Les Warth Remembered

An appreciation of Hospital Radio Reading’s founder, first Chairman and Honorary President

Captain L H Warth M.B.E. (T.D.)

By Gerard Rocks

We volunteers at Hospital Radio Reading saw in the new year under something of a cloud as January 2016 brought the sad news that the station’s founder, former Chairman and Honorary President, Les Warth, had passed away in Suffolk, aged 97, following a stroke.    

Leslie Harold Warth was born in Reading in 1918 and began his working life on the Great Western Railway. In 1939 he married Marjorie Hemy and they enjoyed an impressive 76 years of married life together, interrupted only (but almost immediately) by the outbreak of World War II. Called up for wartime service in the Royal Artillery, he saw action in North Africa and Italy and, while spending some considerable time in Naples in 1943, made his first venture into the world of entertainment, arranging shows for the troops in the Naples Opera House, where he met some of the great opera stars of the day.

Upon demobilisation and his return to Reading, Les worked as a travelling sales rep for Durazone, a local company making cleaning products and aerosol sprays before joining Conquest Products, a small company manufacturing leather goods such as wallets, purses, bags and school satchels, in its workshops on St Johns Hill, Reading. Initially a sales rep, as before, he eventually became a director of the company. He also retained a connection with the military through his heavy involvement with the Territorial Army, based at Artillery House in Tilehurst Road. Promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant in 1951 and from there to Captain in 1956, his devoted service to the TA led to him being awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1958 and the Territorial Efficiency Medal in 1963. He retired from the TA in April 1967, retaining the rank of Captain.

As a lifelong supporter of Reading F.C. Les found himself suffering withdrawal symptoms during a spell in Oxford’s Nuffield Infirmary in 1954 and longing for something to relieve the monotony of a hospital stay. As he later wrote “I came to thinking wouldn’t it be great if I could listen to something local. True, we could listen to the BBC but that didn’t satisfy me” and thus the idea of launching what was to become Hospital Radio Reading was born.  Les used his influence and army connections to borrow a number of wireless sets with built-in loudspeakers and, after touring around local hospitals on a Saturday morning (initially Battle, Blagrave, Peppard and Prospect Park) to set up the receivers in selected wards, and from a borrowed army transmitter (a B44 set placed beside the touchline), he would relay commentaries from the Elm Park stand  on the Royals’ home games to the patients before on Sunday retracing his steps to collect the sets back in again, often helped by his two sons. So it was that the Reading Hospital Broadcasting Service, soon to be known as Hospital Radio Reading, commenced transmissions on September 7th, 1957 with a commentary on Reading FC’s 3-0 victory over Aldershot at Elm Park by Les himself and a fellow Reading resident, BBC radio commentator Maurice Edleston.  

The football club soon allowed Les to build a small studio in the stand for his commentaries and after three years of persistence on his part  the Hospital Management Committee gave HRR access to the patients' receivers via a hardwire system emanating from the ‘master’ radio within each hospital. These hospitals would be linked by GPO lines to create a network, thus widening the scope of reception to encompass practically every patient in Reading and not just the relatively small number within earshot of the army receivers. Les recruited five other like-minded individuals to help him and in 1961, premises were acquired for the storage of equipment – the basement of the Reading Standard offices (a weekly newspaper that became the Evening Post) in London Street, where the Great Expectations bar now stands. On October 20th, Reading played Crystal Palace and HRR broadcast over a network of telephone lines linking into the hospital transmission system for the first time.
 

