What is the secret of Gilbert Davey's
popularity? . . . he is a skilled amateur
who is tremendously enthusiastic about
his hobby. GILBERT DAVEY (1913 - 2011)
Prior to Gilbert Davey's death on 6 April 2011, information for this sketch had been gathered solely from published sources.   Following Mr Davey's death, I am indebted to his daughter for some leads to new material, and to a former colleague for information relating to his wartime role and later life.   All sources are noted at the end of this page.


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Gilbert Davey had become interested in radio as a boy when his father asked a friend to build the family a three-valve receiver (detector and two transformer-coupled LF stages, with a horn loudspeaker).   Seeing the boy's interest, the builder of this set gave Gilbert some spare components and old magazines, and he started to experiment. (1)

The young experimenter had the use of a garden shed as a "shack" which, although self-contained, suffered somewhat from damp. (2)   Enthusiasts in the 1920s and 1930s often had to make their own components, especially coils.   If a set worked first time, this was a great surprise.

Gilbert Davey in Fireman's
uniform, about 1936.
    Gilbert Davey in about 1936, in Fireman's
    uniform - an aspect of his life yet to be
    researched.

    Photo courtesy Claire Davey; reproduced by kind permission.


By the age of 16, Davey was writing freelance articles on radio.   Although these often earned him more than his insurance job, he welcomed the security this gave him during the depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s. (3)

As a young man, Davey continued to follow technical developments with interest.   When Wireless World published a design for a resistance-coupled "Quality Amplifier" in the mid-30s, he saw it as a sign of hope for real improvement, even though there was no broadcast input source available then that could do it justice.   The innovation of negative feedback shortly afterwards was equally promising. (4)

During World War II, Davey served in the Royal Signals, achieving the rank of Major.   He took part in clandestine operations in France, but said little about these exploits. (5)   Stationed in Germany at the end of the War, Davey was the first British amateur to operate a transmitter in the British sector of Berlin, and made contact with all parts of the world with just 10 watts' transmitting power. (6)   (I have no evidence that these transmissions were part of the Allies' operations, or official in any way.   It seems likely that Davey and others simply used their expertise in the free-for-all in Germany at the end of the War.   After his death, some effort has gone into trying to establish whether Davey became a licensed amateur operator in the UK, but no evidence for this has emerged.) (7)

After his return home, Davey took up employment with the Pearl Assurance Company in 1947. (8)   He was to remain with Pearl Assurance for the rest of his working life, occupying various posts at Pearl offices in the West End, Edgware and latterly Peterborough. (9)

Quite by chance during his spell in Berlin, Davey had met Jack Cox, who was shortly afterwards to take over the editorship of Boy’s Own Paper. (10)   Once in the job, Cox assembled a panel of experts to write practical articles and respond to readers' queries.   He recruited Davey as Radio Correspondent; so began a mutually enriching association that was to last until Cox's death in 1981.

The Boy’s Own Paper, that bastion of British morality, had been severely limited by paper shortages during the war, and this continued for some time.   Gilbert Davey’s articles sometimes appeared without circuit diagrams or practical layouts; the additional details were only sent out to those who wanted to build the sets.   A succession of Davey designs was published during the late 40s and the 50s, calculated to appeal to the active older boy.   They included an early version of the beginner’s one-valver (see THE BEGINNER'S 1-VALVER), a Simple Three-Valve set, a Holiday Radio, and a portable Cycle Radio - not to be used on the move!   (For further details of these three, see YOUR DAVEY SETS.)   Other designs included an all-mains two-valve receiver, a high-fidelity amplifier, and a bedside radio.   The BOP constantly carried advertisements from training colleges and the armed services inviting boys to train as radio operators or technicians (demand far exceeded supply), as the advertisers doubtless knew of the popularity of his articles.

By 1957, Davey had been a regular contributor to the Boy's Own Paper for over ten years.   In September - November of that year, he appeared on BBC Television's Studio ‘E’ programme with a six-part series describing the construction of a simple one-valve receiver.   Demand for the printed leaflet was enormous, and many radio enthusiasts and professionals still remember the series as a formative experience.   Davey himself seems to have regarded it as an important event; he preserved a set of programme scripts through several house moves.   (See THE BBC SETS > and subsidiary pages for full details and leaflet downloads.)

