Leicester House, Lisle Street and beyond.
In 1631, Robert Sidney, second Earl of Leicester, purchased 4 acres of land in St. Martin's Field, London, and for approximately £8000 built Leicester House. The only other buildings nearby were Newport House and Armoury House of the Military Company. The future George II lived there in 1717.
In 1791 Leicester House was demolished. The open land to the front became Leicester Square and to the North, one of the most attractive streets in the parish was extended into the gardens of the old house.
It was New Lisle Street.
Most of the original houses in Lisle St. have now been demolished but at one time the Postmaster General, James Craggs, lived at No.44, now the site of the Empire Theatre. This was well before the GPO numbered wireless
Lisle St. formed the southern boundary of what, in later years was to become known as Chinatown. This spilt over from the destruction, during the blitz in 1946, of the original 1860's Chinatown in the East End of London at Limehouse.
For many wireless collectors now beyond retirement age, Lisle St. after the second World War in 1945 was a magnet because of about 8 shops. A number of things occured which made Lisle St. so very attractive once again to so many, apart from the fact that it was now also part of the red light district of Soho!
Government war surplus radio and radar equipment etc. was coming on to the market. Men were being demobbed from all three services and many began to take up an interest in radio, much of which had been taught them in the services. Ham radio received a boost with surplus communication receivers. There was the R107 weighing in at 96 lbs. and who doesn't know of the R1155 with its sister transmitter, the T1154 or the Eddystone 358 receiver?
Television, from its home at Alexandra Palace, closed down for the duration in war time, began transmissions once again in June, 1946.
Less than four years later the "Practical Television," magazine began, reflecting the new demand for cheap home constructed television receivers.
Hi-Fi was the new 'in' word and quality amplifiers were being built at home. In 1947 Wireless World published the circuit and constructional details of a very high spec High Fidelity amplifier designed by D.T.N. Williamson, using a lethal HT of 450 volts! It took advantage of the new shellac records which could reproduce frequences from 20-15000 hertz. The age of the Hi-Fi fanatic had dawned and Lisle street could supply the push pull KT66's. (ex war surplus VT 75's of course!) and much else beside.
The BBC FM transmitter at Wrotham in Kent was being constructed in 1949 to enable 13 million listeners to receive high quality broadcasting within a few years.
Many were to build their own FM receivers, and to construct reel to reel tape recorders too!
Radio Astronomy was becoming of interest, much surplus optical equipment was also being bought. Even Boy Scouts were taking their Wireless and Radio Mechanics badges (test No.26) in 1948. The next generation of home constructors was being trained, maybe to become surplus enthusiasts too.
So all these things coming together during this post war period resulted in big demands for everything radio, audio, mechanical and television and the surplus market was there to help meet that demand.
Thanks to Gee airbourn radar etc. some items coming to market could easily be adapted at home to enable television sets to be built fairly cheaply. The surplus Pye IF strip (unit153) had its IF at 45 megacycles, this coinciding with the vision frequency from Ally Pally. The VCR97 CRT at 35/- (£1.75 for the uninitiated!), another surplus item, was a cheap entry into a green 6 inch diameter world of home constructed TV, commercial 9 inch tubes at that time being around £12. Recently a VCR97 was sold on eBay for £5.50.
The surplus type 62 unit for £4 was convertable as the video strip for home built television as were many others such as the 1355 with an RF 25 unit. Indicator unit 6 formed the tube assembly with the VCR97 at 90/- all boxed and in makers crates!
I wonder how many surplus EF50's were warming up just before 8 o/clock every evening in the vision strips ready to show BBC Television Newsreel's Ally Pally's radiating aerials during this period? The sound units ready to blast out, Charles William's, "Girls in Grey," the signature tune of the newsreel.
Many surplus units were also bought just to be stripped down for cheap component parts and valves too.
'Centre Tap' writing in Radio Constructor in 1949 said, "The home construction
of televisors is now well and truly in its stride." Yes, we were all at it! Those were exciting times when the first flickering pictures appeared on the CRT at home as the sets were aligned up.
Lisle St. offered much of this equipment and more and all within a stone's throw of Leicester Square tube station. How many tons of radio and television equipment were carried down the escalator on to the Piccadilly Line platforms over those post war years? I certainly carried my share as a young teenager soon after the war ended.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939 there were wireless shops in Lisle St.
Will Day's shop at No. 19, then boasted, "The best in the West," and was well advertised in the Wireless Worlds during the 20's, selling such items as, 'The Band Box,' a six valve receiver at £16-16 shillings. At one time the shop was called, 'The Wireless and Gramophone Saloon.'
Further up Lisle Street, towards Charing Cross Rd., at No.27 and 28a opposite the rear of Daly's Theatre, K. Raymond tempted one with the Kay-Ray variable condenser of the future at 6/6d. and many other items, all advertised in the Popular Wireless in the 1920's. " Two shops, so you will always find one open," said the adverts.
