You might not realise, but the Royal Over-Seas League was an early pioneer in communications technology, fully utilising the growing popularity of radio-telephony to contact the far-flung corners of the world and help stimulate international friendship and cooperation, one of the founding principles of the club.
The 1935 Annual Report reports an early demonstration of the technology:
Early in the year the League was responsible for the first Radio-telephonic Luncheon ever held in London. This was organised at the request of the Postmaster-General in connection with the meeting of the Imperial Press Conference in South Africa. Speakers in London Sir Kingsley Wood, HM Postmaster-General, the Rt Hon J H Thomas, Secretary of State for the Dominions, Mr C T te Water, High Commissioner for the Union of South Africa and Sir Evelyn Wrench. From South Africa, Senator the Hon C G Clarkson, Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. His late Majesty the King graciously sent a message expressing his interest in the function.
Just two years later, upon the opening of the Westminster Wing at Over-Seas House on 14 April 1937, then called the Empire Centre, the first all-Empire radio/telephone ceremony took place at the club. Opened by the Duke of Gloucester, the ceremony linked the audience in London with the Viceroy of India and the Governor-Generals of Canada from Ottawa, of Australia, from Melbourne, and of South Africa, from Pretoria. The link to the Governor-General of New Zealand failed. Sir Evelyn in his speech drew a parallel with the material benefits of the new telephone links and the idealistic good service and citizenship linked provided by ROSL to all members of the Empire.
Broadcasts of all kinds continued for several decades, even during the Second World War. ROSL member Peggy Trott recalled her time working for the BBC during the war, in 1995 edition of Overseas:
The heavy bombing of London by the German Luftwaffe caused the BBC to look for relatively ‘safe’ studios, i.e. buildings that were solid, sandbagged, and preferably with a basement. Broadcasting House (whose roof and top floor were destroyed by German bombers) has many underground studios, but these were fully booked during the war.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, I was a BBC secretary working on the ‘Overseas Messages to the Troops’ programmes and one of my jobs was to sort out the hundreds of letters the BBC received every week from the public, requesting to speak to their loved ones abroad. So began the BBC’s famous broadcasts to the forces in every theatre of war. Our office was not at Broadcasting House but in a narrow, tiled passage in the Criterion Theatre. In happier times this was used to house gents’ hats and coats! Having the use of Over-Seas House was particularly pleasant; we had plenty of space to move around and what could be more fitting than to broadcast overseas from the Over-Seas League?
Over-Seas House was unrecognisable, sandbags fortified all entrances, the porch and windows were strengthened and, at night, heavy black curtains were drawn so that not one chink of light escaped to guide the bombers. Unwelcoming? Not a bit. Inside, members were sure of a very warm reception.
On weekdays, the Hall of India was mainly a BBC broadcasting studio. A popular announcer did the lead-ins – blonde Joan Gilbert (later to be a success in post-war television) was in charge of broadcasts to Gibraltar. British wives, children, mothers and grandmothers all wanted to speak to their men stationed there. It wasn’t possible to say much in the short time allotted to the programme and the messages were uniformly simple… ‘I’ll be baking a special cake for you when you come home, love’. I had to alter the messages slightly in case they contained a hidden code. Sometimes a child had been born after dad had left for overseas and I would hold his son or daughter up to the microphone to say ‘hello daddy’. It was an emotional moment and hospitality was always given to the public, even if it was only a cup of tea and wartime cake (made with egg powder). Famous bands backed up the programmes and whole families were invited to choose the favourite tunes of their relative soldiers abroad.
Throughout the 1950s, the growing stature of the Annual Music Competition, which has started as a recital series for young musicians in 1947, saw it regularly broadcast on the BBC World Service from ROSL HQ.
As communication technologies have changed, ROSL has kept with the times. Today, you're more likely to find Annual Music Competition broadcasts on YouTube!
Of course, the pleasure has always been seeing the performances live though. If you'd like to come along to the 2019 competition, still going strong after 67 years, then find out more information here.