” played well in the newspapers but the real origins of Radio Caroline were slightly grittier.

The idea of a floating radio station was not new to Europe. There had been radio ships in Scandinavia since the 1950s and Radio Veronica had been anchored in the North Sea since 1960. But O’Rahilly’s plan for Radio Caroline was actually copied from London-based Australian music publisher Allan Crawford’s proposal to launch Radio Atlanta. In 1963, Crawford had openly shared his plans with O’Rahilly who suggested the ship could be fitted out secretly at Greenore, the port owned by his wealthy industrialist father in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne – and out of the sight of the authorities and journalists.

Jimmy Ross:

Jimmy Ross: frozen food king who provided early backing

O’Rahilly had even suggested his father might invest in Crawford’s radio station. The Aussie duly handed over his business plan and a mission-critical barrister’s opinion verifying the legality of a ship broadcasting from outside UK territorial waters. Armed with this, O’Rahilly decided to launch his own station – and to get there first.

His first call was to a friend (and, later, novelist) Ian Ross whose wealthy father, Carl “Jimmy” Ross, had built the world’s largest fish and frozen food business in Lincolnshire (and was grandfather, incidentally, of David Ross, 1990s co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, and of model Liberty Ross).

Jimmy Ross quickly agreed to support the project and also brought in a financier friend, John Sheffield, chairman of the Norcros building materials group. So, O’Rahilly was able to get the £250,000 funding for his radio ship in a few weeks, while Allan Crawford had spent almost 12 months lining up backers.

The reality only dawned on Crawford when his Radio Atlanta ship reached Greenore in March 1964 – to discover he had been beaten to it by a former Danish ferry bought in Rotterdam for £20,000, and emblazoned with the name Radio Caroline. O’Rahilly greeted Crawford on the quayside, ready to calm him down by proposing the two ships could work together to reach the whole country But an amiable enough meeting was the start of some less than friendly rivalry and sabotage involving cut wires, stolen transmitter crystals and equipment, which ensured that Caroline was the first ship ready to sail – and to start the radio revolution that Crawford had been planning for more than two years.

Six weeks later, Radio Atlanta arrived at its North Sea anchorage alongside Radio Caroline. Within a few months, they merged to become Radio Caroline South (off the UK’s East Coast) and Radio Caroline North (off the Isle of Man in the North West). O’Rahilly then took control, amid Crawford’s complaints of being outdone by the “Irish mafia”. The merger had become a takeover.

The two radio ships were soon attracting more than 10 million listeners, and advertisers were piling in to what had become the world’s largest commercial radio station. Radio Caroline was joined by a whole fleet of offshore stations including: Radio London, Radio 270, Radio Scotland, Radio England, Tower Radio, Britain Radio, Radio

"More than a business"

“More than a business” to O’Rahilly

Essex, Radio City, Radio 390, Radio Invicta, and Radio Sutch.  They were variously broadcasting from ships and abandoned wartime forts around the British coast. The broadcast spectrum, which government ministers had once claimed was too crowded to permit any more radio channels, suddenly seemed a lot more flexible.

The UK government started what became a three-year war against the ‘pirates’, encouraged by the record companies which were privately offering to “jam” the offshore broadcasts in order to “protect” their music. For a time, the stations’ popularity kept the proposed legislation at bay. But, in August 1967, the Labour government of Harold Wilson finally enacted a law banning Brits from any involvement in offshore broadcasting.

A month after most of the stations went off the air, the BBC launched its first pop channel Radio One, with many of the DJs who had made their names on the radio ships. But it would be a full five years before the next Conservative government permitted land-based commercial radio stations for the first time.

So, the (mostly) delightful chaos of offshore ‘pirate’ radio actually lasted less than four years. But it provided post-war ‘baby boomer’ Brits with the musical soundtrack of “The Swinging Sixties”. Few of the stations were financially successful, but even this contributed to the romance and to a sense that it was more than a business. It was a short but momentous period from which sprang many of the broadcasters, media executives, music companies and artistes which were to dominate UK businesses for the next 25 years.

Beneath the froth, though, UK ‘pirate’ radio was an incredible story rich in drama, comedy and tragedy – and best characterised by seven diverse personalities:

1. The English aristocrat

John Sheffield’s family had been dukes and earls in the British aristocracy since the seventeenth century. An ancestor, the Duke of Buckingham, had even built Buckingham Palace before selling it, in 1761, to the British kings and queens who have lived there ever since.

