Google Gertrude Donisthorpe. I hope you find something.
Because when I just tried it, this is what came up for Britain’s first DJ (in 1917), and one of the world’s first female broadcasters…
…Not a lot. A podcast about her that I’ve just uploaded. An article in the Catholic Herald about her presenting a robe. A TV listing from 1969, when she was interviewed about her work as a radio pioneer. Then it’s genealogy sites for someone completely different.
Yet Gertrude Donisthorpe, one of the first female broadcasters in the world, was arguably the first DJ in Britain, albeit, to begin with, with an audience of just one: her husband.
To redress the balance, here’s a little bit about her, that I discovered researching my podcast The British Broadcasting Century. You can hear much of this on this episode, all about Gertrude Donisthorpe: the Annie Nightingale of 1917.
Gertrude was married to Captain Horace Donisthorpe, and the duo were early radio pioneers. It seems to have been Horace’s enthusiasm, but he quickly swept up Gertrude in too.
In World War I, wireless telegraphy (essentially Morse code) was more common than its upstart younger sibling wireless telephony (ie. speech and, when technology allowed, music). Wireless operators needed training up before heading to the front, so that was Captain Donisthorpe’s job, based near Worcester. Valve radios at the time were very expensive but tricky to operate, so part of his challenge was teaching new recruits how to care for them without breaking them.
After hours, the Donisthorpes would cycle to a nearby field and set up either side of it – to experiment with what this new wireless radio telephony could do. She would speak into a transmitter; he would try and pick up her signals via a receiver across the field. When they couldn’t hear anything, they’d cycle to each other to say so – often missing each other (they really should have set a rule where only one person does the cycling and the other stays put).
She had a test phrase that she’d say, over and over: “A wonderful bird is the pelican, its beak can hold more than its belly can.” One of the first factoids, there you go Steve Wright.
Gertrude would do most of the speaking, and even introduce and play a few gramophone records. So in my mind, that makes her Britain’s first DJ – to an audience of one, across a field, who she’d then cycle to. It was like a meet-and-greet, or an early badly-attended version of the Radio 1 Roadshow.
On Leslie Baily’s Scrapbook for 1917 radio programme in 1967, Gertrude said: “My first broadcast was from a bell tent in a field near Worcester. My part in this experiment was strictly unofficial. I sat on a sugar-box in front of a transmitter, which would now be considered a museum piece. It had a bath of oil for cooling the one and only valve. At first we simply had conversations between two stations, about a mile apart.”
“If I heard nothing, I would take my pushbike and pedal to the other station, where I would often find that my husband had gone on his bike to my base, by a different route! Still, we did quite often make contact over the wireless, and I suppose my husband got quite a lot of technical knowledge from these experiments. Later we broadcast gramophone records, and recitations to amuse the troops at training centres, at Malvern and Droitwich. This was also strictly unofficial!”
As the experiments continued, the Donisthorpes played a few wireless concerts, three evenings a week, for the local military camps. So the audience increased. It’s unknown who spoke for those concerts, but my best guess would be that Gertrude still did much of the talking, as Horace’s interest was in how it sounded: her the presenter, him the producer. Their musical transmissions could be heard in Droitwich, Malvern and Norton. Throughout, they were experimenting, tweaking and trying to perfect the art and engineering behind this early broadcasting – ‘broadcasting’ as a word was yet to come in, for another five years.
Radio at this point was intended to be point-to-point communication, a way of sending and receiving a message between two people. The Marconi Company saw their future in charging for these messages. It was only the technology’s Achilles’ heel – that the transmissions were ‘leaky’, that others could ‘listen in’ – that meant that broadcasting was accidentally invented. Christmas Eve 1906 was the first radio entertainment broadcast for wider listeners, given by Reginald Fessenden (hear more about it on the first episode of our podcast) to ships near Brant Rock, Massachusetts.
A few years after the Donisthorpes, radio amateurs were entranced by experimental transmissions from Marconi’s Chelmsford workshop. To begin with they were recitations of railway timetables, till the ‘listeners-in’ asked for more entertaining tests to take place. Perhaps a newspaper, then maybe a song or two. That would require more nuanced microphones and ultimately more powerful transmitters – but Marconi engineers like Captain H.J. Round and William Ditcham were eager to try.
After a few false starts – including an opera broadcast from Dame Nellie Melba that was so successful that the British government banned radio broadcasts for fear of interfering with military communications – 1922 saw Britain’s first regular broadcast service, when Marconi’s was granted a licence to keep the moaning radio hams quiet. Captain Peter Eckersley was in charge, and when he seized the mic one day and was effortlessly entertaining, radio caught on in a big way. Hear more of his early broadcasts here. Eckersley’s genius and the ambition of his radio rival Arthur Burrows led to the establishment of the BBC; Eckersley became Chief Engineer, Burrows became Director of Programmes.
As for the Donisthorpes, Horace dabbled with the idea of broadcasting the closing night of a West End musical, just as the BBC was forming in the summer of 1922. It was to be based on the popular trend of listening to live performances via home telephone (the Electrophone), that had been popular since 1895. Alas Donisthorpe’s negotiations came to nothing. The BBC formed without him and he joined Marconi’s. He gave the occasional guest talk on the BBC in the late 1920s, on ‘wireless and the sea’ and the effects of an eclipse on radio transmission.
Gertrude was a guest on In Town To-night, a popular radio talkshow (the Graham Norton Show of 1934). In 1953 she contributed to Those Radio Times for the Light Programme, alongside Beryl Reid and Max Bygraves. (Bygraves incidentally is the performer who’s nearest the same age as the BBC – he was born just a few weeks before the first BBC broadcast.)
She gave one TV interview that I know of, for a 1969 BBC2 programme on the wireless entertainments that pre-dated broadcasting, called Yesterday’s Witness: Breaking the Silence. It’s not on iPlayer or Youtube… yet.
As for other early female broadcasters, 1910 saw radio hams such as Mrs M.J. Glass of San Jose and Olive Heartburg of New York. Perhaps the world’s first female DJ was Sybil Herrold in San Jose, who introduced records from 1912 on her husband Charles Herrold’s experimental radio station. The brilliantly named Nancy Clancy was a 16-year-old announcer on WAHG in New York in 1924. On this side of the Atlantic, the early BBC included Cecil Dixon as our first radio ‘Auntie’, broadcasting for children, while Helena Millais was arguably Britain’s first broadcast comedian (here’s a video in which I introduce a recording of her act). Pioneers such as Elise Sprott and Hilda Matheson are BBC names I can’t wait to tell people about on the podcast.
I’m grateful to Dr Elizabeth Bruton, curator of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, for furnishing me with the Donisthorpes’ full names (Horace’s is a beaut: Captain Horace St John de Alva Donisthorpe. There aren’t many of those nowadays).
I’m glad she’s helped set the record straight on Gertrude Anne Andrews, who was born 1895 and died 1980, just as Gertrude set records straight, then played them, 105 years ago. I hope the next time I google her, the name of Britain’s first DJ will be broadcast a little more widely.
The British Broadcasting Century Podcast is available from all good podcast outlets.