The Wet HT Battery Company sold permanent LT batteries at No.26 at one time.
During the war London Central Radio advertised regularly in Practical Wireless as did Southern Radio.
But the ending of the war saw the popularity of Lisle St. reach its peak.
G.W. Smith had his brightly illuminated shop with its long counter at the bottom of the street at No.3, next door but one to The St. John's Hospital for skin diseases, with its highly picturesque frontage in the early Renaissance style of northern Europe. This was previously occupied by Pathe Films of France.
Mr. Smith opened another shop on the opposite south side, further up at No.34. Both windows of each shop were always full as were the brightly lit interiors and one was amazed to see how much equipment could be strung up around a shop.
As a young lad I was not only excited to visit Lisle St. and G. W.Smith to buy my components but especially to gaze upon Mr. Smith's well endowed wife who always served at No.3! How wonderful it was for a youthful lad just to speak with this attractive mature woman about radio items on his wanted list! In later years Smith stores sold the Lafayette brand of ham band receivers and more new equipment as the initial war surplus market began to dry up in the late 1950’s.
The Southern Radio Supply Co. at No.46, Service Radio Spares at No.4, West End Radio at No.14, University Radio at 22 and London Central Radio Stores at 23 were other Lisle St. shops to be visited.
Opposite brightly illuminated Smiths was dark and drab, London Central Radio Stores. Bare wooden dirty floor boards greeted one on going inside. The floor was littered with boxes of not very attractively arranged goods, and these boxes extended right out to the pavement forming a lined path to the dark depths within. There were always plenty of items for sale but no buxom wench in there to gaze upon!
University Radio, further down, where many odds and ends were festooned around the entrance. Two windows each side of the entrance vied for one's attention.
At the top of Lisle St. at No.15 Little Newport St., two brothers ran, Gee Radio, where ex surplus government soldering irons were part of the stock at 25/- and surplus 2v Exide accumulators at 3/11d in a rather cramped shop. There was also another small radio shop in Newport Place on the left but I just cannot recall its name.
Ex surplus Naval, ex surplus RAF, ex surplus Army and ex surplus Government stock, it was all there in Lisle St. If I had to pick a small icon of this period it would be the elegant slow motion Muirhead dial with its AM (Air Ministry) logo.
Although Lisle St. was the centre for radio surplus it did have its competitors in other parts of London. In nearby Tottenham Court Rd. in 1946 the Proops family set up shop, also selling surplus equipment, much of it medical, engineering and instruments from aircraft. The Spitfire's 16mm film camera ( and rolls of 16mm film) were other items for sale. Ex aircraft Gyroscopes too.
Who can remember Radio Clearance Ltd. at No 27. Tottenham Court Rd.,
Alec Davis Supplies at No.18 or Charles Britain in Upper St. Martin's Lane, selling RF24 units for 27/6d?
Two miles away over in Fleet St,. then home to the Newspaper industry, one could find Sterns Radio down the bottom on the left near to Ludgate Circus at Nos.109 and 115.
Premier Radio had their first shop at No 169, moving to 165 and then on to No.152/153 (Electronic Precision Equipment taking over here eventually), later to be followed by a further branch at No. 207 Edgware Road right on the corner of St. Michael's Street.
In 1949 at this shop, during TV transmitting hours only, could be found a working open demonstration model of their own kit built television receiver using the ex surplus VCR97 CRT to make some green with envy! I cannot recall though how they prevented the public from getting hold of the lethal EHT connection! No health and safety in those risky days!
At the same time Teleradio, at No.177 near the corner with Sussex Gardens, was selling all the components for the Williamson amplifier. The expensive and weighty Partridge output transformer for £5-13-0 and all the parts for the Electronic Engineering Televisor, although cheaper surplus components could be used.
Many will remember Lasky's (307 Harrow Rd.opposite Paddington Hospital) and Henry's (5 Harrow Rd.), near to what is now the big Flyover in Edgware Road at the Underground station, selling the Pye IF strip for 45/- and the No 18 set for 17/6d. Winter Trading, the big wholesaler who stocked all the components for the home built Viewmaster television receiver, among many other items just a hundred yards down the Harrow Road on the right. A tiny entrance and counter hid the enormous stock they carried at the rear. Lasky's were also at 33 Tott.Ct. Rd . and at 152/3 Fleet St.(same shop as Premier Radio!) at one time.
Who can remember too, big red painted Samson's Stores (now a supermarket site), again in Edgware Road just on the right past the junction with Sussex Gardens going towards Hyde Park? It was probably the biggest stocked window of any surplus store in London. Packed from the front of its two enormous plate glass windows right up high to the back it seemed to take hours to look at everthing they had to offer. Then inside to be further amazed. Truly like an Alladins cave with the counter at the back with Mr. Samson poking his head through all the gear and components. This was the place to buy all those odds and ends in one big shop as well as surplus stock. Tag strips/valve holders/terminals/insulators/Cs and Rs/chassis, not forgetting the 1 1/8 inch international valve holder chassis cutter which we all used.
