DOROTHY “KITTY” BLACK 

Born 30th April 1914, died 26th December 2006, aged 92.
 

 

Kitty Black in 1939 - credit from "Upper Circle" by Kitty Black, Methuen Press

 

Although well known to those in the theatrical business as an agent and translator, there was an episode in her life that she rarely spoke about. Even in the world of offshore radio her name is seldom mentioned, although her involvement pre-dates the start of Radio Caroline.

Kitty Black was a major shareholder in Radio Atlanta, and is one of the unsung heroes (heroeines) of offshore radio. She wrote this magazine article a couple of years ago…

 

A Pair of Golf Stockings

 Or Kitty the Radio Pirate

 

On a warm Sunday night in June about forty years ago, a tug slipped her moorings in the London docks and headed down stream. There was a motley collection on board - apart from the crew, twenty riggers, three Trinity House pilots, a lone business man named Oliver Smedley, and one female who described herself as the cook - but as Big Alf the foreman of the riggers said' later, "We soon found out she was no cook". The pilots and the riggers were temporarily unemployed, as London Docks were on strike, so as the tug continued on her way, she passed literally hundreds of riding lights from the ships anchored in the fairway waiting for the strike to be resolved, creating an effect not very different from the naval review at Spithead during George V's Silver Jubilee when the BBC announcer got carried away and declared "The Fleet's lit up".
 

 
Radio City forts

 

The object of the exercise was a strange destination. Following on the creation of pirate radio ships, various groups had installed themselves on the derelict forts that had protected the Thames Estuary during WWII. Some genius had come up with the idea that as territorial waters only extended three miles offshore, some of these forts could technically be considered as being in international waters. The pirate radio ships had taken advantage of this same point to launch their activities, and according to maritime law were not liable to pay royalties on any music performed.

 

One of these forts had been taken over by Reg Calvert, a trumpet player, who called his station Radio City, while another, was directed by a businessman of the name of Allbeury. Calvert had accepted but never paid for radio equipment to the value of £10,000 from another organization known as Radio Atlanta, and was now planning to sell his interest in Radio City to Radio London. The curiously assembled group of passengers on the tug, represented the interests of Radio Atlanta and were intending to take over Radio City in a surprise raid and so prevent the sale.

 

 
Reg Calvert in the Radio City studio
 

This is perhaps the moment to explain that I was the female involved. I had supported Radio Atlanta from its beginnings, and had watched with dismay as Radio Caroline and its Irish-born director Ronan O' Rahilly, had gradually ousted our interests until they were dominated by Radio Caroline. This last piece of chicanery on Calvert's part was the final straw, and we felt we had to do something to retrieve at least some of our money before it was too late.

 

The Trinity House pilots had passed the old forts in the course of their normal duties and had noted that there was no security on any of them. Access was via perpendicular steel ladders which led straight up from the water and should have been closed by a hatchway, giving access to the gantries where the radio equipment was installed, but these hatches were never closed and it would be a simple matter for our storming party to climb on board and put the radio equipment out of action.

 

 
Boarding party on Radio City

 

Like the hero of the play Crime Passionnel by Jean-Paul Sartre, one of his plays which I had translated, I had never taken part in any direct action, so it was an easy matter for the Trinity House pilots and my friend Oliver to persuade me to come on the trip. (Up till then, all I had contributed to the action was to guarantee the bank overdraft.) I was on holiday in Norfolk at the time and took the train down to Liverpool Street to join Oliver and the rest of our supporters.

Knowing that we had at least 8 hours of travel ahead of us, I did as I always used to do during dress rehearsals having equipped myself with wool and knitting needles, as soon as we were under way I cast on the stitches for the first of a pair of golf stockings I was making for a friend. I have always found this exercise fascinates the onlookers as the pattern slowly emerges and heels and toes take shape, and the clicking needles seem to settle tempers when in the small hours irritation threatens to interrupt the proceedings. After a suitable interval, we arrived at Radio City and the boarding party climbed up the ladder and took over the fort. DJ's and technicians were all asleep when we arrived but as they came tumbling out of their beds blinking and yawning they were quickly persuaded to hand over the crystal which operated the radio station. The atmosphere was entirely friendly, punctuated by cups of tea and although some papers said the raiders were armed, I know that nothing more dangerous than an electric torch had been carried by our team. Eventually the pilots, and Oliver and I embarked on the tug leaving the riggers to maintain control of the station.

