The family Blundell bought its first transistor radio in 1964, and of course it was a Roberts. Fast forward to 2021, and my new radio has just been delivered. It’s another Roberts.
The Roberts Radio Company began making portable sets in 1932, in a basic factory converted from two rooms in Hills Place, Soho. By 1935 they were averaging eight receivers a week, all sold in London. Demand was high, but in their current premises it was impossible to increase their output. So in March 1936 they moved across Oxford Street to 41 Rathbone Place, where they occupied three rooms on each of two floors. Production doubled almost at once.
The company had been started by two enterprising young Londoners, Harry Roberts, from Mile End, and Leslie Bidmead, from Kilburn.
Prior to setting up his own business Harry had worked for Pell, Cahill, and Company Ltd, another manufacturer of wireless equipment at nearby 64 Newman Street. At first the pair called themselves Roberts and Bidmead, but within a few months Leslie nobly agreed that Roberts Radios had a much better ring to it.
They were so successful that in 1940 Harry received a letter from their contact at Harrods: ‘I personally had the pleasure yesterday of selling Her Majesty the Queen one of your models for her personal use.’ While celebrating her eighteenth birthday in April 1944 Princess Elizabeth, the current Queen, was filmed listening to a news item about herself on a Roberts portable.
In 1941 the company had left Fitzrovia because it was considered dangerous. Quite rightly — the Rathbone Place premises were bombed towards the end of that year. After the war, the site was redeveloped as the Post Office sorting office, and it’s now occupied by Rathbone Square. Happily by the time their old home was destroyed Roberts Radios were safely installed in a former Thames-side boathouse in East Molesey, Surrey. Today their radios are still being manufactured in a purpose-built factory in nearby Chertsey.
In the 1980s Roberts were struggling, on account of the competition from Japan. Then in 1989 one of their radios appeared in a Martini advert, and soon the company was inundated with enquiries. The result was the Roberts Revival model, beautifully nostalgic and now made in nine delicious colours. With DAB, WIFI and streaming, naturally.
No longer ‘Made in Fitzrovia’, but still ‘Made in Britain’, Roberts Radios are in fact no longer completely British. Since 1994 they’ve been a subsidiary of the GlenDimplex Group, which operates from the Republic of Ireland. This group owns several other brands redolent of my tech-filled youth, such as Dimplex, Morphy Richards, and Baby Belling. Names to savour.
Never mind the family holidays and the sun-kissed beaches, it’s the marvellous machines of yesteryear that whisk me straight back to my childhood. And now it must be time for the Archers …
(If you leaf through this E-book you’ll find a photo of the Rathbone Place premises on page vi.)
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies.