British Broadcasting Company

Scope and Content

The papers relate to the British Broadcasting Company, which was formed on 18 October 1922, registered on 15 December 1922 and dissolved on 31 December 1926. The liquidation of the British Broadcasting Company took almost three years - it was not until 12 December 1929 before the British Broadcasting Company finally ceased to exist. The British Broadcasting Company was succeeded by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was established on 01 January 1927 by Royal Charter.

Apart from a few papers on experimental broadcasts and initial proposals of radio manufacturers, the majority of the papers in this series cover the broadcasting service of the British Broadcasting Company in the UK between 1922 and 1926. The papers are the earliest holdings of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Written Archives Centre and resemble those kept by any commercial company under the provisions of the Companies Acts (Certificate of Registration, Memorandum and Articles of Association).

The papers include correspondence and documentation on the following: the company’s formation, organisation and liquidation; the company’s relations with the radio trade, politicians, and the press; negotiations with the Post Office; attempts to deal with programming policy through public representation (Broadcasting Board); views on programmes and opinions expressed by shareholders.

The papers of the British Broadcasting Company contain a large number of files relating to the Board of Directors, Finance and the General Strike.

Board of Directors papers

The Board of Directors formed the British Broadcasting Company at a meeting on 18 October 1922. At this meeting held at the Institution of Electrical Engineers there were representatives present from over 200 radio manufacturing firms. The assembled manufacturers were told that an agreement with the Postmaster General had been reached and the meeting welcomed the creation of the new British Broadcasting Company.

The first Chairman of the British Broadcasting Company was Lord Gainford. The first Directors of the Company were: Major Basil Binyon (Radio Communication Company); John Gray (British Thomson-Houston); Godfrey C. Isaacs (Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company); Archibald McKinstry (Metropolitan-Vickers); Sir William Noble (General Electric) and Henry Mark Pease (Western Electric Company). Two independent directors were elected by the smaller firms: Sir William Bull, Conservative leader of London’s Unionist MPs, and W.W. Burnham.

The first object of the new Company was to acquire from the Postmaster General a licence. The first Board meeting was held at Magnet House on 21 December1922, the last meeting on 20 December 1926. The Board of Directors met frequently at the beginning of 1923, and, after the company was more established, on a monthly basis, but not all minutes have survived.

Finance papers

Papers relating to the accounts and finance of the British Broadcasting Company form another major part of the records in this series. The main source of the British Broadcasting Company’s revenue was derived from radio receiving licences.

The British Broadcasting Company operated under its Deed of Licence and Agreement between the Postmaster General and the British Broadcasting Company. The first Licence and Agreement granted to the Company was signed on 18 January 1923.

The first financial calculations were based on the assumption that there would be 200,000 receiving licences during the first year and that annual expenditure on the operation would be about £160,000. With the development of additional relay stations, the extension of transmitting hours, and the continued increase in the cost of programmes, these calculations were completely upset.

During the period from 18 January 1923 until 31 March 1925 the British Broadcasting Company received less than £500,000 from the Post Office, and the method of payment was changed four times between 1922 and 1926. Other sources of revenue for the British Broadcasting Company came from tariffs on manufactured radio sets and The Radio Times .

General Strike papers

Papers relating to the General Strike also form a large part of this series. The General Strike began on 03 May 1926. The end of the strike was announced on 12 May1926 when J.C.W. Reith (Managing Director, British Broadcasting Company) read a message from King George V on the radio. During this period the British Broadcasting Company became almost the sole purveyor of news and broadcast five bulletins each day, rather than being restricted to one evening bulletin. Copies of news bulletins are contained in CO1/31 to CO1/33.

During the General Strike the British Broadcasting Company tried to maintain independence. Three issues caused problems, however. They were the failure to put on the air a Labour or a Trade Union Congress speaker; the delaying of news of an important announcement by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the British Broadcasting Company’s ‘editorials’.

