Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘Remember those lockdown services where the minister would be the only one in church? This was the opposite.’
Paul Kerensa on the first church broadcast
It’s a big year for anniversaries. The URC celebrates its fiftieth this autumn, soon before the BBC turns one hundred.
2022 marks the centenary of not just Auntie Beeb, but British broadcasting as a whole. Before broadcasting went official in November 1922, Britain had nine months of pre-BBC radio, including the first radio quiz (£5 cash prize), the first radio drama (a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac – the one that’s in the dark) and the first religious broadcast, generally reported as Christmas 1922.
The Revd John Mayo of Whitechapel preached on the BBC’s London 2LO station: ‘It is my privilege through the wizardry of Mr Marconi to speak, as I understand, to many thousands of people. Surely no man has ever proclaimed the Gospel from such an extraordinary pulpit as I am now occupying.’
Well one man had, five months earlier: Dr James Ebenezer Boon, 55-year-old medical doctor, preacher and radio ham.
I was made aware of him by a pal who, like me, religiously broadcasts today. Art historian Dr Jim Harris and myself both ‘Pause for Thought’ on Radio 2 Breakfast Show, 2022’s equivalent of the Revd John Mayo’s ‘extraordinary pulpit’ (where bizarrely our boss is producer Jonathan Mayo – no relation).
Dr Jim was out for a cycle ride and passed a Peckham church with a plaque:
‘On 30 July 1922 Dr James Ebenezer Boon broadcast the first sermon by radio in Britain to the congregation in this Church.’
I’ve been interested in radio history for a while. I run a podcast on the early BBC, I’m writing a novel about it, and I’m touring a show recreating the first broadcast. But I’d never heard of Dr Boon; neither has most of the history books. So when Jim sent me a photo of the plaque, he also sent me down a rabbit hole of research. Who was this first radio reverend, a century ago this summer?
Boon, it turns out, was inspired by Marconi’s big radio demonstration, ‘The Miracle of Broadcasting’, in Peckham in June 1922. If they could send music from central London to a Peckham hall, why couldn’t he do the same in church?
He applied for a broadcast licence, but was turned down (the airwaves were getting full). So he contacted Burndept, a wireless manufacturer five miles away in Blackheath. A plan was hatched. He’d broadcast an entire Sunday service remotely: congregation present, minister absent. Remember those lockdown services where the minister would be the only one in church, livestreaming via Youtube into our homes? This was the opposite.
He wired up Christ Church Evangelical with a three-valve receiver inside and an aerial on the roof attached to two clothes props. On Sunday 30th July 1922, the congregation arrived – but he didn’t. The service consisted of the ghostly crackle of Dr Boon in Blackheath, gramophone record hymns and a broadcast sermon. Most present had never heard radio before.
Boon addressed ‘listeners in the north, south, east and west of England’, because listeners weren’t confined to church. Letters of appreciation came from all points of the compass, mostly around London. For the first time Boon had put the ‘mission’ into ‘transmission’, wirelessly sending God into people’s homes.
(I should add, I’m not sure if there’s an ecclesiastical law that requires a minister present for a service. So church leaders: don’t get ideas about having a lie-in and phoning it in.)
In this centenary year, I’m appreciating how tech helps reach beyond our four walls, meeting people where they are. We’ve certainly benefited from that over the past few years.
On behalf of Harry Secombe, Pam Rhodes, Aled Jones, and a thousand others, thank you Dr Boon – and here’s to the next century of broadcasting blessings.
Paul Kerensa is a comedian. See paulkerensa.com/oldradio for more on his podcast (The British Broadcasting Century), live tour (The First Broadcast), and forthcoming novel (Auntie and Uncles).
This article was published in the September 2022 edition of Reform