John Sheffield: pioneer financier backed Caroline for fun

John Sheffield: pioneer financier backed Radio Caroline for fun – and lost

Sheffield had rebuilt the finances of his famous family after the UK’s controversial death taxes and the nationalisation of its iron ore mine had all but bankrupted them after his father’s death in 1946. By 1963, when Jimmy Ross introduced him to Ronan O’Rahilly, John Sheffield had made a new fortune by becoming a pioneer of what became known as private equity.

His company Norcros (an acronym for Normanby and Crosby, the two Lincolnshire villages that straddled the Sheffield family estate) was said to “offer an umbrella under which former private companies could remain under the management of their original owners while gaining the advantages of being part of a group that was listed on the stock exchange.”

One of the companies that thrived under this innovative ownership was the Ross-owned Jensen car company. But Sheffield’s stellar reputation as a shrewd judge of businesses clearly played little part in his speedy decision to back Radio Caroline on the back of some sketchy calculations and a sense of excitement.

This seriously financial man (great uncle to Samantha Cameron, wife of the current UK Prime Minister) probably backed Radio Caroline for the fun of it. It was a break-out investment. Together with Ross, Sheffield provided most of the £250,000 launch funding for Radio Caroline and they owned more than 80% of the shares.

They actually paid over most of the investment in upfront cash which, years later, fed stories about O’Rahilly and his friends throwing bundles of cash in the air in a wild Chelsea celebration of could-not-believe-their-luck euphoria. It was another sign that the project had caused Sheffield and his friends momentarily to abandon their sharp business instincts. But not completely: while Sheffield (like Ross) was a director of the wild new venture, he was careful not to be publicly linked with it. Although, he was one of the UK’s best known business chiefs, Sheffield never commented on Radio Caroline. And he was never photographed with O’Rahilly or the ships. He left that to his son-in-law, Jocelyn Stevens.

2. The posh publisher

Stevens had married John Sheffield’s daughter Jane. She was “lady in waiting” (a personal assistant) to Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister whose wild times were everyday media gossip in 1960s London. Stevens himself was an arch self-publicist. He let it be known that, as a small child, he was sent to live in his own flat in central London, supposedly with his own nanny, priest, cook and maid. He was (he said) driven around Hyde Park every day by a chauffeur in his own Rolls-Royce.

On his 21st birthday in 1953, Stevens inherited £750,000 from his mother, whose family had made its fortune in newspapers, owning the London Evening Standard in the 1920s and Picture Post (think Life magazine) in the 1950s. He immediately bought an Aston Martin and wrote it off the same day. On his 25th birthday, he bought the ailing Queen magazine, and called in two friends to help: the legendary British editor and cartoonist Marc Boxer, and Tony (Lord) Snowdon, a celebrated photographer who became Princess Margaret’s husband.

Jocelyn Stevens: gave 'pirate' radio early respectability

Jocelyn Stevens: gave ‘pirate’ radio a cool respectability

When bored with that (Stevens says), he sold the magazine off to a man who happened to be sitting at the next table in Claridges hotel. He once complained he had been libelled by a newspaper that described him as “charming”. At least that’s what he said. It was all part of the carefully-polished Jocelyn Stevens image, which was enhanced in the 1960s by Queen magazine – and by the excitement of Radio Caroline. He contrived to connect them.

The magazine’s editor, in instructions for contributors, had said she was explicitly targeting a reader defined as a young woman with long hair who had left school at age 16, was not highly-intelligent, but “the sort of person that one ended up in bed with” – and named Caroline. The fact that Radio Caroline initially operated from the Queen magazine offices contributed to the legend of Jocelyn Stevens as well as another possible reason for the station’s name.

Stevens played an important role in securing the friends-and-family funding for the radio ship and in giving the buccaneering station an image of cool respectability. Although the posh 32-year-old year old Brit seemed like the perfect partner for O’Rahilly, he stayed unannounced in the shadows as journalists clamoured to hear the first broadcasts in the pub that Easter. But once it took off, there was no stopping him. Stevens’ influence receded, though, as new investors arrived to replace the original funders who had become disenchanted with Radio Caroline’s erratic profitability.

