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We told the world the king was dead

Archive reporters

How would you transform a tiny village in the 1930s into a communications hub to spread breaking news around the world?

With today’s technologies it’s something we would take for granted.

But the recent anniversary of King George V’s death focused attention on the remarkable effort 81 years ago by Post Office engineers to create a global network virtually from scratch.

As the king lay comatose in January 1936 at the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, news teams gathered in nearby Dersingham.

Around 90 journalists, together with telephonists and teleprinter operators, crammed into the hamlet’s Feathers Hotel. The only telephone facilities were a single phone inside a cupboard and a kiosk outside the Post Office.

David Hay (head of heritage and archives, BT) says that Post Office engineers swiftly rose to the challenge of creating a temporary network so journalists could transmit news of the king’s final days. “They worked round the clock by the light of car headlamps and acetylene torches to build circuits and lay four miles of cable.”

Engineers installed four miles of cable across the fields of Norfolk, which was a fantastic achievement. Within hours they had installed six lines at the hotel, and journalists were filing their copy from phones in corridors and teleprinters in the sub-postmistress’s parlour. While the king’s health was declining, daily telegrams on his condition were sent out through our Rugby radio station.

The announcement from Sandringham on 20 January of the king’s death was flashed from Norfolk to every corner of the world in under a second. Journalists crammed into the Feathers Hotel to file copy announcing King George V’s death.