QSL cards part 2: the collection

As we discussed previously, some time in the 1960s Alec developed an interest in the hobby of amateur (‘ham’) radio. It is not known how or where this started, but I have a distinct recollection of him borrowing a reel-to-reel rape recorder – possibly from Eric Benn, the next-door neighbour – and using it to study Morse code for the first stage of the competency test in order to gain a license.

QSL cards were part of the process from the very beginning, used to record communications between hams wherever they might be in the world – and at first, of course, the distances were limited by the available equipment; for example, Alec’s earliest conversations were via the medium of Morse and it was only much later that he was able to graduate to using voice – which, as far as I recall, probably also needed an additional test and license.

Using their contemporaneous call logs (which have also survived, in Alec’s case,) operators would write up cards to send to their counterparts; these were collected in by the local radio club and sent off to RSGB headquarters where something like a Sorting Office must have been in operation. Returning QSL cards would be received by the local clubs and distributed to members at their meetings, and this presumably was a large part of the service provided by the RSGB.

At any rate, having found a large box of radio logs and QSL cards – collected by Alec and one of his friends – in the loft of the house Alec and June shared before his death, we turned these over to his grandson Robin. Robin, we should add, is very much a ‘chip off the old block’; in later life Alec’s ham radio hobby morphed into a love for computers, which Robin also inherited. He has therefore plotted all the cards in the collection onto this map, and would like to make the following point:

[A]ll the locations are approximate – sometimes the QSL cards gave the exact address, in which case I have tried to find the right street, but other times they just give the town or city name, so I have used a bit of artistic license!

He also points out that the collection tails off in the mid-1980s and should therefore be considered to represent roughly a twenty year sample. The 1980s were the time that Alec became infatuated with computers, so that could mark the swansong of his interest in ham radio – but there could also be other factors at play, and lacking better information we do not care to speculate any further.

Meanwhile, we will also add – with some sadness – that Alec never did succeed in achieving the Holy Grail of radio contact, a sought-after encounter with King Hussein of Jordan who was at the top of every ham’s wish-list. Nevertheless he made a pretty good collection of contacts around the world, some of whom subsequently turned into lifelong friends.

Robin has ambitions of analysing the log books as well, at some future date, but as he is currently working all hours trying to maintain his teaching commitments under less than ideal conditions we suggest that nobody should hold their breath. ‘Too much data, too little time’ is one of the heart-cries of the amateur family historian; there will never be an end to the subject matter, only a limit to the amount that any human being can process in a given lifetime. We’re doing our best, of course, but it can never possibly be enough.

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QSL cards

Alec’s hobby of amateur (ham) radio hasn’t made much of an appearance here yet because he didn’t take it up until the 1960s, and then it spent some considerable time evolving. However – as there is a gap in the correspondence here – this seems a reasonable time to introduce the subject of QSL cards.

As Wikipedia tells us, a QSL card is sent from one amateur radio operator to another to confirm their communication. At one time these had a standard format, but over the years – as printing methods improved and materials became cheaper – they became more personalised. Alec must have sent out thousands – via the RSGB and/or his local club – over the years, and in due course received thousands in return. After his death a large box of QSL cards – roughly divided by geographical region – remained in the family’s possession until it was eventually passed on, together with his log books, to his only grandson Robin. (Robin is occasionally to be found on fora at sourceforge.net, and elsewhere online, using the screen name g3rrk.)

The original – standard – design. 73s are ‘best wishes’ and OM is ‘old man’.
After moving to Yorkshire in 1967, Alec joined the Scarborough Radio Club and clearly ordered his QSL cards through them.
And when you move to Budleigh Salterton and have a daughter with a vaguely entrepreneurial nature, you go 100% home-made.

There were probably other variants, too, but these are the only known examples to have survived.