Initially, though, it had an unmistakeable aura of success stoked by huge audiences and euphoric newspaper coverage. But the serious-minded investors were worried about the station’s expensive and spacious offices in Chesterfield Gardens in London’s swanky Mayfair – and some fancy company-owned cars: they thought the team was better at spending money than making it.

Radio Caroline: a gap in time

Radio Caroline: a gap in time

O’Rahilly had never been primarily interested in profits – and it showed. With running costs that started at £5k and soared to £10k per week, Radio Caroline made real profits only for two years, 1965 and 1966. Before then, the station’s losses were met from the initial Ross-Sheffield funding. In the two peak years, annual revenues were an estimated £700-900k from airtime rates that reached £160 per minute. There were profits too from ‘pay-for-play’ deals with record companies, programme sponsorship, and late-night broadcasts by American evangelists.

But even those two years of soaring profits were disrupted by extravagance, poor cost control – and fierce new competition from the US-owned neighbouring ship Radio London, whose audience and revenue overtook Caroline within 12 months of its December 1964 arrival. O’Rahilly was further hit by uninsured costs when his southern ship was beached in a storm. So, by August 1967 when legislation finally forced UK advertisers to withdraw, it was easy to see that the world’s most famous radio station had made more headlines than profit. By then, Sheffield, Ross and Stevens had quit. And Radio Caroline was starting to run out of luck as well as money.

3. The JFK ‘conspirator’

One of the many ironies of the whole ‘pirate’ radio story is the part played by Gordon Mclendon. The Texas broadcaster had all but invented ‘top 40′ radio in the US, using a repetitive formula of chart records and spikey electronic jingles. He launched the first all-news station and built the major radio group Liberty Network, which eventually became John Malone’s global media group. And, having conquered US radio, Mclendon turned his sights to Europe.

Gordon Mclendon: US radio pioneer with a dark side?

Gordon Mclendon: US radio pioneer with a sinister reputation

He financed the Scandinavian Radio Nord whose ship later became Allan Crawford’s Radio Atlanta and Radio Caroline South in Britain. Later, his ground-breaking KLIF Top 40 station in Dallas was the model for Radio London. He had even, at one time, proposed to play KLIF broadcasts to a UK audience as KLIF London. The highly-polished Radio London, with its mix of UK and American disc jockeys, news bulletins, and catchy Texas-made jingles, was an immediate success on its arrival nine months after Caroline; and became the most profitable UK ‘pirate’ of all.

The Texan broadcaster-turned-executive was actually involved in many of the UK pirate stations including the spectacularly unsuccessful “twins” Radio England and Britain Radio, operated from one ship. But he made little, if any, overall profit from the UK. And, in  the 1970s, when Mclendon sold his radio interests for what was then a record $100m, there was nothing to show for his time and money spent in Europe.

The irony of his involvement in ‘pirate’ radio lies in Ronan O’Rahilly’s long-time obsession with the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. The Irishman has been involved in films and TV shows on the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. His film “Gold”, featuring George Lazenby even opened improbably with shots of the assassinations – and the Radio Caroline ship. And, in recent times, O’Rahilly has written and directed a documentary, KingKennedy, which is being produced in the UK by Howard Goldstein and Valentine Stockdale.

In the 50 years years since O’Rahilly first flew to Dallas to seek advice from Gordon Mclendon on starting a radio station – where he visited the site of JFK’s assassination – the Texan’s possible involvement in the assassination and in conspiracies against Cuba’s President Castro has been widely reported.

Mclendon was a long-time close friend of Jack Ruby, who murdered JFK’s apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a police station. The  broadcasting mogul himself died in 1986, just before publication of the book “Deadly Secrets” which claimed he was a key conspirator in the JFK assassination.

4. The war-time spy

Those conspiracy theories must have fascinated the UK ‘pirate’ radio operator with the most colourful background of all. Ted Allbeury – like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré before him – was a genuine spy during the Second World War, decades before he took up writing best-selling novels. But, before he became a novelist, the former British secret agent had owned a successful advertising and PR agency – and a radio station.

Ted Allbeury: spy, novelist, adman and radio boss

Ted Allbeury: British spy, novelist, adman and  pirate radio boss

Allbeury was 48 when he decided to launch a ‘middle-of-the-road’ alternative to all the pop music. He chose to broadcast from one of the abandoned, rusting wartime forts in the Thames estuary.

