Norman Ellis’s electrical business was a well known local establishment for over 40 years. It started in the early 1930s in a small stone building on Midland Street and later moved to more modern premises a few yards away on the opposite side of Aberford Road.
Originally the shop sold and rented radio receivers or “wirelesses” for listening to the B.B.C. They also made money by charging a few pennies to recharge the heavy lead-acid accumulators which were needed to power the radios in the days when many homes in the village were without electricity.
Norman Ellis was born at Carlton in 1908 and came from a mining background. By 1911 his father was working at Water Haigh colliery and had moved his family to live at 13 Claremont Street in Oulton. After leaving school Norman too went to the pit and he was working on the screens on the pit top when he married Lucy Ann Wright from Methley Junction in 1932.
Norman’s interest in radio probably started in the 1920s as he tinkered with a crystal set to pick up early transmissions from the B.B.C. which started broadcasting in 1922. Eventually that tinkering led to the idea to open a shop but in the early days there wasn’t enough income so for a number of years he had to stay working at the colliery.
To keep the business going Norman was helped by his nephew, Harold Booth, who used to look after the shop everyday after school. Harold had also developed an interest in radio and he stayed in the business throughout his working life keeping the shop going during the Second World War whilst Norman was away in the R.A.F. His father, David Booth, was also a miner who had married Norman’s sister, Edith, and they lived close by on French Street.
At some point both Norman and Harold obtained technical training, probably from the manufacturers, so they could mend faulty receivers. Indeed when black and white television came along most people preferred to rent because the sets were temperamental and often broke down. Another reason for the rental market was the high cost of receivers with many families being unable to afford an outright payment.
The first recorded reception of a television programme locally was in January 1950 at Olwyn Fox’s shop in Rothwell when weak signals were picked up from the newly opened B.B.C. transmitter at Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham, the first outside London. A reporter from the Wakefield Express noted the “good reception” after watching a Saturday afternoon rugby union match. The picture quality improved dramatically when Holme Moss near Holmfirth started transmitting in October 1951.
The relatively high cost of radio receivers also led to Norman Ellis joining together with three other local electrical retailers to set up the Rothwell Relay in 1948. Along with Olwyn Fox and Walter Gibson in Rothwell and Olywn’s brother, Harry Fox, who was based near the Bay Horse pub in Methley, they fought off competition from national companies to be granted permission to install the service by the Rothwell Urban District Council.
The Relay was known as the “poor man’s wireless” re-broadcasting three B.B.C. radio channels to a simple loudspeaker in subscribers homes over cables which totalled 30 miles in length. The amplifiers were based on Meynell Avenue in Rothwell and occasionally the system also carried local programming, including medical advice and information about water shortages.
The Relay was switched on by Wilfred Pickles, a B.B.C. radio star who grew up in Halifax. During the war he was the first announcer to the read the national news with a northern accent and then became famous for his programme Have A Go in which members of the audience performed for prizes. Also at the opening at the Empire Ballroom, now the Blackburn Hall, was Pickles’ wife Mabel and his producer, Barney Colehan, who went on to produce The Good Old Days tv show from Leeds City Varieties Musical Hall.
The opening was such a popular event that the road outside the Empire was blocked with people who listened to the ceremony through loudspeakers mounted on the roof. The manager for the first 15 years was Fred Noble from Swillington who was friendly with Wilfred Pickles and sang on many of the Have A Go programmes.
At the Relay’s peak there were 1500 subscribers who paid a few pence per week. There were still about 400 of them when the service closed down in 1971. It was only off the air once, for a week in 1968, when floods caused over £1000 worth of damage to the equipment.
The last manager, Jack Lotherington, who had joined as an assistant when the service opened, told the Rothwell Advertiser: “It’s the pensioners I feel sorry for. It’s only been costing them 20p a week and I doubt if they will be able to buy a wireless. Perhaps someone would be able to give or loan them a radio.”
In 1958 Harold Booth married Muriel Moores who he had met on the Isle of Man. For many years she too worked in the Norman Ellis business managing the accounts. Click on the link below to hear Muriel reminiscing about life in the shop and dealing with the customers.