Harry Roberts, founder of Roberts Radio was born on 20 May 1910 in Mile End, London, and the youngest of his parents’ six children. After leaving school, he went to work for the Rees Mace Manufacturing Company, of Cannon Street, London- a small scale manufacturer of wireless radio sets who like many others of similar scale, were meeting the rising demand for receivers since formal radio broadcasting started by the BBC in November 1922 from Marconi House, London.
Roberts Radio have been purchased by the Royal family since 1939 and have held Royal warrants of appointment since 1955.
Rees Mace specialised in “portables“. To modern eyes these sets were merely more ‘transportable’, being too bulky and heavy for frequent movement, but having the considerable advantage of being self-contained, at a time when other types of receiver often had external batteries, often separate loudspeakers and always requiring connection to an outdoor aerial or to a separate “frame” aerial, typically three foot square.
Portables were the future and early in 1925 Harry Roberts moved on to his second job, again with a wireless radio set manufacturer named Pell, Cahill & Company Ltd., of Newman Street, London. Harry Roberts demonstrated his technical knowledge as he was made responsible for the calibration of sets and fault rectification of their range of sets in service.
A colleague of Harry Roberts at Cahill’s, Richard R. Bennett, who had been Service Manager there, set up a new radio set sales operation and gave Harry Roberts his next opening. His job was to collect receivers from a range of manufacturers and to demonstrate and facilitate sales to potential customers.
Leslie Bidmead who was a small radio set manufacturer based in Kilburn, London , knew of Harry Roberts in the industry as having an exceptional flair for selling radio sets. He was setting up a new radio manufacturing company and he knew Harry Roberts was not very happy at his present employment (as his boss left him to do the all the hard work for little reward, whilst he frequented public houses). Leslie proposed to Harry Roberts that they both produce radio sets and sell them under commission for a Major Barnett (an electrical wholesaler) under the Major’s brand ‘Eldeco’. The two young men calculated that if they worked hard, it would yield a living wage. Within a year or two they were doing well through their endeavours.
In October 1932 the pair decided to set up on their own, renting two rooms in Hills Place, near Oxford Circus, London, which they set about converting into a very basic factory, some of the money coming from the sale of Bidmead’s motor bike. The decided to concentrate their efforts on the fast growing portable receivers market. They would make top quality products and sell them to the most discerning customers.
Still in his early twenties, Harry Roberts decided he would take a sample receiver to Harrod’s famous department store in London. He asked to see the buyer of the piano department (which at that time also carried radio sets). He managed to get in front of the buyer, who following his demonstration was suitably impressed and ordered 6 sets there and then-starting what would be a long and fruitful relationship.
Orders from other leading department stores followed and during their first year, production averaged fewer than three receivers a week. They could not afford to hold stocks of receivers, so orders were executed as they came in, and both partners would often work through the night to meet delivery dates.
On 18 November 1932 the partners changed their company’s name from “Roberts and Bidmead” to the “Roberts Radio Company”.
Business continued to boom during the final months of peace in the run up to the outbreak of WW2 and turnover for 1939/40 reached £20,000. Harry Roberts was only 29 when war broke out and was soon required to register for military service. When the war ministry learned of Harry Roberts radio manufacturing business, he was asked to continue managing his business to better help the war effort making radio sets. This he did, despite a severe shortage of radio valves. Some valves were released to set-manufacturers to allow them to make broadcast receivers for purchase by the RAF Comforts Fund with Roberts Radio making 2,500 sets under this arrangement. Most of Roberts Radio war-work was for the military. Morse-key and plug assemblies, aerial coupling boxes, and aerial switching units for radar were turned out in quantity for the Ministry of Aircraft production.
In December 1940, Harry Roberts received a letter from his contact at Harrods informing him that “I personally had the pleasure of selling Her Majesty The Queen, when in our radio department yesterday, one of your Model M4D for her personal use.” This was, in fact, the Queen’s second purchase of a Roberts receiver, for in 1939 she had bought one at the Army and Navy Stores as a present for Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen).
In 1941, perceiving that the West End was a particularly bombing prone location, Harry Roberts began looking for premises in outer London and settled on a large Thames-side boathouse in Creek Road, East Molesey, quite near to his home. Before the end of the year, Rathbone Place was indeed bombed, but by that time everything had been moved to Creek Road except the Company’s stock of cardboard boxes.
There were also a number of commissions from R.A.F. Farnborough to produce “one-off” items, sometimes so secret that drawings would be brought into the factory, shown briefly to the relevant worker, then taken away again.
After the war the consolidated it’s pre-eminence in its field that it had established before the war. In May 1946 Harrods congratulated Harry Roberts on the excellence of his new P4D receiver (“It undoubtedly beats anything of the transportable type which has yet been placed on the market”) and pleaded for a larger allocation (“We are right up against it for stocks”).
A more public commendation came in the autumn, when the P4D was one of the twenty radio receivers selected by the Council of Industrial Design for its prestigious exhibition “Britain Can Make It”, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
In February 1955 Harry Roberts sent a letter (his third) to the Lord Chamberlains office (who looks after Royal warrant holders and handles Royal warrant requests) referring to a specially adapted model provided for the Royal Tour of 1953/4 and listing receivers supplied over a period of more than fifteen years. This time the application was successful, and in the London Gazette of 15 July 1955 Messrs Roberts Radio Co. Ltd. were listed as “Radio Manufacturers to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”.
A pleasant reminder that a Royal warrant is more than mere formality came in January 1957, when young Richard Roberts was requested to take to Buckingham Palace samples of the current range of portables, in the various colour options for demonstration to HRH The Prince of Wales, Prince Charles and HRH The Princess Royal, Princess Anne. It transpired that these were required to mark a special occasion. He was shown into the nursery and subsequently joined by the Prince and Princess, who had apparently interrupted their studies to make their selection.
The 1960’s saw continued progress at Roberts with the building of a new factory in West Molesey in Surrey (about 16 miles south west of London centre. The move was made in April 1962, ownership of Creek Road being retained. In 1969 the founder, Harry Roberts passed away aged only 59. Richard Roberts succeeded his father as Chairman and Managing Director, and under his leadership the Company set about broadening the range of products manufactured.
Royal Warrants have again figured prominently in the Company’s affairs. In 1978/9 Richard Roberts had the distinction of serving as President of the Royal Warrant Holders Association, while the Roberts Radio Company has been granted two further Warrants, in 1982 and 1985 respectively, as manufacturers and suppliers of radio receivers to H M Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and to HRH The Prince of Wales.
Roberts Radio’s uncompromising insistence on quality has endured, though it has had to be adapted to current conditions. Thus most of the standard plastic-cased receivers are manufactured in the far east, but are built to specifications meeting the company’s standards of performance, styling and finish. However, wooden-cased receivers still predominate, and these continue to be made at East Molesey.
Roberts are still at the forefront of manufacturing the highest quality DAB radios and latest internet radio and digital music player compatible sound systems. Their current ‘revival’ range of DAB radios (with their classic 1950’s iconic design) are proving a great success with special editions such as the models featuring Cath Kidson, Paul Smith and Swarovski crystal case designs. The company most recently launched a new model, the Roberts SolarDAB- the world’s first solar powered digital radio.