Newsletter 2012

The Bill Waters Collection

This article uses material drawn from reports on the ‘This is Cornwall’ and ‘This is Essex’ websites, and from the descriptive handouts written by Geoff Lovegrove of the Friends of Chelmsford Museums for displays at the Chelmsford Industrial Museum at Sandford Mill.

Lord Petre, in his address to the annual Veterans reunion (see page 14) made reference to the then very recent Waters Collection bequest to Chelmsford. Bill Waters, a retired marine radio officer of Pendeen, in Cornwall, amassed over a number of years a very large collection of Marconi marine radio equipment, manufactured in Chelmsford from the 1900s to the 1940s, and built it up into a number of ships’ radio room displays in a barn at his home. In what was for us a fantastic piece of news this collection was bequeathed shortly before his death last year to the county town’s museums. Two displays, dating from the 1900s and the 1920s have already been installed at the Industrial Museum at Sandford Mill. Further displays featuring 1930s and 40s installations are in the process of being set up there.

Bill Waters lived at Pendeen and started to take an interest in ships’ radios as a young boy, when he would use a Morse set to hail passing ships. This turned into a lifelong passion and he became a marine radio operator in the Merchant Navy. During the Second World War he served as a Royal Navy radio operator and was involved in communications for the D-Day landings. Coming ashore after further sea-going service with International Marine Radio in the post-war years, he worked as a radio officer until his eventual retirement at the GPO Land’s End radio station.

He converted the barn at his home in Pendeen into a nautical-style lookout tower, decked out inside as a replica of a ship’s radio room to house his increasing collection. It included a recreation of the Titanic’s radio room using genuine 1912 equipment. This collection was bequeathed to the Chelmsford museums just months before he died in Cornwall in April 2011. The bequest came about as the result of a four-year working partnership resulting in a 50-year friendship with General Post Office marine engineer Frank Kelly, 84, who came to live in Chelmsford in 1964. Frank recalled that he and Bill worked with Marconi equipment at the Land’s End station in St Just back in 1960 for four years. He then moved to the Port of London with the Post Office in 1964 and lived in Chelmsford from then on.

He and his wife made frequent visits to Cornwall; it was during one of these visits following his wife’s death that Bill expressed concern as what might happen to his collection of historic Marconi equipment made at Chelmsford and dating back to the 1890s. In an off the cuff remark Frank Kelly suggested that there was only one place for it to go, and that was Chelmsford. He agreed immediately and last summer he and Peter Watkins, a former radio operator and retired physics teacher, went to sort it out and ship it here to Chelmsford. Frank Kelly said last April: “Bill was a great character. He used to go to Falmouth when the ships were on the way to the breakers and grab parts at scrap value. He died only a few weeks ago but I know he died a very happy man in the knowledge that he had found a home for his collection.” Peter Turrall expressed his delight at Mr Waters’ gift, and described it as “the best thing to happen on the Marconi front for decades”, as the equipment would shed light for the first time on what Marconi did in Chelmsford in the early 1900s. It also held extra significance for the Veterans since the Marconi Corporation disposed of its archive in 2003. Chelmsford’s Sandford Mill museum’s curator of sciences, Geoff Bowles, said the collection’s historic value was on a par with the Great Baddow collection which was controversially handed over to Oxford University several years ago. “There’s every bit of marine radio equipment you could want, from 1890 into the 1960s,” he said. “The town owes Mr Waters a great debt of gratitude for freely giving us the equipment.” Amen to that.