The General Strike left the British Broadcasting Company as a major news source and appreciation of the British Broadcasting Company’s role was quick to follow.

Administrative / Biographical History

The early years of broadcasting in the UK were dominated by the BBC. This BBC, however, was not a public body but a business enterprise.

The British Broadcasting Company came into existence only after tough commercial bargaining, first between competitive wireless interests and second between the wireless interests as a whole and the Post Office. The manufacturers of radio formed the British Broadcasting Committee after initial negotiations with the Post Office and held their first meeting on 23 May 1922.

Discussions with the Post Office during the course of this year were intense and it seemed on more than one occasion that the outcome would be two broadcasting companies instead of one. Eventually on 18 October 1922 the British Broadcasting Company was formed and the British Broadcasting Committee ceased to exist. The British Broadcasting Company was registered on 15 December 1922, but it did not receive its Licence from the Post Office until 18 January 1923.

During the period from 1921 to 1926 there were no fewer than seven Postmasters General (A. Illingworth, F. Kellaway, N. Chamberlain, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, V. Hartshorn and Sir William Mitchell-Thomson). The legal powers of the Postmaster General to concern himself with broadcasting derived from the 1869 Telegraph Act and the 1904 Wireless Telegraphy Act.

J.C.W. Reith was offered the position of General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company on 14 December1922 after being interviewed by Sir William Noble (General Electric), Archibald McKinstry (Metropolitan-Vickers) and Major Basil Binyon (Radio Communication Company) on 13 December 1922. Interestingly Reith, who became the BBC in most people’s eyes, knew nothing about broadcasting at the time. He commented in his diary, ‘the fact is I hadn’t the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn’t troubled to find out. If I had tried I should probably have found difficulty in discovering anyone who knew,’ (Reith Diaries, S60/5/1/3, 13/12/1922).

Once he had been appointed, Reith oversaw the creation of the BBC as an institution and as broadcaster. Radio quickly took off with the British public and many broadcast 'firsts' were celebrated - from first news bulletin to first outside broadcast, from first royal address to the very first sound of Big Ben on the BBC, from first broadcast election address to first relay from America.

In December 1922 the staff of the BBC numbered four. By the autumn of 1924 it had risen to 371 and less than a year later it was 552. The early staff were divided between three departments: Engineering, Programmes, and Administration.

Two government committees were appointed during this time to discuss the future of broadcasting: the Sykes Committee and the Crawford Committee. The Sykes Committee was a result of the deadlock caused by one specific issue – that of licences. The Crawford Committee was more concerned with the future constitution for the BBC.

The BBC also faced its first major government confrontation over editorial independence in those years, during the General Strike of 1926. The General Strike of 03 May 1922 – 12 May 1922 took place between the Crawford Committee’s Report and the decision of the Postmaster General to implement the committee’s decision.

Reith advocated that the BBC should be both a public institution and an independent institution as free as possible from interference both by business and by government. That service and enterprise may in any way be incompatible did not seem to be something he considered. The Post Office completely seemed to share Reith’s views on this point. The British Broadcasting Corporation received its first Royal Charter on 01 January 1927 for 10 years.

Arrangement

The files are arranged alphabetically by title, but within this arrangement there are three sub-sections for Board of Directors, Finance and the General Strike.

Some files include papers originating from a later date (up to 1984), and appear there on the basis of the subject content of the papers, rather than their departmental origin, and also include papers given to the BBC archives from outside the corporation (CO1/10, CO1/53, CO1/54, CO1/67). It is not known why some of these papers were not transferred to ‘Special Collections’.

Later accruals consist of two additional files, one from the 1930s (CO1/45) and one from the 1950s (CO1/42) relating to an early broadcast in Esperanto and Marconi respectively, and are integrated in the alphabetical arrangement of the files originating from the British Broadcasting Company.