Radio 390 was an immediate success with audiences and advertisers, and included his own weekly programme Red Sands Rendezvous, named after the fort itself. But, even by the standards of UK ‘pirate’ radio, the success was short-lived.

Successive court hearings resulted in the Red Sands fort being ruled to be just within the UK territorial limits, bringing to an end the latest chapter in Allbeury’s extraordinary life. It marked the start of his career as a thriller writer. And some writer: he published more than 40 novels and numerous radio plays between the age of 56 and his death 32 years later, in 2005. Two of his books became successful movies in 1992: “Hostage”, starring Sam Neill and James Fox; and “Blue” with Michael Caine.

His first book, “A Choice of Enemies”, appeared in 1973, six years after the UK government had outlawed pirate radio.

It was said to have been written to help Allbeury overcome the pain of the long kidnapping of two of his children, presumed (by friend and fellow novelist-spy Len Deighton) to be by his wartime enemies: “During the Cold War, Ted was running agents across the border that divided communist East Germany from the west. His luck ran out and the Russians left him nailed to a kitchen table in a farmhouse. Practised torturers, they made sure he had a chance to survive and take the story back to his fellow agents. The war never ended for him. His children were kidnapped and he pursued them to South America. Ted never told me what happened after that.”

Ted Allbeury’s career in ‘pirate’ radio was but a cameo in an amazing life.

5. The pop promoter

The bizarre social revolution wrought by the ‘pirate’ radio ships captivated millions of Brits. From 1964 to 1967, some 50% of the UK population listened regularly to them. They were big news and big business.

The kill-joy opponents were an odd coalition comprising: those who thought radio should remain solely in the hands of the BBC (even though commercial TV had been permitted for the previous decade); those who opposed the very idea of all-day music radio; vested interests from the

Pirate radio gets deadly

Reg Calvert was killed as pirate radio became deadly

music industry, especially the established ‘labels’ who feared the loss of their dominance; and those who worried about the toleration of ‘lawlessness’.

The coalition came together under the leadership of the late left-wing politician Tony Benn who (in the role of the quaintly-named Postmaster General) became the government minister responsible for the legislation that eventually outlawed the ‘pirates’.

Benn clearly opposed the radio ships because they represented swashbuckling , unregulated capitalism. But it took him a while to build the political support for legislation. His task was ultimately made easier by some serious lawlessness that seemed to underline the perils of broadcasters operating in international waters.

First, there were the deaths of the owner and two of the staff of the fort-based Radio Invicta when a supply boat sank in 1964. Nobody knew whether it was sabotage or an accident in a poorly-maintained boat. It was ‘pirate’ radio’s first bit of very bad news.

Then, there was the death of Reg Calvert, manager of pop artistes including the Fortunes and David “Screaming Lord” Sutch. Sutch was a rock singer whose fame was based not so much on his music as on his audacious pretend-you’re-serious election campaigns, starting with a headline-grabbing challenge in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s own constituency.

Election night pictures of Sutch alongside the Prime Minister were something straight out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But his idea (in a manifesto written by Reg Calvert’s wife) of reducing the UK voting age from 21 to 18 was five years ahead of its time. They launched Radio Sutch from a Thames estuary fort, essentially as a

Wartime Thames forts became low-cost radio stations

Wartime Thames forts became low-cost radio stations

publicity campaign to promote his music. Programmes included the singer reading racy late-night extracts from the then controversial “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. When Sutch went back to performing, Calvert got serious about broadcasting and relaunched the station as Radio City.

The Thames forts (constructed during the build-up to the Second World War when nobody cared whether they were inside or outside the country’s territorial waters) created the 1960s opportunity for low-budget radio stations, whereas ships required substantial investment and expensive servicing.

The low-cost operations meant that Radio City (and Ted Allbeury’s nearby Radio 390) were able to make profits from relatively small audiences – until court verdicts successively ruled that the forts were, after all, inside UK waters. But, by then, Reg Calvert was dead. His fateful bid to merge his station with Radio Caroline led to a violent struggle over the ownership of a transmitter in June 1966. It ended with Calvert being shot dead, aged 38, by Major Oliver Smedley, a Caroline director and would-be politician.

