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Burrows, Arthur Richardlocked

  • Anne Pimlott Baker

Burrows, Arthur Richard (1882–1947), broadcaster, was born on 15 February 1882 at 21 Cambridge Street, St Ebbe's, Oxford, the younger son in the family of three children of Alfred Burrows (c.1844–1899), porter of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and his wife, Jane Elizabeth Bourton (b. c.1853), daughter of a keeper of the university parks. His elder brother died in childhood. He was educated locally; having left school at the age of seventeen, after his father's death, he got a job teaching elementary science to evening classes at Oxford City Technical School. Among his many interests was cycling, and it was through the commanding officer of the Volunteer Cycle Unit that he was introduced to the editor of the Oxford Times in 1903 and taken on as an apprentice. After his five years' apprenticeship, during which he learned all aspects of newspaper production, he was kept on as a reporter. Having moved to London in 1911 he joined the staff of The Standard, specializing in scientific and technical subjects, and by the end of 1912 he was reporting the activities of amateur wireless enthusiasts. He also wrote for other journals, including articles on the application of wireless telegraphy to journalism for publications of Marconi's Wireless Telegraphy Company. On 25 April 1914 he married Nellie Gertrude (b. 1885/6), daughter of Thomas William Oxley, an upholsterer; they had three children.

When The Standard collapsed in 1914 Burrows became news editor of the new Wireless Press Service of the Marconi company, responsible for collecting and translating enemy propaganda broadcasts and for their distribution to government departments. He also prepared a nightly news bulletin for transmission by wireless telegraphy from the Marconi station at Poldhu, Cornwall, to naval and merchant ships at sea. As early as 1917 he was predicting the use of wireless telephony—the transmission of the human voice—as a means of mass communication, in an article later published in the Marconi yearbook for 1918. He envisaged broadcasting parliamentary debates to newspaper offices and concerts to private houses but warned of the danger of advertising agencies filling up the concert intervals with 'audible advertisements … on behalf of somebody's soap or tomato ketchup'. In 1918 he was called up into the Middlesex regiment and saw action in France before he was invalided out of the army.

After the war Burrows became publicity manager for the Marconi company. He worked with great enthusiasm to demonstrate the potential of wireless broadcasting, and was one of those responsible for Dame Nellie Melba's famous broadcast from the Marconi station at Writtle, near Chelmsford, in June 1920, which was heard as far away as Persia. He also had the idea of equipping the liner Victoria with a wireless telephone transmitter and receiver for her voyage to Quebec in August 1920, taking delegates to the imperial press conference in Ottawa. News transmitted from Poldhu and concerts from Writtle could be heard when the ship was over 2000 miles away. On board Burrows edited the material and produced a twice-daily newsheet, the North Atlantic Times, and, using a transmitter in Newfoundland, was able to arrange for the prime minister of Newfoundland to exchange greetings with Lord Burnham, leader of the British delegation, while still 300 miles off the Canadian shore. This demonstration to the leading members of the British press of the possibilities of broadcasting gave maximum publicity to wireless telephony. Later in 1920 Burrows was asked to organize the transmission of reports from journalists to their newspapers from the first session of the League of Nations assembly in Geneva.

The first regular broadcast service in Britain began in February 1922, from Writtle, and a few months later Burrows was in charge of a new station, 2LO, broadcasting from London. This station was restricted to one hour's transmission a day, as the government was still worried about interference with official wireless services and each programme had to be approved by the Post Office in advance. The station opened on 11 May 1922 with a running commentary on the boxing match between Kid Lewis and Georges Carpentier. Burrows introduced most of the programmes himself, after ringing out the Westminster chimes on a set of tubular bells.

When the British Broadcasting Company was set up in October 1922 Burrows was chosen by Sir William Noble to introduce the first broadcast, on 14 November 1922, announcing the results of the general election. This was transmitted from the 2LO studio, temporary home of the BBC until the move to Savoy Hill in March 1923. In December he was appointed director of programmes, one of the first four members of the BBC staff. From the start he was determined that the programmes should be of high quality and should both entertain and educate, while he was also concerned with improving the quality of the sound. The first year's programmes included talks, concerts, plays, dance bands, news, weather forecasts, religious broadcasts, and variety shows, although he was anxious to keep these free of vulgarity. He was an early supporter of schools broadcasting, which began in 1924. He was also the first Children's Hour ‘uncle’, known to millions of listeners as Uncle Arthur. His voice was classless and devoid of any regional accent, and it set the standard for ‘BBC English’. In 1924 he published The Story of Broadcasting.

In April 1925 Burrows was appointed first secretary-general of the Union Internationale de Radiophonie (UIR), set up in Geneva through the initiative of John Reith, general manager of the BBC. Burrows moved to Geneva with high hopes of helping the development of international understanding through broadcasting, but the immediate task was to deal with the problem of interference and to allocate wavelengths, and the Geneva plan was implemented in 1926. As the number and range of transmitters increased new agreements followed, drawn up at a series of international conferences and monitored by the control centre in Brussels. At the same time Burrows encouraged the international exchange of programmes. The spread of commercial broadcasting caused problems but he failed to prevent the very popular Radio Luxemburg, listened to in Britain by twice as many as tuned in to the BBC, from broadcasting to Britain. During his years in Geneva he was consulted by the League of Nations on many occasions on questions of international broadcasting, and from 1930 he was also League of Nations correspondent for The Times. He resigned from the UIR in April 1940 and the BBC suspended its membership in 1941.

Burrows rejoined the BBC, which appointed him temporary director of the northern region in May 1940. In April 1942 he was transferred to Broadcasting House in London, where he was asked to help with the co-ordination of ideas on the future of broadcasting after the war, and from September 1942 he was director of broadcasting at the Ministry of Information. He retired in 1945, and died on 26 November 1947 at 35 Highpoint, North Hill, Highgate, his London home. He was survived by his wife.


  • BBC WAC, file 5236 [esp. memoir by his son, based on an unpubd autobiography]
  • A. Briggs, The history of broadcasting in the United Kingdom, rev. edn, 5 vols. (1995), vols. 1, 4
  • A. R. Burrows, The story of broadcasting (1924)
  • W. J. Baker, A history of the Marconi Company (1970)
  • E. Pawley, BBC engineering, 1922–1972 (1972)
  • J. Cain, Seventy years of broadcasting (1992)
  • The Times (27 Nov 1947)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • BBC WAC, MSS, file 5236


  • eleven photographs, BBC WAC, file 5236
  • photograph, repro. in Briggs, History of broadcasting, vol. 1, pl. 11

Wealth at Death

£5647 9s. 7d.: probate, 7 Feb 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading