Church, State and the Pirate Ship Saga
By Neil Earle
(Jingle) “Radio London reminds you: Go to the Church of your choice.”
(Announce, loudly): “THE WORLD TOMORROW! Garner Ted Armstrong brings you the plain truth about today’s world news with the prophecies of the World Tomorrow!
(GTA): “And greetings friends, this is Garner Ted Armstrong with the good news of the World Tomorrow. World leaders admit that they are frightened, that they are engaged in a fantastic nightmare. They’re scared. They don’t know what to do. They’re wondering what is going to happen in the future and none of them really know.”
This was a typical opener for a “World Tomorrow” radio show beaming down on millions of Englishman in the Greater London area between late 1964 and August 15, 1967. This period is now somewhat notable in British broadcasting circles as the heyday of the Pirate Ships. A fascinating tale, this, of how the Armstrongs, Herbert and Garner Ted (successful radio evangelists based in America) ended up in a curious roundelay involving Her Majesty’s government in London, the BBC, some of Britain’s elite publications and a host of over-the-top radio personalities – some of whom ended up as legends of British popular culture.
The genius behind the pirate ship idea was the offshore positioning of creaky vessels and the occupation of abandoned World War Two-era sea forts as staging platforms to beam in the music millions in “swinging England” craved. As covered earlier, Radio Luxembourg had represented the first crack in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) exclusive monopoly over radio broadcasting in Britain. But on March 28, 1964, from a 763-ton vessel propelled by a 1,000 h.p. diesel engine off England’s southeast coast came the jived up sounds of Radio Caroline, broadcasting on 199 metres. Radio Caroline was the first of the offshore “pirate ships” beaming into Britain, though the idea had been tried off California and elsewhere in the 1930’s. 1
This British version of “offshore radio” was the brainchild of Irish entrepreneur Rohan O’Rahilly. O’Rahilly soon had competition from another swashbuckling entrepreneur named Alan Crawford. Both men came to the same conclusion about radio at the same time. An arrangement was made whereby Radio Caroline, now called Radio Caroline North, steamed to a position five miles off the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea while Crawford’s 470-ton Mi Amigo became Radio Caroline South, perched off the Essex coast. A Texas businessman named Don Pierson soon got into the act and set up Wonderful Radio London that Christmas, 1964.2
The assault was on. What tart British journalist Christopher Booker dubbed as “the farce of the pirate radio stations” had begun.3
Farcial only because of the nearly three year battle that soon ensued between the British Government and the “pirate ships,” as they were soon dubbed. Though the official term was “offshore broadcasting” there was just enough “nuts to the Establishment” tone embedded in the talented tonsils of deejays Simon Dee, Robbie Dale, Kenny Everett, and others to bother Harold Wilson’s Labour Government no end. “Some tastes are worse than wild” Lord Sorenson complained in the House of Lords. The House of Lords no less! Pop music and trendy D.J. patter in a pseudo-American style wafted onto an island population seeking relief from some of the BBC’s stuffier productions. “I can’t understand the Government’s attitude over the pirates,” Beatle George Harrison declaimed in an interview. ”Why don’t they make the BBC illegal as well. It doesn’t give the public the service it wants, otherwise the pirates wouldn’t be here to fill the gap.”4
Politics and Religion
Perhaps the “quiet Beatle” had missed the point. Not only had American religious broadcasters rushed in with their programming – from The Lutheran Hour to the Seventh day Adventist’s Voice of Prophecy – but concerns were being raised in parliament about the political nature of the matters being discussed along the blue yonder.5 Though there was never direct evidence in Hansard, the official record of British Parliamentary Debates, the indirect evidence is compelling that Garner Ted Armstrong may have been a particular thorn in the flesh. A December, 1966 Good News article by Charles Hunting, then Business Manager for the RCG’s United Kingdom operation, reported on the tug of war between the pirate ships and Her Majesty’s government, with “The World Tomorrow” often caught in the middle. “The Last Battle for Britain” was the hyperbolic, but not unreasonable in terms of broadcasting, title. Charles Hunting’s centerpiece was a quote from an editorial appearing in The Guardian, one of Britain’s most prestigious dailies. The writer may have got to the nub of the issue:
One reason why the Government got shifting over radio pirates was the threat of new pirate stations pouring out political polemic instead of perpetual pop. That seems to have been forestalled, but MPs are starting to take an interest in the pronouncements of one Garner Ted Armstrong, an American evangelist… who brings “news of the World Tomorrow.” News mostly about fundamentalist religion, but news too of political trends. One recent broadcast said that Britain was about to scuttle out of Gibraltar as a result of American pressure.6
Ouch! Ted was never averse to treading on Whitehall’s toes. In some ways as a red-blooded banjo-playing American he reveled in twisting the lion’s tail. Slightly up-tight Britain was never his favorite place to visit, though he admired the stalwart British character. So it came to pass that he was pleasantly surprised and bemused to hear his own voice coming out of several car radios one evening in the middle of Picadilly Circus. Interestingly, Dr. Scott Lupo, presenting on the Armstrongs at academic conferences in England in the 1990’s, found former British listeners turned academics remembering The Plain Truth’s dire warnings against the Common Market evolving into a future danger for Britain.7 Diverse audiences decode diversely. Broadcast scholar Eric Gilder even suggests on his web site that the Armstrongs received funding from the CIA in order to keep Britain out of Europe and safely pro-American. This is certainly untrue but…in popular culture decodings take place on multiple levels.8 In the event, typical British suspicion of Americans definitely affected the way GTA’s message was being received.
Ted’s days as “Captain Outrageous” in well-targeted Britain would be numbered but not before substantial inroads had been made into British thinking-man’s culture. The faceless bureaucrats across the Channel did make a tempting target for red-blooded Brits fearful of becoming perpetual Little Englanders in Europe’s shadow. The result? Guardian editors in sympathy with an irritating American orator – good heavens!
Thus tweaked, the British lion turned this challenge from the ether into a minor comic opera of sorts. The BBC’s supporters in parliament tried to turn the screws:
April 27, 1967: M.P Mr. Faulds asked the Secretary of State: “Will he amend the ‘Representation of the People Acts’ to give him power to proceed against persons who broadcast political propaganda from illegal radio stations.” Answer: “The Postmaster General has already done so.”
May 11, 1967: Faulds was back: “This is the first time that this country has been subjected to a stream of misleading propaganda from outside our territorial waters. I do not think that this is a matter for jokes.”
June 1, 1967: Sir C. Osborne counters: “Why should pirate radio stations be denied free speech on political matters?”9
Official harassment began. The Government Post Office (GPO) cut off Caroline’s ship-to-shore telephone. The Foreign Office lodged a protest with the government of Panama, where the Caroline was registered. The Times was suitably indignant. M.P.s fulminated. British audiences, however, were distinctly unamused. They rallied to the pirates from the beginning, especially the youth. “Within weeks,” wrote Booker, “a Gallup Poll provided the evidence – the Caroline was already rivaling Radio Luxembourg in popularity with around 7 million radio listeners.” Radio Caroline spawned a host of imitators – Radio 270, Radio Scotland, Radio 370, and five others. Roger Lippross, now a California resident after serving as the church’s publishing representative, was enchanted. He had remembered the distinctive Armstrong voice from Radio Luxemburg in the 1950’s when his father had forced him to burn RCG (Radio Church of God) booklets and other “American propaganda.” Now Radio Caroline North beamed into his home between Blackpool and Liverpool and the young pre-press expert was hooked.
Today he looks back and reminds us: “It was actually illegal to be listening to pirate radio!”
The struggling Radio Church of God in Britain was quick to eye this strategic opportunity. With the appearance of off-shore radio, Ambassador College executives in England could dream of saturating the British Isles with “The World Tomorrow.” A fascinating spin-off is the fact that for all the Armstrong media dominance in the United States and Canada, some of the most insightful appraisals as to their impact on 1960’s culture would come from irreligious, slightly-jaded Great Britain. Great Britain – where radio broadcasting was state-controlled even down to the 1980’s.
How did it happen?
