The Coronation broadcasts 

6 May 2023

1½d George VI stamp, postmarked West Kirby, Wirral, Cheshire


Nation shall speak peace unto nation

From the BBC Year Book for 1938

TO REVIEW broadcasting in 1937 is at once to recall the historic part it played at the Coronation, on May 12, of King George VI. For then, by the wonder of radio, every one of The King’s subjects at home and in the remotest outposts of the Empire was able to see, with the inner eye of the mind, the pomp, the pageantry, the solemn ritual of the ceremony at which the Sovereign dedicated his life to them. They could follow, too, the outward and return journeys of the triumphal cavalcade, and at night hear The King himself speak to them. That day’s broadcasting was the most elaborate and complicated of the kind ever undertaken by the BBC. It was the climax of months of planning and organization by the Outside Broadcasts Department and the Engineering Division; the success of the transmissions was the result of co-operation between programme and technical experts.

Service and Procession

Arrangements made by S. Joly de Lotbinière, Director of Outside Broadcasts, included the allocation of seven commentators to vantage points along the processional routes and in Westminster Abbey. Broadcasting began at 10.15 a.m. with a description, from an observation post in Green Park, overlooking Buckingham Palace, of the procession as it began to move down the Mall. At the same time, peers, commoners, Dominions representatives, foreign royalty and other important personages were arriving at the Abbey, and listeners next heard a description of the scene there from an observer above the stands outside Middlesex Guildhall. Then, as King George and Queen Elizabeth stepped into the ancient, gilded State coach within the precincts of the Palace, the story was continued by another observer. His words were emphasized by the superimposition of sounds picked up by an ‘effects’ microphone over the archway through which the coach passed. Next, the Green Park commentator resumed his narrative as the procession made its way down a Mall flanked with multitudes of spectators.

For a few minutes listeners were then taken over to the triforium in Westminster Abbey to ‘see’, through the voice of an observer there, the magnificent assembly that awaited the coming of The King and Queen. Then, over to the annexe at the Abbey for a brief view of last-minute happenings and, with a few moments to spare, to a stand near the Ministry of Labour in Whitehall, as The King and Queen passed the Cenotaph and, to the pealing of bells, a crescendo of cheers, drew into Parliament Square. When at last the State coach halted at the Abbey, one local observer after another detailed the memorable sight, as The King and Queen joined the Great Proceeding up the aisle to their Chairs of State.

Of fifty-eight microphones used during the day, thirty-two were installed in the Abbey. Concealed in many unlikely places – beneath chairs and faldstools, in chandeliers and lecterns – they made it possible for listeners to hear practically the entire ceremony- a ceremony, by the way, in which there was considerable movement. From time to time, during parts of the service that were not broadcast, the BBC Director of Religion, the Reverend F. A. Iremonger, Chaplain to The King, read, and when necessary explained, the rubrics; and he offered guidance for the thoughts and prayers of listeners during the administration of the Sacrament to The King and Queen.

As the service ended, the observer in the triforium pictured the procession from St. Edward’s Chapel to the West Door, explaining how the return procession was reformed, and co-operating with other nearby observers in describing the final scene as The King and Queen, acclaimed by the waiting throng, set out on the homeward journey. As the procession made its way from Parliament Square, an important change took place in the plan of the broadcast. In place of the voices of onlookers, four special ‘atmosphere’ microphones told their own story as the splendid pageant passed along the Embankment, across Trafalgar Square, through West End’s clubland, past St. James’s Palace to Piccadilly Circus and on to Constitution Hill. The first of these microphones was at the Victoria Embankment end of Horse Guards Avenue; the second near the King Charles I statue in Trafalgar Square; the third on the roof of St. James’s Palace; the fourth on the balcony of a great block of buildings in Piccadilly Circus. As the cavalcade neared Constitution Hill, the only BBC observer who had the opportunity of describing it from beginning to end looked upon the scene from a post near the Quadriga, above the Wellington Arch. With him, an ‘effects’ microphone helped to re-create the spectacle for radio. Finally, the Green Park observer told the last chapter of the story as The King and Queen drove into the Palace courtyard, stepped from their coach, and a little later appeared on the balcony.


A man with a script in front of him peers through the window of a soundproof box over a procession of people on horseback

A Commentator describing the Procession.


The Technical Task

Provision of facilities for fourteen foreign observers, each of whom broadcast a commentary in his own language direct to his own country, complicated a technical task already unprecedented. Even when plans for the Coronation Day broadcast were tentative, it was obvious that either the equipment of the Control Room at Broadcasting House would have to be considerably augmented or a completely different scheme of operation devised. Eventually the second course was decided upon; for rehearsals and transmissions of other important programmes, including the ‘Empire’s Homage’ broadcast on Coronation Night, promised to throw a volume of work far exceeding normal upon the Control Room.

