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Thomas Harold Colebourn

Epithet: MHK, Manx radio and television pioneer (1897-1977)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Harold Colebourn, known as 'Coley' from childhood and, later, as `TH' was born into a family noted for its entrepreneurial flair. His maternal grandfather, the brewer Charles Udall, had developed some of the Island's leading hotels. These included the Villiers in Douglas and the Falcon's Nest and the Eagle at Port Erin. Colebourn's father had manufactured cork bottle tops at Castle Hill, Douglas for his father-in-law's brewery. Colebourn's entrepreneurial instincts, combined with a love of practical jokes, would earn him a reputation for being a go-getter who had no time for bureaucratic restrictions.

When orphaned in his teens, Colebourn was sent to Worksop College, Nottingham. He showed an aptitude then, whilst a Boy Scout, for Morse code. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I he joined the Manx Volunteers, served in France in the Cheshire Regiment, became a signaller, and was involved in early communications between ground and aircraft. On being hit in the face by shrapnel, he lost his left eye, had considerable surgery to his face and was discharged with a 40 per cent disability pension.

Relatives of the Colebourn family in California offered to give Colebourn a start there if he wished to emigrate. However, he became a clerk at Gelling's Foundry, Victoria Street, Douglas. Following experimental wireless transmissions by the BBC in 1923 he built his own transmitter and became the first Manxman to experiment, in January-February 1924, with unlicensed broadcasting in and from the Island. Previous radio transmissions by sets located in the Island had used only Morse code. Later that year, in partnership with a friend, Norman Kermode, Colebourn launched a wireless manufacturing and repair business, initially in Castle Street. This met a perceived need on the Island for more powerful receivers than were being sold generally in Britain. The wireless receiver was known as 'The Cleartone'. To be able to build receivers Colebourn and Kermode had to become shareholders in the BBC. The partnership would last until 1936; thereafter, Colebourn would develop his own business of T.H. Colebourn Ltd.

During World War II Colebourn and his company co-operated with Britain's War Department in the setting up at Ramsey of a secret radio transmitter which received and re-transmitted the signal of Radio Eireann. German bombers were believed to be using the station's signal from Dublin to guide them on their bombing runs over Britain. Bombers which took fixes on the Ramsey signal, believing it to have emanated from Dublin, would follow wrong flight paths

In September 1948 Colebourn and his son Roy equipped and provided, on behalf of the Manx Motor Cycle Club, the first round-the-course public address system for the Manx Grand Prix races. It was the largest system of its kind in the British Isles and was adopted in 1949 by the TT

Colebourn was the first Manxman to receive a regular, and watchable, television signal. A member of his engineering staff, Lewin Thornton, had succeeded in receiving a signal in 1936 during experimental BBC transmission but this was freak reception. Colebourn's son, Roy, and Thornton, had also received signals with experimental equipment in the 1940s but this was on South Barrule. In 1950 Colebourn erected a wooden tower with an aerial at his Ballasalla home and received a faint 'sparkly' signal from Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham. Thereafter he campaigned for the BBC to provide the Island with a booster station. The campaign gained momentum prior to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 when the coronation was to be televised. The BBC refused to provide a transmitter because the Island was low on its list of priorities for equipment which was in short supply. As a result, Colebourn told Tynwald that he would erect a station through one of his companies and provide the Island with a free service for a year if Tynwald could persuade the Postmaster-General to license it. The latter refused but Colebourn went ahead nevertheless, with the assistance of other radio dealers and the unofficial sanction of Tynwald. An illegal 'pirate' booster was erected on Douglas Head. Its operation became known as 'The Battle of the Booster'. It provided excellent black and white pictures of the coronation and pressured a reluctant BBC into establishing an official booster on the headland.

In January 1959 Colebourn stood for the House of Keys at a South Douglas by-election. He failed to be elected but was elected at a by-election in Castletown in 1960. He remained a member for seven years.

For seven years Colebourn had been planning with others a Manx commercial television and radio station which would transmit programmes to Britain. His associates had included the great British film maker, Alexander Korda. At one time they had planned to acquire the BBC's Alexandra Palace for the production of programmes. The plan had not progressed but Colebourn tabled new proposals before Tynwald. These led to the formation by Tynwald of Radio Manx Ltd. and the involvement in it, with Colebourn, of some of Britain's leading media and entertainment personalities. As before, however, Colebourn failed to realise his dream, despite years of negotiations. This was because the UK Government insisted that the transmission strength of any stations in the Isle of Man should be confined to serving Manx audiences only. The final outcome, in 1964, was the awarding of a concession for Britain's first legal local commercial radio station which became known as Manx Radio. Colebourn was a director for a short time and even offered to take it over, but was never happy with the low-powered result. He dreamed always of a station receivable by millions. In 1967 he planned to launch an illegal high power station, Radio Vannin, from a transmitter at Douglas Head but, on discovering that Tynwald did not support him in this, he did not proceed beyond a short test transmission.

A controversial scheme instigated in Tynwald by Colebourn was the erection of a chairlift across Douglas harbour to Douglas Head. His idea was that this would link up with a novelty transport system on the Marine Drive and a new amusement theme park at Port Soderick. Tynwald approved the chairlift but public opposition was such that the necessary funds were never forthcoming at Budget time. It was on the proposition of Colebourn, and using equipment installed by his company, that the House of Keys, Legislative Council and Tynwald introduced official recording of their debates - experimentally, at first, in 1963 and then permanently from the autumn of 1964.

Biography written by Robert Kelly.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.97-9.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 19 December 1897

Date of death: 2 April 1977


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