Charles Hunting’s article traced it to the chance meeting of two old friends on a London street in late 1964. One of them was the advertising representative for “The World Tomorrow” in England. His friend was selling radio time on a new radio station due to soon start broadcasting off shore. The Good News reported:
A hurried conference was arranged with the station manager and Mr. Herbert Armstrong flew in from the United States. It was a difficult and tense situation! Although The World Tomorrow was one of the world’s largest buyers of radio time…a very sensitive situation developed. The station wanted to get away from the staid, rather dreary broadcasting format that was the normal bill of fare for British listeners. They wanted to project a new radio image – alive, fast-moving, totally musical-type programming. Talking programs were “out!” Educational-type programs were “out!” Religious programs were totally unacceptable!10
But HWA with his blood well up was hard to refuse, as Charles Hunting reported. “After two conferences with Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong and four-and-a-half hours of conversation, they were ‘in’ and probably the most costly single commercial radio contract in history was signed. Now, all stations have accepted The World Tomorrow program.” This was not an exaggeration. Robert Chapman and other sources mention “The World Tomorrow” and “Herbert W. Armstrong’s Radio Church of God” as the largest advertiser on the pirate ships.11 Edward Smith’s detailed notes of Bricket Wood Bible Studies and Church Services are eloquent on that score. Church leaders of that era were worried about cost overruns, as much of the money was coming from the United States churches.12 The Pirate Ship venture was proving expensive but, just as in America, the radio broadcast was a tremendous boon to the Work in Britain. Charles Hunting measured the sweep of that dramatic surge. “Just twenty short months ago [writing in 1966] there was no broadcasting of the World Tomorrow in England, and no possible hope of any,” he intoned,” Today, with the exception of a very few areas, the entire nation has access to the program.”
Throughout 1965 and 1966 responses to the pirate ships dramatically pushed the WCG’s work ahead in Britain. The Bricket Wood office received about 135,000 letters in 1965 alone. This meant the addition of some 53,000 people to The Plain Truth mailing list – the church’s life blood. The 1966 Envoy reported that British Mail staggered away with sixty-five tons of PT subscriptions! By the end of 1965 there had emerged a total of nine WCG churches across the British Isles, servicing some 900 people. Festival attendance figures were always a primary index of church growth. It was thus exhilarating to report that Britain’s festival attendance zoomed from 1532 in 1965 to 3350 in 1972. As early as the June, 1965 Plain Truth editor Herman Hoeh was suitably ecstatic if a little hyperbolic about potential audience:
From the estuary of the Thames River “The World Tomorrow” can now be heard on Radio London by millions all over southern England at 8 o’clock in the evening. It booms in over London as a local station. And from the Irish Sea, Radio Caroline North beams the gospel over the British Isles daily at the same time – 8 p.m. Never in all history has there been anything like it. The potential listening audience of these two superpower stations broadcasting from ships at sea, is a condensed, concentrated 55 million people! The British Isles are, in area, only about the size of the southern half of California…yet more than 55,000,000 people are condensed in that little area.13
By 1967, the growth of the British churches, fueled by the phenomenon of nationwide broadcasting, was impressive. Even more encouraging was the obvious impact of the radio program on the British Isles as a whole. Even faster than in the United States, Garner Ted Armstrong became virtually a household name almost overnight. Charles Hunting’s December, 1966 Good News report recorded a high-profile evaluation of “The World Tomorrow” from a leading medical journal. A letter to the editor penned in elegant style the listener’s pique at the seemingly indecent haste of the British Postmaster General (PMG) to ban the pirate ships:
The sudden urgency on the part of the PMG to ban “pirate” radio stations interests me. Is it because of the threat of an extra recruit allegedly about to broadcast political propaganda?…A type of propaganda is already being broadcast from private radios. Every day a remarkably attractive and compelling American orator, one Garner Ted Armstrong, puts over some extraordinarily healthy views to millions of listeners. His “plain truth” doctrine, under the generic title The World Tomorrow, always delivered with rare humor and sincerity, contains material which may well vex certain MPs [Members of Parliament] of all parties.
