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Why David still holds a tune for sweet Caroline

When Thetfordian David Ward first heard the sounds of pirate station Radio Caroline at the age of nine, little did he know in the 2000s he would be part of the crew helping the station to keep an even keel.

Radio Caroline has been blasting out on the airwaves and afloat (most of the time) on the sea waves since March 1964, after founder Ronan O’Rahilly wanted to circumvent the record company’s control of popular music broadcasting in the UK and the BBC’s radio monopoly.

David said: “Ronan managed Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, who were big in the 60s, but he couldn’t get their first record played on the BBC so he said he would start a new radio station.

David Ward with one of the mast sections from Radio Caroline he kept from his fund-raising Picture by Mark Westley
David Ward with one of the mast sections from Radio Caroline he kept from his fund-raising Picture by Mark Westley

“Because he couldn’t get a licence for it on land, so he found Radio Caroline’s first ship, the Fredericia.

"She came from his father’s ship yard at Greenore, in the Republic of Ireland, she was set up for radio and that is how Radio Caroline was born.”

The BBC had three stations – The Light Programme, the Home Service for features, news and discussions, and the Third Programme – but if you wanted to hear pop music it had to be cross-Channel stations such as Radio Luxembourg.

Its signal could only reach the UK after dark and even then it faded in and out for long periods, but Radio Caroline was about to changed all that for the country, and for David.

The MV Ross Revenge with the two T-antennas David sold to enthusiasts Picture submitted
The MV Ross Revenge with the two T-antennas David sold to enthusiasts Picture submitted

He said: “I was brought up in a music family – my mum and dad were big Bob Dylan fans – and Radio Caroline helped bring pop music to the public in this country, without Radio Caroline theoretically it would not exist.

“It is something so important to this country’s musical history, I think it is more important than The Beatles, as much as The Beatles started pop culture properly here, without stations like Caroline they would not have got it out there.”

Radio Caroline continued to grow in popularity and in 1967, the Government, who wanted to stop the station, passed The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, which meant that the operation of offshore pirate radio stations became illegal if they were operated or assisted by persons subject to UK law.

David on board Radio Caroline during one of his many visits to the ship, which is moored in the Blackwater Estuary
David on board Radio Caroline during one of his many visits to the ship, which is moored in the Blackwater Estuary

David said: “No you weren’t allowed to listen to it, your parents would stop you doing it – it was illegally playing popular music. You used to lay in bed at night, under the covers with your transistor radio and hide it under the pillow so no- one knew you were listening to it.

“It was the glamour of pretending you are one of these ‘pirates’ out on the high seas, broadcasting to the world that got me.”

The story of the station through the years has seen a lot of rough water, including going through three main ships – the Fredericia, the Mi Amigo and its current vessel, Ross Revenge (as well as loan boats in between), debts, boardings, an armed raid by the Dutch government during a broadcast, its 300ft aerial being torn off the ship in a storm in 1987, the Mi Amigo sinking to the bottom of the North Sea during a live broadcast in 1980 and its ships running aground on more than one occasion.

But it was when the MV Ross Revenge banked on Goodwin Sands in November 1991, David’s involvement with Radio Caroline truly began.

He said: “It was towed back to Dover port and the Government asked someone to take it, a group of volunteers got together to repair it, as the initial idea was to make it into a floating museum and it eventually moved to Tilbury.

“I can’t remember exactly how I got involved but I was told they were cutting the two T-aerials off her. I have followed pirate radio and the history of ships like the Titanic for most of my life, so I wanted to be a part of it.

“I always found it sad that the MV Galaxy, Radio London’s ship, was dragged over to Belgium and there were pictures of it year in, year out, just rusting into the water, so when I was given the chance to take this piece of Caroline I jumped at it.”

David contacted Peter Moore, who was the guiding light of the project then but is now the managing director of the station, about making money from pieces of the vessel.

He continued: “I said to him why are you scrapping something like the aerials when you could sell pieces to fanatics like me?

“He said jokingly that they didn’t have the time and if I wanted to come down to Tilbury and take them I could, so I did.

“When we got there he asked that if we raised any money from the sections could we give it back to Caroline and I agreed.”