We were delighted with ourselves during the return trip and before we landed in an early dawn I had finished my golf stocking. Next morning, we arranged a meeting with Reg Calvert in which we explained the situation and I have never seen a man look so angry. He had been planning to go away on holiday with his wife, and frustration must have added to his initial rage. He embarked on a series of threats saying he had a friend who was the best shot in England who would help him, and he himself produced an object like a fountain pen, which he claimed was a gas gun. He boasted he had sufficient technical knowledge to set up a lethal cloud, which could overwhelm the riggers on Radio City - though made no mention of what effect this gas might have on his own personnel. Eventually he stormed out of the meeting without making any concessions. I went back to Norfolk with a friend who was the widow of a well-known political crime writer, and arranged to ring the office the following morning to find out what progress had been made. But when I made the scheduled phone call, Oliver's manager answered and said "Calvert's dead. Oliver is in prison accused of murder, and the police are looking for you."

 

 Boarding party leave
 

Anyone living in Norfolk now complains about the lack of police presence, but it was no different 40 years ago. There was no police station in my village. What had been the nearest station two villages away had recently been closed, and the next establishment was 10 miles in the other direction.

But when I presented myself there they had no knowledge of any raid and directed me to Bishop's Stortford as being the nearest station to the scene of the crime. After some difficulty, I arrived at my destination and told my story to the sergeant on duty. In true constabulary manner, he listened carefully and then asked me to repeat the story while he took it down in longhand - at which point I demanded a typewriter, paper and carbons, and typed the whole thing out in triplicate with my usual speed and skill.
 

 
Kitty Black, with Major Oliver Smedley in his country home.Don’t be misled by the knitting needles,

Kitty was a business executive of remarkable shrewdness and ability.

 

Fast forward to the scene in the magistrate's court, where Oliver was to make his first appearance. To my amazement, I had been cited as a witness for the prosecution and although I tried hard to explain I was Oliver's partner, so was entirely on his side, this carried no weight. I had to remain outside the courtroom while the initial proceedings were carried out. Another friend had been able to attend the trial from the beginning and told me the details later.

Apparently Oliver had gone home in his usual way after office hours to his cottage in Wendon's Ambo, which he shared with an attractive young woman, Gail Thorburn, who acted as his secretary and had at one time looked after his children. At about 8 o'clock, he heard car noises outside the house, and looking out saw Calvert and a strange man whom he correctly identified as "the best shot in England". Leaving Gail behind, Oliver slipped next door to ask the help of his neighbour, who was in bed with flu, but well enough to promise to ring the police as Oliver was sure Calvert's arrival spelled trouble. Once back in his own cottage, Oliver picked up a shotgun and went back to the living room where he saw Calvert apparently about to clobber Gail with an object he was holding above his head. Coming down the stairs was Calvert's friend who shouted when he saw Oliver "There's the b... now". Calvert swung round and threw what he was holding at Oliver, hitting him on the arm. The gun jerked up, Oliver fired, catching Calvert full in the stomach. Calvert spun round and fell to the ground. After making him as comfortable as they could, Oliver tried to telephone for an ambulance, but the phone had been ripped from the wall and it took a few minutes to realize that the extension upstairs was still working. The ambulance arrived ahead of the police but too late to save Calvert. When the Bill arrived, they decided the scene represented a real life Crime Passionnel, and the two men had been fighting over the girl. Nothing Oliver said would convince them otherwise, and they arrested him for murder. His sporting friends said Oliver couldn't possibly have meant to shoot Calvert as if he had aimed he would have missed.

Giving evidence in court was not nearly as frightening as I had expected, as I was so enraged by the stupidity of the police - only equaled by the stupidity of Calvert's death - that I found myself offering evidence that had not been requested, and having to wait for council for the defense to tell my full story.

Calvert's marksman friend, quite obviously deeply nervous of his own position in the affair, did his best to explain what he was doing in Oliver's house, and only succeeded in making the whole case for the prosecution even more absurd. A magistrate's court has no authority to grant bail to a man accused of murder who must stand trial by jury in an assize court, but as the police had obviously been proved wrong, this no longer applied to Oliver who was released, and we all had to wait for three months until his case could be heard. This proved a mere formality, and the jury didn't even retire to consider their verdict, but found him not guilty, and all lined up to shake his hand as they filed past the dock.

 

There were one or two odd sequels to the story. One of the French evening papers had unaccountably managed to get hold of a studio picture of me, which appeared on the back page, where it was seen by a friend of mine who was on holiday in Cannes. It was also seen by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who promptly contacted their lawyer and prohibited the use of any of my translations of his plays. Ted, later Lord, Willis cancelled my appointment as secretary of one of the translators' committees, and the government brought in litigation as an effective stop to all the pirate radio activities. None of us made the expected millions we thought we would, but at least we opened the airwaves to the performance of non stop pop music by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley, which the British audience demanded as their right. The careers of DJ's such as Tony Blackburn, John Peel, Keith Skues, Simon Dee and Colin Nicol prospered.

The second golf stocking was duly completed in more normal circumstances, and the pair presented to its grateful new owner.
 

 

An obituary for Kitty Black is in the online London edition of The Times