“Rare humor and sincerity” – a telling phrase. Garner Ted’s dramatic flair and yen for rhetorical “cut and thrust” could be quite appealing to the British temperament, American accent and all! “Heavy irony is always appreciated more in England than America,” says Roger Lippross “and Ted was almost fatally addicted to good sarcasm.” Some of his irreverent one-liners – “You could get yourself killed in a peace march,” “We can destroy the world fifty times over when once would be quite enough,” “What’s Lent? Something that sticks in your navel?” – took on legs. More highbrow listeners enjoyed the RCG’s tweaking of the accepted liberal myths of the 1960’s. That was one level. On another, worried Anglican parishioners could enjoy Ted’s witty sallies against evolution. Scoffing at evolution was particularly controversial in England, the home of Charles Darwin. Ted’s verbal Molotov cocktails were embedded even in the booklet titles he advertised over the air – the irresistible “A Theory for the Birds,” “Some Fishy Stories.” Then he would pause dramatically as a staged afterthought: “I think they call it evil-ution in England.” Or he might ask coyly: “Is it significant that the most popular idea for the origin of the universe is described as a huge cloud of gas?”
Rare humor had always been a Ted Armstrong stock in trade. But what were those “extraordinarily healthy views”? This phrase underscores just how much of a “broad text” of the popular culture the Armstrong radio insurgency had become. The upscale British listener continued his analysis:
For example, he advocates proper and reasonable discipline for children; deplores the “new morality;” is saddened by Britain’s decline as a world power; does not care for “weirdoes;” assaults sentimental Christianity as being against Bible teaching; is horrified by Britain’s obsession with gambling; considers that granting independence to unready countries is a mistake – and so on. Is this the real reason for the new drive to stop that voice as well as less attractive sounds?14
There was even subdued comedy “in house.” Herbert Armstrong with his dander up was often entertaining to watch, especially if you were well out of range. He decoded the controversy in an altogether different way. His Midwestern law and order proclivities were outraged at the mention of the phrase “pirate ships.” Pirate ships? “Pirate ships?” HWA was always ready to fulminate on the subject even years later: “They were not pirate ships!” he would protest to no-one in particular. Years later in the USBC booklet he was still settling scores. “They were not illegal! They violated no law of man,” he wrote. “But the British authorities called them ‘pirate’ ships. They were not pirates. They were not marauders…They harmed no one. But most governments of man would like to control what their people hear or do not hear.” As was not unusual, HWA’s hearers would glance down politely at the floor to hide slightly concealed smiles. In some ways this predictable Amstrong pique at Whitehall and its ways would be a rhetorical dress rehearsal for the far greater strife with the state of California in the next decade. In 1967, however, the British government was indeed able to bring pressure to bear to squelch the offshore broadcasting in the form of the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act, to go into effect August 14, 1967. This was not, it turned out, a happy moment for the British churches. But for a while the Armstrong radio onslaught had thrown sedate Britain for a loop.
A Frenetic Summer
The implementation of the Marine Offenses Bill effectively ended the Worldwide Church of God’s radio insurgency in the British Isles. Bricket Wood Bible Studies and Sabbath services were replete with updates on this last-ditch “Battle for Britain” as the intensely mission-driven WCG put it. Elder Ed Smith’s detailed notes from the messages delivered to the headquarters congregation give some of the flavor of that frenetic summer with Pirate Ships, the Six Day War, WCG expansion into the Middle East and “end-time fever” all jumping around in the hopper:
May 5, 1967 – Good comments about HWA’s broadcast about sex. Many letters from teenagers. John Butterfield (head of Ambassador College Press) visited a printing seminar and spoke to groups of young people who had heard “The World Tomorrow” broadcast. An amendment is under way in parliament to suspend the Marine Offences Bill until BBC offers some suitable replacement. Radio Caroline vows to carry on regardless (Charles Hunting).
May 6, 1967 – Our new office being furnished in Jerusalem. The Marine Offences Bill to be raised in the House of Lords on Monday for its third reading before it goes back to the House of Commons to become law (Ronald Dart).
May 12, 1967 – Last night the first “World Tomorrow” television program broadcasted since 1955 – in USA on Channel 22; meanwhile new mail from radio ships up to 892 letters this week – third highest total ever. Radio London has the best reception; Radio Scotland heard in Glasgow… and coming through loud and clear (Charles Hunting).
May 20, 1967 – John Jewell, Mail Receiving Department head, will be going to Nicosia to assist in establishing a new office in Cyprus (Raymond McNair).
May 26, 1967 – Now nearly six weeks since Mrs. Armstrong died. New mail from radio ships now reached 897 letters this week. Only Radio 390 broadcasts once a day – all other ships twice daily (Raymond McNair).