Reading’s first local radio station was well and truly up and running when, in 1962, the first Request Show was broadcast, lasting for thirty minutes every Sunday morning.  Les was a man who made friends easily with his warm and kindly manner and soon became widely known and respected throughout the Reading business fraternity. He made judicious use of his business connections and his powers of persuasion : thus the Reading Standard provided not only accommodation but also printed “request slips” for the Sunday morning programme and, in the days before a record library could be put together, the vinyl played was borrowed from town centre music store Hickie & Hickie. Over the years broadcasting hours steadily increased to five and, in the 1970s, seven days per week, as many as 7 local hospitals, large and small, and convalescent homes were at one point linked together in the GPO wired network and Les negotiated and supervised two successive moves to larger studio premises (under the Elm Park football terrace and, finally, in the grounds of the Battle Hospital). As well as recruiting and supervising the new volunteers on the expanding station, Les used his efforts to put together a Board of Vice-Presidents - hospital managers, local businessmen and other benefactors - to provide moral, practical or financial support. He worked tirelessly, periodically calling on these people personally to keep them involved and informed.

One of Les’s favourite pastimes was caravanning and in the late 1970s he was even able to put this to good use in promoting the hospital radio service. A donated public address system, from the Reading Standard, and the acquisition of a second-hand caravan enabled him to create an outside broadcast service, raising funds for the station by providing a presence, usually with commentary and announcements, at local functions such as the Reading Show, the Half-Marathon and a variety of fêtes and fun days. Invariably it would be Les himself towing the caravan to and from the various locations – he was, after all, one of the few HRR volunteers with a tow-bar!

Music was, of course, another passion and, whilst remaining at the core of the football commentary team, Les also entertained the patients with retrospective music programmes on Friday evenings, looking back to the era of swing and the big bands - and even for a while playing vintage 78s. He also interviewed a number of celebrities of the time, including Kathy Kirby , Val Doonican and  Herb Miller, brother of his great musical hero, Glenn Miller. The big bands were a particular love of his and even into their eighties he and Marjorie regularly attended conventions of “Toddlers”, devotees of Todd Miller and the Joe Loss Band, in Norfolk

As radio in general, and local radio in particular, expanded in the 1970s, increasing numbers of potential new recruits beat a path to the studio door seeking “a career in radio”. But as he conducted their membership interviews Les developed an enviable ability to weed out the “wannabe DJs” in favour of those whose motivation for joining was genuine service to the patients on the station which he dubbed “the station that cares” – a motto which endures to this day. 

After nearly forty years at the helm of the organisation, Les retired to Suffolk in 1996 and was appointed Honorary President. There he became a trustee of the League of Friends of Southwold Hospital but retained an active interest in the activities of Hospital Radio Reading, regularly telephoning his successors as Chairman for news of his “baby”. He suffered a stroke on New Year’s Day and passed away in hospital on January 5th, just six weeks after his wife Marjorie. He leaves two sons, Michael and Terry, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. 

Les often claimed that he never imagined back in 1957 that his brainchild would grow to such proportions over the years (and, indeed, he was fulsome in his praise for the volunteers past and present who had contributed to its development). However, it cannot be denied that the station’s continuing growth and success were largely down to its solid foundation, to his vision, his persistence and his tireless energy over so many years and to the example he set to generations of new volunteers, from whom “he received instant respect without ever even having to raise his voice” as one of them put it. His gentle, kindly, avuncular style made him a father-figure to many of us and even honorary “uncle” to some of our children. 

Hospital radio has evolved so much these past few years in the technical sense that, with computerised programming and a 24 hour schedule, Les might have had difficulty nowadays in recognising the station that he founded almost sixty years ago. But our core values, which he instilled in those of us he recruited, have not changed - service to the patients and the importance of ward visiting :  hence our patients’ “Record Requests” programmes which have not only continued but expanded to over twenty hours per week. It was the late Sir Terry Wogan who, when once asked how many people he broadcast to on Radio 2, famously replied “Only the one” but that attitude was also at the heart of Les’s broadcasting philosophy and inspires the intimate, personal and interactive service that Hospital Radio Reading still aims to provide as “the station that cares”. The HRR we know today is his legacy and, as we continue to serve our listeners in the Royal Berkshire Hospital, we shall constantly strive to do him proud.