Jill Wallace and Gabi Bolton, from the BBC
station, gave a most interesting talk on Caversham Park to the May meeting of the Wargrave Local History Society.
Jill began telling us that they were not 'the spies on the hill', but exist to monitor broadcasts in the public domain from overseas. Reading had had the 3'B's - beer, bulbs and biscuits - and now has the BBC - in the large mansion visible from the A4/A329 or the railway line.
She then told us of the history of the house. The estate is mentioned in the Domesday survey - Walter Gifford, one of the commissioners for the survey, having bought the 2400 acres for £20. It had a lot of trees and was used as a huge hunting park. In the 12th century, the Earl of Pembroke, an adviser to Richard the Lionheart, owned the estate, but in the 15th century it reverted to the Crown. The Knollys family bought it in 1542, being granted the manor outright, and they had the first grand house built there, although this was much nearer to the Thames than the present one. Lord Craven then bought the estate in the 17th century for £10,000. He was a Royalist - and said to have married Charles I's sister. During the Civil War, however, Caversham was the scene of conflict, and after the Parliamentarians won, Charles I was held prisoner at Caversham Park. In 1647, he wrote to his children to visit him there - which they did - the last time they saw him before his execution. After the Civil War, the estate was returned to Lord Craven. He restored the mansion (which had fallen to a state of disrepair) and by 1669 it was the 6th largest house in Oxfordshire. In 1718, William Cadogan bought the Park, and the grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown - in the process removing many of the trees between the house and the river. Thomas Jefferson visited the house in 1786 - by which time it belonged to Charles Marsack, who had 'made his money' with the East India Co. By the mid 19th century, it had changed hands again - to William Crawshay, the 'iron king' of Merthyr Tydfil. A disastrous fire in 1850 led to a rebuilding - unusually on an iron frame - with Ionic columns along the frontage (Crawshay had insured all of the estate except the house). In 1920, the house was sold, (a young Arthur Negus preparing the auction catalogue) and became home to the Oratory School, but there was another major fire in 1926 (the iron frame preventing complete destruction!). It was restored, and the school remained until 1939, when it was requisitioned by the government, and then sold to the BBC for its Monitoring Service in 1941.
Gabi then told us that an embryonic Monitoring Service had been set up by the BBC in the late 1930s, at Evesham. They moved to the larger premises of Caversham Park in April 1943, with the old orangery becoming the 'listening room'. Broadcasts received from abroad were transcribed for the Ministry of Information. Many of the staff came from BBC World Service (which had been set up in 1932), whilst others were émigrés. It was never a clandestine operation, but monitors 'open source material'.. In due course, the Ministry of Information became part of the Foreign Office, who together with the BBC World Service, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Intelligence Agencies, are the stakeholder customers who fund the service (it is not paid for by the 'licence fee').
In the early days, the staff listened on headphones to signals picked up at Crowsley Park, and typed transcriptions on clumsy old typewriters. Until the 1990s, the daily product was a compilation of what had been heard on the day, despatched as 'paper copy' to 'customers' overnight. A new listening room came into use in the early 1990s, and sources now include internet and satellite signals, as well as from Crowsley Park. They monitor all forms of foreign open media, and can interpret and later analyse what is heard or seen, through an understanding of the politics of the country. It is sometimes important to note which items are deliberately not reported by a broadcaster to their 'target audience'. The work at Caversham is helped by offices in Baku, Cairo, Kiev, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi and Tashkent.
Gabi then led us through the kind of material they might produce before, during and after a major news event - using the declaration of independence of Kosovo in February as an example.