May 27, 1967 – Middle East situation could blow up very soon, foul up God’s Work there. Remember Radio 390 and the ship situation in prayers (Raymond McNair).
June 2, 1967 – This week in U.K. the new mail from radio ships was above 1000 letters – the second highest response. Breakdown was: Radio London, 253 letters; Radio Caroline, 225; Radio 355, 190; Radio 390, 189, etc. There are only a few years left. Time has come for Israelis to take over the Temple site (Raymond McNair).
June 3, 1967 – Exciting news: entire Bricket Wood Chorale (the college choir) to be sent to Pasadena next January. Troubled situation in the Middle East – our advertising man, Milt Scott, has backed out; Stanley Rader also. We have perhaps four and a half years to go (before January, 1972); this world reeling in its corruption won’t be here in ten years; London won’t be here unless saved by God’s mercy (Herbert Armstrong).
June 10, 1967 – HWA has received many letters about Mrs. Loma Armstrong’s good example; Israelis will be building a temple very soon; perhaps only four more Ambassador graduations to go (Hebert Armstrong).
June 16, 1967 – Ship stations being allowed to carry on until BBC introduces a replacement; God had TV, radio and the press invented for the use of his church and no other purpose; God has warned the people through HWA and GTA (Hebert Armstrong).
June 23, 1967 – GTA in Texas; wife Shirley just had a still birth with normal labor but lost this little girl at five and a half months; they had hoped for a little daughter. HWA conferred today with Jordanian government representative Adli Muhktadi – “World Tomorrow” will now begin on Amman radio on July 1 (short wave and medium wave); HWA fells sympathy for King Hussein and the Jordanians; every penny they receive (from WCG) will be allocated to help Palestinian refugees; Jordanians look with favor on the Work of God (Herbert Armstrong).
July 1, 1967 – Pray for situation in Palestine; our broadcast due today on radio Amman; don’t get careless because of the Postmaster General’s latest dictum – a reprieve from banning the ship stations till September (Raymond McNair).
July 7, 1967 – The WCG’s broadcast named in the Sunday Sun newspaper; the article suggested that religion could save the North Sea radio pirates since their people could survive on “Church of God” revenues; “The World Tomorrow” has been the big financial backing behind these ships (John Portune).
July 15, 1967 – The ship stations due to be thrown off the air on August 15; all expect to end their transmissions by midnight, August 14. God can continue to hear our prayers and keep these stations open. Two new offices now established (Cyprus and Jerusalem); pray for safety of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Dick and family; new office opening in Mexico City.
July 22, 1967 – Mr. Robert Boraker (Letter Answering Department, U.K.) back from seven months in Pasadena; speaks on crisis of Mrs. Armstrong’s sickness yet Mr. Armstrong very concerned about Mrs. Boraker’s health battles; Mr. Armstrong very lonesome in the evenings without his wife; a call for a further church day of fasting (re. pirate ship legislation) this week (Robert Boraker).
July 28, 1967 – Radio 390 off the air for good; their last message goes out tonight at 5:10 PM, closing with the national anthem; Radio London is also through; Radio Caroline will be on until August 15; feel a sense of loss as a part of the Work is shut down (Charles Hunting).15
A Bang Not a Whimper
The WCG’s pirate ship venture expired in fighting style. Edward Smith was in Belfast for the Sabbath of August 5, 1967 to hear local pastor James Wells report that Radio Manx on the Isle of Man will keep broadcasting. The next week, in Glasgow church, pastor Colin Adair passed on the news that the previous week was a record week for mail in the WCG’s British operation. People sough frantically to receive a Plain Truth subscription before the doors closed and 1119 of them wrote to the Bricket Wood office. The official tally went as follows:
Radio 355 – 367 letters
Radio London – 282 letters
Radio Caroline – 271 letters
Radio Scotland – 97 letters
Radio 270 – 63 letters
Radio 390 – 32 letters
Radio Manx – 6 letters
“People are hoping for an alternative to the pirate ships,“ Colin Adair commented to his congregation. “They will feel lost without the broadcast. People are very sorry at the loss of the stations. They are pleading for us to stay on.” The next week at the weekly Bricket Wood Bible Study, Raymond McNair cited a London Daily Mail headline, “Ban Silences Radio God,” a direct slap at “The World Tomorrow.” This echoed the previous week’s article in the London Observer referencing the “Pirate Radio Church of God.” As had and would occur in the United States, Herbert Armstrong’s media efforts were often underscored in counterpoint. Nevertheless, the Daily Mail and the Observer were respected British institutions. In their apparent glee at the Armstrong’s demise they were perhaps pointing up the impact the church was having in those tumultuous years. Meanwhile, one Letter to the Editor in the Daily Mail, lamenting the broadcast’s disappearance was headlined: “Final Link With Sanity Has Been Broken.”