Papers of the Company period can also be found at the beginning of files which carried on into the Corporation after 1927, the Registry staff presumably making no distinction between the two organisations (see also Related Areas).

Microfilm

The series also contains the following runs of General Strike papers on microfilm.

Reel 1 – 97608/1 - CO23 – CO31/2

Reel 2 – 97608/2 – CO31/2 – CO31/7

Reel 3 – 97608/3 – CO31/8 – CO31/11 and CO36 – CO37. Also S60/6/4 papers (Stanley Baldwin Speech – 08 May 1926, Reith Broadcast – 12 May 1926, Article from British Worker (12 May1926) and Summary of conversation Reith and Baldwin (06 May1926))

Reel 4 – 97608/4 - BBC General Strike Radio Broadcasts (04 May 1926 – 18 May1926). Material on this reel is not held at the BBC Written Archives Centre. It is part of the Working Class Movement Library collection in Salford.

Custodial History

Very little is known about the early history of the British Broadcasting Company’s papers. There are early references (WAC ref. R13/396) to a filing system at Magnet House that was set up by employees supplied by the Roneo Company. Apart from this, there is nothing in relevant papers held at the Written Archives Centre or in the British Broadcasting Company’s papers themselves about how it looked after its papers.

The Haldane Report of 1927 commented on a lack of uniformity in the BBC’s filing procedures, and recommended the formation of a Central Registry, partly to curb the maintenance by senior management of private ‘office files’ (WAC ref. R13/398). Haldane also suggested in a separate memo that the principal events in the BBC’s history should be written up (WAC ref. R13/388/1). The Central Registry was set up in 1927 and BBC officials were encouraged to write historical summaries. These summaries were attached to relevant documents but it is not known how many of these early papers were incorporated in the Registry system in this way.

In 1957 Asa Briggs was commissioned to write ‘The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom’. To facilitate the writing of the first volume ‘The Birth of Broadcasting’ a decimal classification system was created to cover the main subjects that Briggs would require.

For the early years many files were incorporated into this classification system, other files were created especially for the purpose and contained papers from various sources, not all of which came from Registry. Original covers were replaced and provenance not taken into account or recorded. Blue slips were inserted detailing missing papers or giving cross references.

The papers thus put together became known as the Classified Files, classified referred to their arrangement not to any level of confidentiality they might have. Although accession numbers were used to register files as they were taken into the archives, little information about provenance was recorded.

When the decimal classification system came into existence it was also decided to create the Archives Section (later the Historical Records Office) as an integral part of Registry. In 1970 the BBC Written Archives Centre was established at Caversham. It is not known when the files relating to the British Broadcasting Company were transferred to the Written Archives Centre, but it is most likely that they were some of the earliest that were moved outside London.

Related Material

For minutes of the Control Board which dealt with broadcasting policy, see series R3 (Internal Administrative Committees); papers relating to the Crawford Committee and the Sykes Committee, see series R4 (Government Committees).

For information relating to British Broadcasting Company broadcasts, see series R5 (Souvenirs), RCONT1 (Radio Contributors) and sub-sub-fonds Radio Programmes-as-Broadcast (R/PDR). Scripts of British Broadcasting Company’s programmes are available on microfilm and some in hard copy. These original scripts are kept in Originals Retained.

For policy papers relating to programmes, see series R34 (Policy); for policy papers relating to the General Election of 1923 and early papers relating to news, see series R28 (News); and policies relating to staff, see series R49 (Staff Policy).

For accounts, see series R20 (Finance); legal documents, see series R22 (Legal); BBC buildings, see series R35 (Premises); personnel files, see series L1 (Left Staff); and photographs of staff, see series R76 (Central Services).

Files on material originating from the administrative centres in the Nations and Regions can be found in the Nations and Regions sub-fonds.

For papers relating to people closely associated with the BBC, or items sent in by the public, see sub-fonds Special Collections (e.g. S60/5 Reith Diaries).