Smedley was charged not with murder but manslaughter. Even on this lesser charge, he was acquitted. It was a surprising verdict. But Calvert’s death became a prompt for politicians on all sides to tone down their support for ‘pirate’ radio. It seemed to be getting dangerous.

6. The self-styled Prince

The lawlessness associated with the Thames estuary forts (all of which, ultimately, were ruled to be inside UK waters and, therefore, not viable for broadcasting) was markedly less spectacular than on the Roughs Tower fort off the country’s east coast – close to the largest radio ships.

The Thames forts consisted of a cluster of seven stilted metal buildings surrounding a central command tower and connected by catwalks high above the sea.

Roy & Joan Bates: rulers of 'Sealand'

Whacky: Roy & Joan Bates, rulers of wartime fort ‘Sealand’

But Roughs Tower was altogether more durable – and in international waters. It was constructed in 1943, primarily for defence against mine-laying aircraft, and comprised a floating pontoon base with a superstructure of two concrete and steel hollow towers joined by a deck on which other structures including guns were added. The fort had been towed into position where the base was flooded allowing it to sink to its final resting place on the seabed.

It was spacious and once occupied by up to 300 troops, but then vacated in 1956.

The fort remained empty and unused until Radio Caroline took up its anchorage in 1964. Ronan O’Rahilly saw the potential and started work on it. He constructed a helipad and developed plans to move Radio Caroline to the fort. His people were even talking about using  as a base for what would have been the UK’s first offshore TV broadcasts.

In so many ways, those plans to move from an expensive-to-maintain ship to a much larger fort were inspired. But the secret got out and O’Rahilly’s people were ejected and found themselves in a violent cat-and-mouse fight for possession with rival pirate radio forces. The tussle became serious and involved guns, flame-throwers – and court cases which succeeded in confirming that the fort was indeed located in international waters.

That was what tenacious former British Army major Roy Bates – one-time owner of Radio Essex on a Thames fort – had been fighting for. In 1967 (just as the radio ships were being forced off the air), he proceeded to build a permanent base for what he promised would be a new ‘pirate’ radio station – perhaps one built to last as long as the fort itself. But the 1967 legislation (which targeted UK subjects involved in offshore broadcasting) would have outlawed that too.

Sealand even issued stamps

The ‘Principality of Sealand’ even issued stamps

Suddenly, Bates comically declared that the fort had become “the independent principality of Sealand”, the world’s smallest “country” with its own flag, money, stamps, passports – and even, apparently, a football team. But he wasn’t joking and awarded himself the title of Prince Roy of Sealand almost 40 years ago. Bates died in 2012 after decades fighting the UK government in the courts, and repelling a succession of invaders with firearms.

Unlike a neighbouring fort which was blown up by the British government in the 1960s, “Sealand” is still there – despite the fact that the later extension in the territorial waters to 12 miles brought it within UK jurisdiction. But the authorities have learned to leave Sealand alone, hoping it would just go bust.

It has sometimes hosted internet server companies, and has been touted as a base for a hotel and health farm. The dreams keep coming. Fifty years after Bates’ family forcibly ejected the Radio Caroline team, the fort sits there as a curious high seas monument to the UK’s ‘pirate’ radio era. But it has never been used for broadcasting and (as a result of extended territorial waters) is now actually within UK jurisdiction.

7. The Irish maverick

The story of how a collection of old ships and decaying wartime gun forts managed to break the BBC radio monopoly – and give British airtime to the 1960s pop music that was captivating the world – is a story of its time. And of the Irish maverick Ronan O’Rahilly who seized the moment.

Five years after the 1964 debut of Radio Caroline, Ireland would be plunged into the “Troubles”, which became almost 30 years of civil war. So, just a few years later, security issues would have scuppered the very idea of the Irish revolutionary’s grandson fitting out a radio ship in a port deep inside territory largely controlled by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and only a few miles south of the disputed border. It would certainly have given the UK  government an easy pretext to

O'Rahilly: Maverick who brought the music alive

O’Rahilly: pirate who couldn’t let go

stop the ‘pirates’ almost before they had begun.

In the event, the 1967 legislation which finally outlawed UK-based ‘pirates’, left only Radio Caroline struggling to survive intermittently for the following 20 years. And it didn’t last. The two Caroline ships were towed away in March 1968, amid stories of mounting debts. One ship returned a few years later but finally sank in a North Sea gale in 1980. Since, then Radio Caroline has been revived, first via satellite and now as an online channel. But only the name is the same.

