Before the days of BBC Radio 1, the appetite of youngsters for pop and rock music was supplied during the 1960s by pirate radio stations off the east coast of England, one of them, Radio Essex, run by Major Roy Bates.
Like the other pirate stations, Radio Essex employed young DJs with a casual on-air manner somewhat akin to American stations and Radio Luxembourg. But, unlike the others, Bates’ station was the first to broadcast 24 hours a day.
Throughout his life, Bates, a larger than life character, sought adventure. At the age of 15, he travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades alongside Republicans in their fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. In the Second World War, he saw action in north Africa, Italy and the Middle East. When his plane crashed on the Greek Island of Rhodes, he was captured by fascists and was rescued from a firing squad only through the intervention of a passing German officer.
After the war, he exported meat from the Irish Republic to Ulster, then still suffering from rationing, and imported rubber from Malaysia to make frogmen’s flippers. Following the success of Radio Caroline, the first of the pirates, Bates decided to set up Radio Essex on a derelict artillery installation just outside British territorial waters. An old United States Air Force radio beacon was converted into a radio transmitter and Radio Essex began broadcasting in November 1965.
The following year, it changed its name to BBMS (Britain’s Better Music Station). It charged advertisers £20 a minute at peak listening times, compared with Caroline’s £180. But it ran into financial difficulties and ceased transmissions on Christmas Day 1966.
The transmitting equipment was transferred to another installation, Roughs Tower, but Radio Essex never broadcast again. Bates’ next venture was to proclaim Roughs Tower the principality of Sealand. He was to be known as His Royal Highness, Prince Roy of Sealand, with the “principality” issuing its own passports and postage stamps.
In 1967, the government approved legislation banning the pirates. But, with 21 stations broadcasting to an estimated daily audience of ten to 15 million people, they had the effect of shaking up BBC Radio. The old Light Programme was replaced by Radios 1 and 2, the Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Home Service from then on was Radio 4.
Bates once said: “I might die young or I might die old, but I will never die of boredom.”
Patrick Roy Bates, who was born in Ealing, west London, on August 29, 1921, died in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on October 9, aged 91.