Wednesday, 26 March 2008


Whilst taking photographs in Milton Road the other day, I happened upon the maintenance cover pictured above, the sight of which sent my mind lurching back into the past.

When I was a child in the 1970s, the television service in this country consisted of three television channels - BBC's 1 and 2 and ITV (Anglia in Cambridge, of course). Domestic video recorders arrived on the scene during the decade, but these were expensive and not widespread (only 5% of UK households had them in 1980) and the multi-channel world of satellite television would have had us boggle-eyed with amazement back then.

An option available to Cambridge people that did give a little more choice of TV entertainment was an early form of cable or "wired" television called British Relay, which had arrived here in 1962.

 "Cambridge Daily News", 31 August, 1962.

British Relay TV sets provided a clear, "electronically perfected" reception, the chance to view the London ITV service (which often provided a "regional variation" in programmes and news) and a built-in radio.

Black British Relay cables stretched between houses and small round adaptor boxes soon became a familiar sight to Cambridge residents.

According to the 1962 advertisement above, the benefits of British Relay included:

BBC [pre-BBC 2, which arrived in 1964], LONDON ITV and ANGLIA television programmes with tuning knob for other channels.

625 line TV and the new programmes - the minute they become available. No extra cost.

Colour TV as soon as it comes.

BBC Home, Light and Third radio programme, plus overseas programmes, including popular Radio Luxembourg.

A luxury push-button combined TV and radio set.

Complete free maintenance. "Never-without-a-set" service.

The world's best television reception that never varies.
By the time my parents first rented a British Relay TV set in the 1970s, the choice of radio stations had altered (as indeed had the radio stations on offer) and included the reorganised BBC stations and Capital Radio, an independent local radio station serving London. As a child, I enjoyed listening to this - there seemed to be something terribly sophisticated and wonderful about listening to radio aimed at a London audience! In Cambridge, there were no local radio stations until the 1980s.
As a youngster, I was fascinated by the tall aerial mast on King's Hedges Road, with various aerials attached to it at different heights, which provided the signal for our "wired" television service.

British Relay was taken over by a company called Visionhire c. the late 1970s. You could rent British Relay radio and television sets from this company at least until the early 1980s (I'm not absolutely sure when the service ceased), although the TV/radio combination sets were being phased out. We were still renting a combination set in 1981.

Of course, the world of TV entertainment has changed beyond recognition since those days, with the video recorder becoming widespread and the advent of breakfast, all-night and satellite TV in the 1980s, and other developments since.
But there was a time, in the fairly recent past, when British Relay was absolutely cutting edge.
I wonder what the next few decades hold?


  1. I rented a British Relay telly in the 1970s and I remember there was some slight double vision. I can't remember if it was on one or all of the telly channels, but it was definitely there. The radio reception was terrific and I too liked Capital Radio.

  2. British Relay was taken over by Visionhire in 1978. We were told at the staff dance on 1st December that any rumours of a takeover were not true. That was a Friday. On the Monday we were taken over

  3. Hi, we had british relay over here in Ipswich, a lot of the estates were wired up so several thousand houses were on it, I was brought up on it and in the days of only 3 channels having London ITV (Thames/LWT)This was a major bonus as in the 1970s and 80s ITV was run on regional lines with different programming.(by the way this was replaced overnight on 2nd November 1982 with the new channel 4 service.) In ipswich on the service we had the bbc radio stations and radio Orwell on the Independent local radio service that began in 1975.
    The end came with the visionhire buyout in the late 70s, I gather no new cablesets were available after 1980 and my grandmother was on the service right to the very end in 1986 when over a period of months the cablevision sets were taken away and standard aeriels were erected on houses with standard sets. Very sad as it was a forerunner of the age when you can now get radio and tv through the same method through the new digital mediums.
    Talking to my uncle recently about it, he recalled the british relay engineers would visit houses for repair to sets till 9pm at night -even on a saturday!
    I have taken some photos of the old british realy plugs in my grans house, There are still also several green junction boxes on street corners and manholes with the british relay legend, i will try and publish these. Thanks for letting me share my memories of a wonderful tv service!

    1. I grew up in Cambridge, close to the Arbury Estate and remember the tall mast and large array of aerials for British Relay on Kings Hedges Road. The original mast and aerials were replaced for a slightly taller structure in 1978, whilst I was still at the Manor School. My grandparents had the service in Campkin Road, as did most residents of Arbury in the seventies, as it was built in to many of the new estate properties. I believe there was a 5p a week "signal" charge added to the rental agreement. All the tv sets at Addenbrookes Hospital were wired to the network, that also covered estates in Cherry Hinton and Trumpington. The service was also available in areas with lots of terrace houses like those around Mill Road and Histon Road. My mother told me there was a lot of resistance at the start from some people who objected to the cables being attached to their properties and therefore many surburban areas were denied the pleasure of having London ITV in 625 line Colour or good reception from Capital radio. In 1982, Capital had been replaced by BBC Radio London. The special sets used on the network were mostly made by PYE in Cambridge or GEC. The picture quality was possibly less "sharp" than conventional terrestrial 625 line analogue tv of the time, and the London reception had a slight shadow with it, possibly because the signal was being picked up in Arbury from Crystal Palace in London, and was a lot weaker and poorer in quality than the other three being received from the local transmitter intended for Cambridge at Sandy Heath. Also, London ITV was transmitted on UHF Ch23, and Anglia on the neighbouring UHF Ch24. This meant the British Relay engineers had to overcome the problem of a strong Anglia TV signal interferring with the weaker London broadcast. The cause of death for British relay was two fold, the birth of Channel 4 in November 1982, when London ITV had to be replaced, because the system could only offer four tv channels. There was no advantage to be have a relay set anymore. Local commercial stations could now be received on any radio. But possibly more than this, was the arrival and increasing popularity of the video recorder, technology the 20 year old network simply couldn't cope with. I believe the Cambridge system was finally switched off in 1984 after all it's customers had been given an aerial and their tv had been replaced or converted by Visionhire. The 10 pin square plug and wall sockets that once connected people to the world or British Relay TV and Radio in their homes were finally redundant. The Kings Hedges mast was stripped of UHF receiving aerials and I believe it was then used for taxi's, a little while before being completely taken down. In some other cities like Plymouth for example, similar systems operated by Rediffussion were converted to offer people four of the brand new sky channels using a primitive selector switch feeding an RF converter box that worked with any TV or VCR. An aerial was also required in order to receive the main tv channels. This was a short lived service that fell to the sky dish and new cable systems now operated by Virgin Media.

    2. As "Watts" pointed out in an earlier comment, from around 1976/1977 (and possibly well before) the British Relay reception was plagued by "double vision". When Visionhire took over in 1978, we called them "Double Visionhire"!. Still great to watch Thames ITV though!

  4. Darryl from Ipswich16 November 2014 at 02:41

    Hi, i have just started a facebook page dedicated to British Relay Wireless' i would welcome any contributions from anyone including former employees and any photos.... thanks!