Ronan O’Rahilly, meanwhile, had produced films including the 1968 Alain Delon / Marianne Faithfull hit “The Girl on a Motorcycle” and “Two Virgins” for John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He managed the US rock group MC5 and Irish folk singer David McWilliams.

He announced the July 1970 launch of Caroline TV, supposedly to be broadcast from Lockheed Super Constellation aircraft flying over the North Sea. The plans, based on US airborne transmissions to troops during the Vietnam war, were later exposed as a publicity stunt – or at least a speculative attempt to attract backers for what would have been the riskiest broadcasting project of all.

O’Rahilly also managed Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, a one-time-only James Bond, whom he famously advised to decline a long-term contract because, he said, the famous spy films would not survive beyond the 1960s. Ouch.

In 1970, Radio Caroline suddenly resumed broadcasts from the short-lived, Swiss-owned Radio North Sea International ship. It  was a stunt to help the Conservatives win that year’s general election, with a pledge to introduce commercial radio. O’Rahilly led a powerful campaign alongside Lazenby and also Caroline’s first DJ, one-time TV chat show host Simon Dee whose high-flying career had lasted little longer than the radio ship that had launched it.

O’Rahilly attacked the government’s decision to jam the station, telling a Central London rally: “During the War, the government did not even jam Lord Haw Haw <A

Simon Dee whose celebrity career scarcely outlasted the radio ship which launched it

Simon Dee whose celebrity career scarcely outlasted the radio ship which launched it

Nazi propaganda broadcaster> but British lives were at stake. Today, all that’s at stake is a little freedom and pop radio.”

He was enjoying the flirtation with politics. And so, in 1973, the UK got its first land-based commercial radio stations – a mere 40 years after the US and Australia. But O’Rahilly failed to realise his dream of bringing Radio Caroline ashore as a licensed station. He remained an outsider, periodically reviving the radio ship as an album station promoting his hippy philosophy of “Loving Awareness” and religious broadcasts sponsored by American evangelists. But it was a sad final chapter of rusting ships, mounting debts, erratic broadcasting, and a not-so-young Irishman who couldn’t let go.

By 1980, when the Radio Caroline ship finally sank in a gale even fiercer than its first 20 years before, everything seemed to have changed.

Twenty-two years after the 1967 legislation which outlawed the UK ‘pirate’ ships, Rupert Murdoch launched Sky TV as a satellite broadcaster from Luxembourg, to compete with the then official British Satellite Broadcasting – and beyond the reach of UK cross-media laws. But nobody called him a ‘pirate’.

Satellites and the web have since created a global market for information and entertainment that makes Britain’s legislation against ‘pirate’ radio ships seem, well, very 20th century.

This month, UK media will be awash with nostalgia for that ‘moment in time’ 50 years ago when ‘pirates’ ruled the airwaves. Some of the radio networks which owe their existence to Radio Caroline still feature veteran disc jockeys Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Richard Park, Emperor Rosko, and Dave Cash who started out by playing records in gale-force winds on the North Sea. It will feel a bit like the last hurrah for the 1960s generation who have dominated UK media and much else for the past 40 years.

One former DJ is Sir Roger Gale, a Member of Parliament for the Conservative government, and another is TV celebrity hypnotist Paul McKenna. They will all be reminiscing about the distant few years of British ‘pirate’ radio. But two of its central characters will be not be heard. Simon Dee died five years ago, having been scarcely visible for more than 30 years. The 73-year-old Ronan O’Rahilly is suffering from vascular dementia and living in county Louth, Ireland, within sight of the Greenore port where Radio Caroline was “born”, and which was finally sold by his family in 2002. Millions of Brits will be thinking of him – and how he brought the music alive in 1964. 

One thought on “How a radio ship and 7 men shook up Britain in 1964

  1. Ferdinand Edwards

    Mar 19. 2014

    Always perplexed me why an apparent libertarian Tony Benn ( RIP) was so fanatically against this young counterblasting radical champion of the airwaves – surely not just because it was, as you say, ‘swashbuckling capitalism’ but in a sonic form? And this from the man who so vigorously championed the ultimate capitalist symbol, Concorde, complete with sonic boom……

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