Eventually on closing Samsons moved to a smaller shop just off Chapel Street nearby in the 1960s. Still with packed windows right next to the Edgware Rd. Met. Line station and if memory serves me, this shop too closed in the 1980s.
H. L. Smith at Nos.287-289 Edgware Road, opposite Bell St..with its double fronted windows going right down to within 1 foot of the pavement. Massive wooden counters within and all along the left hand side of the deep shop, trays upon trays of components to help yourself with. Laterly they had a Hi Fi section on the left hand part of the shop.
"Nothing too large - Nothing too small." "Everything you need under one roof." "You'll probably get it at Smith's," ran their adverts. They even had a chassis dept. to make any sized chassis one required. Sadly, all now gone.
But Henry's, still soldiering on, selling Sinclair's calculator kit of parts in 1976 for £5.40 then onto computers and modern Hi Fi gear but you will not find any R1155s for sale there now. To this day (2006) they are still in the Edgware Road, at No.404 and now with a web site selling disco lighting etc., but it's not ex war surplus! Henry's, now the last of the many.
In Lewisham, East London, Galpins were selling off ex RAF 10 valve IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) units for 30 bob and ex Naval spark coils for 8/6d.
Over in South London, Mr. Huggett and his wife opened at 2 o/clock on a Friday and men could be seen hanging around outside before then waiting to enter the old shop, with its wooden floors and stacked shelves. He always had a new line each week to tempt us all with items like a large bag of a few hundred surplus 6BA screws and nuts, all very cheap.(maybe slightly rusty!)
Over in West London, Lyon's Radio, run by two brothers, was a small shop in
Goldhawk Road, selling surplus rotary converters at 42/- and ex RAF power units for 39/6d, all advertised in The Radio Constructor. Just around the corner in Hammersmith Road was Bernards in the Grampions where many little radio booklets were published over the years of ex war surplus valve equivalents and other radio subjects.
VR53, VR65, VR91 etc.will be known affectionately to many. I don't have to tell you
what the equivalents are I hope!
In Shepherds Bush market one could find John Gilbert's radio shop open every Saturday. John was a friendly, pipe smoking audio engineer working for H. J. Leak amplifier company in Acton during the week. . His shop, just about 9 foot square boasted an early balloon PX4 push pull Leak amplifier which blasted out old music all day on a 12 inch loudspeaker mounted just on a large wooden baffle outside the shop. The Leak amplifier was not finished in black crackle paint but in a dark mauve colour! I seemed to recall that this was a Leak prototype.
The shop packed quite a lot of surplus stock into its four cramped walls including large boxes of ex surplus Erie resistors and held many a chatting enthusiast too on a Saturday afternoon, including me. One guy specialised in getting the maximum volts out of home built crystal receivers tuned to the then BBC Home Service, using all the various types of surplus diodes on the market just after the war with his experimental tuning coils. Gilbert closed this shop in the late 1950s.
All over Britain similar shops could be found all selling surplus equipment after the war. Radiomart in Birmingham, Wireless Instruments of Leeds, Clydesdale of Glasgow, and Wireless Supplies Unlimited in Bournemouth, to name only four.
The UK dealers list could go on, as can the list of surplus equipment being sold including such units as number 184a, 74a, 62a(the indicator unit for airborne Gee radar), 6a, 18, 3132, 1147, 145, w1095, 526, 142, 7, 1355, 231, Q fiver, 1481, 74 and hundreds more!
The RAF 10/C series numbering seemed far more complex in numbering than those previous GPO numbering of wirelesses in the 1920s ever was!
For example, Resistor numbers running from 10/C 1042 to 1050 were 51k,50k,20k,75k,12k,5k,350ohm,15k and 30k!
But slowly, one by one, many of these old shops began to close because the surplus market was beginning to dry up and many of them, run by ex service men who were now retiring - or worse.
In Lisle St. today, G.W.Smith's old shop at No.3 is a pub (The Hog's Head) and his other shop now a Chineese restuarant.
Will Day's old shop at No.19 is in the middle of the SeeWoo supermarket and
K.Raymond at No.27 another restuarant, as is the London Central Radio Stores,
making ten restuarants there now in the street.
Thirty years after the start of Lisle Streets's popularity the British Vintage Wireless Society was formed and 60 years on many of its members now collect the very same items that were sold in those war surplus days.
Home construction faded away because factory built equipment became relatively cheap to buy and much too complicated to make at home. Who would venture to design and build a modern colour television, a DVD player or a PC mother board at home these days?
But many will still have very fond memories of those wonderful times when browsing in the old surplus shops was a weekly adventure, from the old gardens of..........
Leicester House, Lisle Street, and beyond.