We're standing in a shed in Dulwich. Radios are all we can see. If we turned on every single one, we'd surely go deaf, as the decibels mounted. This is the Vintage Wireless and Television Museum, where old radios dominate every nook and cranny.
This museum isn't like most. It's not on a main road, but rather an extraordinarily ordinary suburban street in Dulwich. In part it doesn't really want to be found. The museum's manager made us promise not to include its address in this article, only the phone number.
You have to wander down said street, then through a side gate past a house and up to a massive shed. Even then, don't just turn up and expect to get in. Things are strictly by appointment only here.
One man's obsession
The museum is the life's work of one Gerry Wells, a radio obsessive. He was a child during the Blitz and used to sneak into abandoned houses and rummage around for bits of electrical equipment. That got him in a little trouble, more than once. But his childhood obsession with all things mechanical — radios especially — continued into adulthood.
Wells spent his days collecting and repairing old radios, something which led him to making an incredibly fortuitous and fruitful acquaintance. One of the richest men in the world, John Paul Getty, turned to Gerry, to help him fix one of the world's first radiograms. Gerry did so and charged Getty his usual rates — about £70 — which shocked the billionaire. He was so wealthy, that no one ever charged him so little for anything. He wanted to know more about the curious fellow who had been so honest with him.
He sent a chauffeur and secretary to go and investigate the museum, who reported back about the universe of radios they had stepped into. Getty decided he needed to help in some way, so he bought some extra land for the museum to build on, and paid for the museum's electricity and gas for the rest of his life. He also visited in person a couple of times — despite his reclusive nature — and Gerry gave him a tour around the museum.
Getty is not the only celeb connected with the museum; British broadcasting legend David Dimbleby is the museum's patron. This quote of his sits on their website:
I am delighted to be a Patron of The British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum. When I visited the museum I was struck by the enthusiasm and knowledge of early broadcast devices kept alive by the members. It is an interesting and enjoyable place preserving an important part of our social history.
Life after death
Wells died in 2014, and for a time following, it was unclear whether the museum would survive. His home — the house that sits in front of the shed — contained most of the radios. That house became flats and went up for sale, meaning the vintage equipment needed evacuating to the sheds (that's right, there are multiple sheds). But even they didn't hold enough space. Lots of the radios were put up for sale, though not all were so fortunate, instead ending up at the nearby dump.
The team seem pretty heartbroken when they tell me this, but acknowledge that it was a necessity. And it's not like the museum isn't chock-a-block with hundreds of other radios. More than enough to keep any visitor engrossed. Wandering around, you see gleaming wooden wirelesses on all sides, each crammed with their own little piece of history. There's not much in the way of written information, instead one of the enviously knowledgable curators regales us with tales of these wirelesses past lives.
One of the radio curators, Phil Moss, shows us around. For a museum that's 90% different versions of the same objects, his personal stories — late nights as a teenager tuning into radiowaves from distant countries — make sure things never get boring.
We learn that gramophone speakers are where the expression 'put a sock in it' comes from. There wasn't a volume knob; to make it quieter you'd physically stuff a sock down the horn to absorb some of the sound. However, looking at the beast before us, Moss quips that you'd probably have to "put a coat in it".
Another radio that catches our eye sits in what we dub 'military corner'. This is unlike all the other military radios it sits among, both in style — matte black wood instead of shiny metal — and its ownership. As the birds carrying swastikas suggest, this was a Nazi wireless. It's an airforce entertainment radio. Nazis were big on radio, as Hitler's voice was such a large part of the propaganda. The things were purposefully built a bit shoddily, in the hopes they wouldn't be able to pick up the BBC, and soldiers might begin to harbour doubts.
One fascinating thing to note about the museum is that you've probably seen one of its wares before, without realising it. Not in person, but up on a screen. The museum makes most of its money by loaning out radios and televisions to production companies.
There's more than just wirelesses
As the museum's name suggests, it's not just radios here... television makes up the other part of the equation. Confined to one room rather than multiple sprawling sheds, it's a noteworthy display nonetheless. Television sets face whichever way you look. Then with the flip of a switch, half of them switch onto BBC1 simultaneously. It's a joy to witness these old school pieces still functioning.
Some TVs worked in ways we'd never thought of. Tiny screens with big magnifying glass — basically the original version of 64 inch plasma. One has its display aimed at the sky, but there's a mirror angled at 45 degrees for viewers to get a good look at what's going on.
The present day
Despite the word 'Vintage' in the museum's name, not everything in here is quite so old. The museum aims to provide as wide a range of exhibits as possible. Some DAB radios are on display, although Moss is rather dismissive of the format. It's here because he feels it's the museum's duty to charter the history of radio, even if he doesn't particularly like where it's going.
We're glad he and the rest of the team are so dedicated. It means that for those who really hunt it out, it's an unrivalled look at a medium that means so much to so many.
The Vintage Wireless and Television Museum is by appointment only. Book by calling 020 8670 3667. Tickets cost £10, which counts as membership for a year. That means you can make repeat visits, necessary if you want to see absolutely everything in this treasure trove.
All photos taken by the author.