This decision meant the construction of two special control rooms: one, on the south-west side of the nave in Westminster Abbey, which became the focal point of the broadcast from all Home and Empire transmitters; the other, in Middlesex Guildhall, for handling the direct broadcasts to foreign countries.

Only 275 square feet [25.5m²] of space were available for the Abbey Control Room. Yet the three compartments into which the room was divided accommodated all the necessary apparatus. In one of these compartments – the nerve centre of the broadcast – R. H. Wood, Engineer-in-Charge, London Outside Broadcasts Section, sat at a panel of controls by means of which he mixed the output of the microphones both in the Abbey and, through sub-control points, along the processional routes. Part of his ‘preparation’ included a detailed study of the whole of the Coronation Service, and his copy of it included essential marginal notes as to which combination of microphones would be in circuit at each stage of the Service. Seated by his side, de Lotbinière could hear the effect of the microphone mixing, and was able by asking for it to secure any change in ‘atmosphere’ almost instantaneously. Upon him fell the initial onus of deciding such things as the best moment to leave one observation point for another. The Control Room, by the way, afforded no visual command of the proceedings in the Abbey.

The wiring between the microphones and the mixing panel was installed by General Post Office engineers. The total length of wire used during the entire broadcast was nearly 500 miles, while the equipment, including 7 tons of batteries, weighed 12 tons.

In the Foreign Control Room, the engineers chosen for the mixing of effects at each position were, in most cases, capable of understanding the language being spoken; thus, they were able to vary the ratio of effects to description. Interpreters were also available. The engineer-in-charge, H. H. Thompson, Superintendent Engineer of Outside Broadcasting, has, like Wood, been responsible for the technical arrangements of many notable outside broadcasts, dating back to King George V’s speech at the opening of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.

The fourteen foreign observers were accommodated in a series of sound-proof cubicles, forming a structure 100 ft. [30m] long and weighing 15 tons, erected on top of a public stand outside Middlesex Guildhall, facing the Abbey. Each observer was able to hear, through head- phones, not only his own commentary, but also the super-imposition of ‘effects’. Special telephone kiosks, built nearby, gave each foreign observer immediate contact with his own broadcasting organization.

Each foreign commentary was fed direct to the Post Office International Trunks Exchange; sound effects picked up along the route were passed from the Home Control Room to the Foreign Control Room for use as a background for the commentaries; the broadcast of the Abbey service itself was fed to foreign broadcasting systems in the same way.

It has long been the BBC’s practice, in dealing with important outside broadcasts, to install every piece of equipment in duplicate. That principle, in spite of the enormous amount of apparatus involved, was maintained at the Coronation. A large number of telephone lines was taken over from the Post Office, and each one terminated in such a way that instant change-over could be made in event of emergency. A complete breakdown of the Abbey Control Room would have stopped transmission not only of the Service but of the procession commentary; that, certainly, was an extremely remote possibility, but not sufficiently remote for the Engineering Division to ignore it. A radio link transmitter was accordingly installed on the roof of the Abbey, by means of which the whole of the broadcast would have continued even if the worst had happened!

The BBC provided output for the sound tracks of news films, both of the Abbey ceremony and of the procession; and in order to obtain a permanent sound picture of the procession, apparatus which normally equips one of the BBC’s mobile recording units was temporarily installed in an office overlooking Admiralty Arch. As the procession passed by, hidden microphones picked up the sounds, which were recorded on a series of disks.


A man in headphones sits before three banks of gauges and dials

At the panel of controls in Westminster Abbey.


The Empire’s Homage

In countless homes throughout the world wireless receivers were ‘over to London’ from 10.15 a.m. till 11.0 p.m. on Coronation Day. Indeed, the climax of the day’s programmes was the talk which The King himself broadcast from Buckingham Palace that night, only a few hours after his Coronation.

The simple, intimate style in which the new Monarch gave his message to the Empire must have recalled to many those memorable Christmas Day broadcasts by his father. Moreover, as in the Christmas Day broadcasts, the Royal message came at the end of a ‘microphone tour’ of the Empire, during which, for 40 minutes, listeners were taken by radio westwards round the world. Those contributing to this programme included the Prime Minister, Mr. Stanley Baldwin (as he then was), the Viceroy of India, and Governmental spokesmen of the Dominions and Colonies, together with a number of representative citizens of the Empire. Among the latter were miners from the South Wales coalfields and the gold mines of the Transvaal; a 70-year-old Cockney; an Australian ‘jackaroo’; a French-Canadian girl; a Maori; a New Zealand sailor; and (from Scotland) a fellow-countrywoman of the new Queen. Added to the official homage of the Empire, their simple, less formal words of loyal greeting constituted a fitting prelude to His Majesty’s first broadcast as King-Emperor.