The radio masts were cut down and transported back to Thetford where they were cut into smaller sections and once word got around pieces of the ship were for sale, offers came flooding in.

David said: “We cut them into about coffee table height, as that is what some of the buyers did to them. I have even got one in my back garden with a honeysuckle growing up it, but people used them for all sorts of things.

“We had people writing to us from all over the world and I ended up sending sections to America, Asia and a couple of them went to Australia – they didn’t care what it cost, they just wanted a piece of Radio Caroline.”

Everybody that bought a section was given photographs David had of them cutting the aerial down and a certificate to prove that it was from the Ross Revenge. It raised thousands of pounds.

This started his fund-raising efforts for Caroline, which has seen him do talks on the history of the station, sponsoring radio shows and whole weekends, as well as running a supporter’s club – Radio Caroline’s 648 Club – which continues to raise funds.

David thinks he has raised around £10,000 since he began.

He said: “It is difficult to explain how I feel being given the chance to be part of something that has been a big part of my life. You couldn’t ask for anything else.

“Something that has been there since I was nine and I am now 64, I was never going to turn it down. There are lots of people like me helping to fund-raise for Caroline because they love it, too.

“The story of Radio Caroline is such a wonderful tale in my opinion, regardless of whether you like music. The story itself is amazing and I am glad I am a small piece of that.”

To find out how to listen to Radio Caroline, book a tour of the ship and to read the history of the station, go to www.radiocaroline.co.uk

Some of Radio Caroline's hits... and misses

  • March, 28, 1964: Radio Caroline, on former Baltic ferry, MV Fredericia, opens onto the airwaves.DJ Chris Moore and Simon Dee announce: “This is Radio Caroline on 199, your all day music station”. The first track played was The Rolling Stones ‘Not Fade Away’.
  • July 1964: Radio ship company’s Atlanta and Caroline merge- Radio Atlanta, re-named Radio Caroline South with their ship, MV Mi Amigo, remains off Frinton-on-Sea while the Fredericia, now named MV Caroline, sails from Felixstowe to the Isle of Man, broadcasting as she went. The two stations cover most of the British Isles.
  • October 1965: Caroline owner, Ronan O’Rahilly buys out Radio Atlanta and takes over the Mi Amigo, makes wholesale changes to Radio Caroline and attracts 23 million listeners the next year.
  • August 1967: The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act became law in the UK meaning that the operation of offshore pirate radio stations became illegal if they were operated or assisted by persons subject to UK law.
  • March 1968: The Mi Amigo and Caroline are boarded, seized and towed to Amsterdam due to unpaid bills.
  • September 1972: Only the Mi Amigo leaves port again, dropping anchor off the Dutch coast near Scheveningen – the second era of Radio Caroline begins.
  • September 1974: The Netherlands drafts and passes its own anti-pirate radio law.
  • March 1980: The Mi Amigo sinks in the Black Deep, near Long Sand Bank.
  • August 1983: The station restarts from the MV Ross Revenge with a 300 foot (91 m) high antenna.
  • 1987: The Territorial Sea Act is passed and extends the UK maritime limit from three to 12 nautical miles (22 km). To remain in international waters, the ship moves to a new, less-sheltered anchorage.
  • October 1987: A massive storm hits the Ross Revenge, weakening the mast that collapses in another storm.
  • 1990: UK government amends the 1967 anti-offshore law, allowing the boarding and silencing of stations in international waters if their signals could be received in the UK.
  • November 1991: Ross Revenge loses anchor in a storm and drifts on to Goodwin Sands in the Channel, the ship is salvaged and brought into harbour in Dover, ending 27 years of Radio Caroline’s unlicensed offshore career. The Radio Caroline Support Group, originally the Ross Revenge Support Group, start to repair and maintain the ship when it is moved to Tilbury.
  • July 2014: The ship is moved to the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, where it is moored today.
  • May 2017: Ofcom awards the station a community licence to broadcast to Suffolk and north Essex on 648 kHz and on December 22, commercial programming commences, with a signal that could be heard as far afield as Southampton, Birmingham and Glasgow.