Trouble with transmitters 

23 March 2015


As well as appointing the companies, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) had the trivial task of confirming the transmission sites, procuring the equipment, and liaising with the Post Office who retained their near century old monopoly in wired telegraphy, progressively expanded by precedent, again all in as short a timescale as possible.

At work inside the transmitter buildings at Winter Hill in 1963

At work inside the transmitter buildings at Winter Hill in 1963

The concept and assumption had been, at least in the first wave of sites, that existing BBC masts could be used directly. London was known from the start to be a problem with this idea since the movement of the BBC from Alexandra Palace to Crystal Palace was not going to be in operation until 1956. So from early days the ITA knew it would need to complete its own facilities if it wanted to beat that day, and thus the plan from the beginning in London was to start transmissions from their own temporary tower in roughly the same area, and move to Crystal Palace at some time later on.

However, detailed discussions with the BBC and the Post Office eventually determined that the existing masts structures at Sutton Coldfield and Holme Moss would be incapable of accommodating the additional aerials for a Band III service. This was not known until December 1954 after about five precious months had elapsed. The economic success of the independent television system relied on opening of stations covering the majority of the English major population centres within a very short time. This therefore required the ITA to build facilities of its own to cover all areas, rather than being able to piggyback onto the BBC.

The initial thoughts were to build their own masts co-located with the BBC ones, or at least in roughly the same area. This was quite readily achieved in the Midlands from Lichfield, and with construction beginning in the summer of 1955, a service could be started in early 1956; a delay, but it kept the period of the London station being operated alone down to six months or so. The corresponding station for Holme Moss was much more troublesome.

The key difficulty was that to establish a separate station in a similar location would just take too long, probably not until 1957, though a combination of the inaccessibility of the site, the required height of the mast, and the need for transmitter power outside of experience available at the time. This degree of delay was unacceptable both to the people living in that area, as emphasised in the ITA Annual Reports, but more importantly to the new contractors, who would see about eighteen months lopped off the period of recouping their investment. The alternative was to construct two stations on each side of the Pennines. The delay would not be as great as the single station solution and would give the potential in due course to reflect differing regional interests. The timetable anticipated was May 1956 for Lancashire and late autumn for Yorkshire.

The Lancashire site proved not too difficult to identify – ‘Winter Hill’ on Rivington Moor near Bolton, and construction started in September 1955; and although this involved working through a more severe than average winter it was still completed on time for May 1956.

The Yorkshire site proved far more troublesome to meet the needs of being able to be received through varying terrain of the county, in particular out to the coast. No fewer than 16 sites were surveyed before settling on Emley Moor, at Holmfirth, south west of Huddersfield, although it was able to be completed within the ‘late autumn’ time frame, coming into service in November 1956.


These delays caused great consternation at Granada in particular, who would be expected to operate for their first six months with only half of their expected audience, and they looked at some length into what kind of legal case they could mount for compensation. The advice they received in the end gave them only a fifty-fifty chance at best of winning, and the damages might be only a token amount. They did not pursue this, but it was one of the events that formed the somewhat sour and formal relationship Granada had with the ITA throughout the 50s and 60s. What they did manage was to squash the mooted possibility of operating Lancashire and Yorkshire as separate contracts with their own separate requirements, at least for a decade.

The ramifications of this transmitter location choice echoed through many years. ITA public documents such as the yearbooks tended to emphasise an improvement of reception at the coasts, and downplayed the financial aspects and the timing which were the real driving force for the choice. Unfortunately this technical reasoning doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, especially for the east coast. The VHF coverage maps ten years later when transmitter powers and masts were higher than they were in the 1950s show that reception of Emley Moor in Hull and further eastwards was still marginal at best, and the in-fill for this area in the second wave of transmitters was to come from Belmont in the mid-1960s. UHF transmissions were even more restricted, leading eventually to the reallocation of Belmont to ‘Yorkshire’ and a lost battle between 1970 and 1974 from those in Lincolnshire to reverse this decision. All of this was a long-term consequence of choices made in haste, albeit unavoidably so, some fifteen years earlier.

As a postscript, in 1956 the BBC carried out its own Band III trials from Holme Moss as they had their own hopes that one day they would be allowed a second service from there. The results of these are now freely available and show that the coverage of the east coast at a standard not significantly different from what the ITA achieved from Emley Moor.

BBC VHF Band-III tests from Holme Moss in 1956

BBC VHF Band-III tests from Holme Moss in 1956


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