Outside view of the Daventry building with two masts visible

The BBC Short-wave Transmitting Station at Daventry: the outside of the new building.


World Listening

In order to ensure world reception of the Coronation broadcasts, extensions to the BBC’s Empire Station at Daventry were hastened, with the result that six short-wave transmitters were in use there on May 12. They were then linked with the National and Regional Home transmitters, and for the greater part of the day radiated the same programme simultaneously. In addition, the day’s programmes were electrically recorded and re-broadcast from Daventry throughout the night until 8.20 the next morning. Thus, as far as possible, the BBC saw to it that listeners in any part of the world could hear the broadcasts, either ‘live’ or recorded, at some convenient time during their day.

The Coronation ceremony itself was broadcast, by a relay of either British Home or Empire transmissions, in more than twenty foreign countries. The United States and most European countries also joined British listeners in hearing the ‘Empire’s Homage’ programme and The King’s speech on Coronation night.

There can be little doubt that the broadcast of the Coronation ceremony was heard by a greater number of people throughout the world than any other programme in the history of radio. While it was in progress the streets of many villages and provincial towns in this country were practically deserted, the inhabitants being indoors intent upon their wireless sets. In other places people gathered in the open air to hear the programme radiated by the public address system. It was so heard, for instance, by crowds outside the Parliament buildings in Auckland, New Zealand, and in the parks and gardens of Nairobi; by groups of Indians, Malays, and Chinese in the streets of Singapore; by aborigines in the streets of Bathurst, Gambia. Every incident of the ceremony in London was followed by British soldiers and their families stationed on the North-West frontier of India. Factory hands in the United States were allowed to stop work so as to listen to the broadcast.


Gauges, dials and switches

The BBC Short-wave Transmitting Station at Daventry: part of one of the transmitters and control table.


During the weeks that followed, the BBC received generous praise from many quarters. Particular tribute was paid to what one London newspaper epitomized as ‘the quiet, unemotional manner of the British announcers’. An American visitor conveyed the same thing rather differently. ‘Your BBC boys,’ he said, ‘certainly know how to beat the big drum without making a nasty noise.’

A listener from Southern Rhodesia wrote: “The Coronation broadcast has brought home to me the fact that I am proud to be a Britisher.’

‘You cannot realize what it means to us, to be able to be at the heart of the Empire on these great family occasions through the medium of the BBC,’ wrote a Dublin listener.

‘It was the most soul-stirring experience we have ever had’: from New Zealand.

“The Canadian people feel they are really part of the Crown now, and not just on the outside edge’: from Toronto.

“The unforgettable experience was all the more precious because, as you know, we had been deprived of our English newspapers for some days beforehand’: from Rome.

‘Your broadcast did much to enlighten the average American as to just what our British Monarchy stands for’: from California, U.S.A.

‘It made me feel that your King was my King’: from Pennsylvania, U.S.A.


A state coach goes past a television camera

A close-up of the Coronation Coach as seen by a television camera.


Televising the Coronation Procession

Coronation Day was an important point in the history of the British Television Service. The BBC’s mobile television unit, making the first outside broadcast of television, enabled viewers to enjoy, in the comfort of their own homes, the spectacle of the Royal procession as it passed Apsley Gate, Hyde Park Corner, on the return journey from Westminster Abbey. First the crowd scenes; then the two-mile pageant as it approached and as it went by, until the last horseman had passed beneath Wellington Arch.

On Coronation night John Masefield, the Poet-Laureate, read his Coronation Ode in the television programme.

Other Coronation Programmes

After the Coronation, commentaries were broadcast on Their Majesties’ visits to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; on His Majesty’s review of Ex-Service Men and Women in Hyde Park; and on the Naval Review at Spithead.

Coronation Day itself was, in fact, the hub on which a whole fortnight of special programmes rested. On the previous Sunday, May 9, a Service in preparation for the Coronation, with an address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was broadcast partly from the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House and partly from St. Paul’s Cathedral, where members of the Coronation Choir and delegate singers from the Dominions were assembled. The history of the Coronation ceremony, and its constitutional and religious meaning, were described in special programmes. Musical works, written in honour of the Coronation by leading British composers, were broadcast. They included Granville Bantock’s choral work ‘King Solomon’, William Walton’s march ‘Crown Imperial’, and John Ireland’s choral and or- chestral setting of the poem by John Addington Symonds, “These Things shall be’. The last two works were commissioned by the BBC. Finally, a special effort was made, during the period of national rejoicing, to broadcast performances of general entertainment that could be ranked as the best that British talent could provide.


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