Echoes of the pirate ship insurgency did remain, even four decades later. On September 28, 2003, a tongue-in-cheek obituary in the London Sunday Times satirized a BBC Radio 4 report announcing the passing of “one of religion’s best-known and best-loved voices.” Writer Paul Donovan asked: “What? Was Radio 4 going to say something nice about Garner Ted Armstrong, the American evangelist who believed Anglo-Saxons were one of the lost tribes of Israel and whose apocalyptic sermons on ‘The World Tomorrow’ went out for years on the North Sea pirate ships and another 300 stations worldwide?” The answer was, as expected, in the negative but a reflection, nevertheless, of one writer’s cultural memory. The February 5, 2005 Liverpool Echo Flashback, taking a look back at popular radio’s history of abundant variety, opined: “Religion was not forgotten either. At 11:30 P.M. each night the strident voice of American evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong would ring out telling us he was ‘bringing Christ to the nations.’”
Popular culture artifacts sometimes achieve a kind of lasting notoriety, as the fascination over Elvis Presley attests. As broadcasters, the Armstrongs were, in their way, unforgettable. The pirate ship era is remembered in WCG (now GCI) folk memory as one of the seminal periods of church growth in Great Britain. The ghost of the pirate ships themselves still haunt the air waves through the continuing adventures of Radio Caroline and the teasing suggestion on pirate web sites that the Labour Party’s defeat in the 1970 U.K. election could be traced to the loss of precious 18-year-old votes. These new teen voters chose to protest their government’s shut-down of one of the symbols of the Swinging Sixties. “God moves in mysterious ways” the British poet Edward Cowper had written. Thus, even in 1967, Charles Hunting could be philosophical about it all. As the WCG (U.K.) CFO he mentioned in the August 25 Bricket Wood Bible Study that the bill for the radio broadcasts in just one month came in at $65,000 – “a considerable sum: in Edward Smith’s phrase for the Britain of 1967. But one the church was more than willing to pay at the time.
(ED. – Excerpted from an unpublished manuscript “Blow the Dust Off Your Bible: Herbert Armstrong and American Popular Religion” by Neil Earle.)
1 “Radio Caroline,” Wikipeida.org/wiki/Radio_Caroline (5/3/2007)
2 “Wonderful Radio London,” Wikepdia.org/Wonderful_Radio_London (5/4/2007)
3 Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs, page 236.
4 George Harrison quoted in “Disc” magazine, Ray Coleman interview, August 6, 1966.
5 Robert Chapman, Selling the sixties: the pirates and pop music radio (London: Routledge, 1992), page 189.
6 Charles F. Hunting, “The Last Battle for Britain,” The Good News (December, 1966), pages 8, 21.
7 Scott Lupow, personal communication, January, 2006. The teaching of a United Europe as allegedly foreshadowed in Revelation 17 and becoming the instrument of Britain’s demise was an Armstrong standard.
8 Eugene Michel, the WCG’s “Mr. Accounting” for many years, cheerfully dismisses this suggestion as he does the theories of support from Howard Hughes or H.L. Hunt (personal interview, May 8, 2007).
9 Hansard, General Index, Sessions 1966-67 (April 18, 1966-October 27, 1967).
10 Charles Hunting, The Good News (December, 1966), pages 8, 21. Most WCG details flow from this article.
12 Edward Smith, private communication, October 26, 2006.
13 Herman L. Hoeh, “And Now ‘The World Tomorrow’ Broadcast Blankets British Isles,” The Plain Truth (June, 1965), page 23.
14 Charles Hunting, page 21.
15 Edward Smith, personal communication, October 26, 2006. WCG (U.K.) quotes that follow from here.