London Pirate Radio | Maunsell Sea Forts

A pirate radio can be described as an illegal or unregulated radio transmission. In particular, UK pirate radio [unlicensed illegal broadcasting] was popular in the 1960s and experienced another surge of interest in the 1980s, as Carole Fleming and Pete Wilby say at their research for the book The radio handbook in 2002. Talking about London, we can say that pirate radio is everywhere. Today’s broadcasts are hidden in plain sight, transmitting from secret tower block studios via homemade rooftop antennas, and we were surprised to see that one of these pirate radios is currently transmiting* from the Maunsell Sea Fort, constructed in 1943 and located in the Thames Estuary area.

Using for the London Pirate Radio the same description used for the Berlin’s one:

“There are places you won’t find in a tourist’s guide. Underground bunkers and mysterious hilltop listening stations, built to intercept radio communications.”

As a brief history of the Maunsell Sea Forts, we can read that they were constructed following the successful construction and deployment of the Naval Sea Forts. Their purpose was to provide anti-aircraft fire within the Thames Estuary area. Each fort consisted of a group of seven towers with a walkway connecting them all to the central control tower. As described by the web-site Underground Kent:

Access for the men posted to these forts was via an entrance at the base of the platform. Parts of the ladders that the men would have used are still visible today, but are in a very poor condition. Indeed, attempting to access these forts is extremely hazardous, and they are best viewed from a boat and a safe distance [...] In 1955, the War Office decided that the Army Sea Forts had no further operational value. The Nore Army Fort was dismantled in 1959, but the Red Sands and Shivering Sands Forts are still standing today. They have been used as pirate radio stations during the 60′s and 70′s, but since then have remained abandoned.

The Maunsell Sea Forts has been related with pirate radios since 1964, when various forts were re-occupied for pirate radio in the mid-1960s. We can read at this document a brief history about Maunsell’s pirate radios:

On May 27th 1964, Radio Sutch began to broadcast from the Shivering Sand Forts. In September from the same year, Radio Sutch stopped and a new station Radio City came to air waves. In June 1966 Radio City went off the air due to the transmitter crystals being removed by Project Atlanta and Reg Calvert of Radio City, while visiting Major Oliver Smedley was shot dead. After that, in 1967, British Goverment decleard that Shivering Sands was within British territorial water and all offshore broadcasting was illegal.

That’s why we found quite interesting to notice that pirate radio is still broadcasting* from the Maunsell Sea Fort. As part of their ongoing Exploration series, the Palladium team is revisiting a movement dating back to the 1960’s. As noted in a press release “While the internet is changing the landscape of radio broadcasting, the pirate’s role of breaking new music remains the same.” London Pirate Radio is now playing here.

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*UPDATE [04.14.2010]
We want to say that thanks to the clarification of Mary Payne, Radio London webmaster [see comment below], we noticed that there are no current pirate broadcasts from the Maunsell Sea Forts. There are occasional restricted-power licensed broadcasts of short duration from Proyect RedSand, that has been established to secure the Redsand Towers, and look for its preservation. About broadcasting, we can read:

July 2007 saw the first licenced broadcast from the Redsand Fort. The 10 day Restricted Service Licence allowed transmission on medium wave and a webcast, commemorating 40 years since the demise of “offshore radio” from the Thames Estuary forts. Red Sands Radio was sponsored by Canterbury City Council and the Lottery Fund.

If you want to follow the works to support the Maunsell Sea Forts preservation, please visit Project Redsand web-site.

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We want to finish this post also talking about Nick Sowers aka soundscrapers recordings at the Maunsell Sea Forts in September 2009, when he had the opportunity to take a boat trip out to see these incredible structures leftover from WWII. He adds: “The day was filled with some unexpected events, such as the lowering of a broken windmill turbine onto the boat, using an old crane arm from one of the towers. On board, in awe of these hulking towers of rusting steel, will be a couple hours of my life that I will never forget.”


Nick Sowers [in-situ sketch for the Maunsell Sea Forts]

You can see the London Pirate Radio video, here and listen to Nick Sowers reecording, here.

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Recommended and related reading:
- Underground Kent web-site, with plans and history about the Sea Forts in PDF
- Geoff Manaugh article about the Maunsell Sea Forts at BLDGBLOG

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