An article in the December 1957 BOP entitled “Hobbies for the Modern Boy” (unattributed but probably written by Jack Cox) carried this passage revealing just how popular his articles were, and how popular his Studio ‘E’ series had proved to be:

"Gilbert Davey has topped the popularity poll among BOP contributors for the past ten years.   This is all the more surprising when you realise that he rarely has more than three articles a year in the magazine.   But his subject is Amateur Radio and that seems to be just about the most consistent of all boys' hobbies.

"Television has had no effect whatever on the making of sound radio sets by keen and enthusiastic amateurs - in fact, the reverse!   Gilbert Davey started his first BBC Television series in the Studio ‘E’ programme in October last, showing viewers how to make a simple one-valve radio set.   Within a few days of the first programme he had received over 26,000 letters!

Extract from    
Boy's Own Paper, December 1957.    

Copyright © Lutterworth Press;    
quoted by kind permission.    

"What is the secret of Gilbert Davey's popularity?   In the first place he is a skilled amateur who is tremendously enthusiastic about his hobby.   He is not a radio dealer or a professional radio engineer; in fact he is an insurance inspector who lives in Middlesex.   Jack Cox, Editor of BOP, found him by sheer chance ten years ago, and he has worked exclusively for BOP ever since.   He has had 8,000 letters in a week from BOP readers.

"The sets which Gilbert Davey designs and builds, and then shows you how to make in simple language, are those which appeal to boys.   A Portable Cycle Radio Set, a Three-Valve Receiver for Bedside or Camp, a Midget Two-Valve Receiver are typical.” (11)

  In October 1957, at the same time as the BBC Studio ‘E’ series, Davey's first book, Fun with Radio, was published by Edmund Ward.   This featured designs that had appeared in the Boy's Own Paper over the post-war years, and was edited by BOP editor Jack Cox.   No transistor designs appeared in Fun with Radio for the stated reason that they were still too experimental and could be an expensive risk for the young amateur. (12)   This suggests that Fun with Radio was in preparation for some time - perhaps more than a year - before publication, and the reason given for not including transistor designs reflected Davey's opinion at the outset of preparing the book.   His daughter remembers helping him with the lengthy task of proof-reading the diagrams for his books. (13)

By the time that Fun with Radio appeared, Davey's BOP articles (January and October 1957) had featured transistor designs, but carried warnings about their still-variable characteristics and experimental nature.   Later editions of Fun with Radio did feature transistor designs.

In March - April 1959, Davey was back on BBC Television with another series, this time for a two-transistor radio design.   Studio ‘E’ had by this time been re-named Focus.   Demand for the Focus leaflet was nearly as keen as for the Studio ‘E’ leaflet; there were 25,000 applications immediately, followed by a steady demand of around 100 requests per day for some time. (14)   (See The Focus Transistor Set for details and leaflet downloads.)

I have no evidence that Davey appeared on Blue Peter once it had supplanted Studio ‘E’ and Focus in catering for children of all ages.   He appeared on ITV, but I have not so far researched these appearances.

Several Davey Boy’s Own Paper designs were reprinted in the Boy's Own Companion and the Boy’s Own Annual, both offshoots of BOP.   For example, the June 1961 BOP and the 1962 Companion featured an interesting metal-chassis version of the Beginner's 1-Valver.   (See THE BEGINNER'S 1-VALVER.)

'Lady Jayne' hair clips,    
ancient and modern.
   

It was the ladies of his family who 
came up with the ideal solution . . .
One simple but useful idea for constructors came from a quite unexpected quarter.   This was passed on in the November 1963 BOP.   With the advent of transistors, Davey had been looking for a way to avoid the need for a “third hand” to hold the pliers serving as a heat-sink when soldering these and other heat-sensitive components.   It was the ladies of his family who came up with the ideal solution – a ‘Lady Jayne’ sprung metal clip, as used by hairdressers when setting hair! (15)

As a contributor, Gilbert Davey was one of the panel of BOP experts who answered readers’ queries.   Occasional correspondents innocently asked for details to build transmitters, and always received stern reminders from him about the stringent requirements – including a radio theory exam and a 12 words-per-minute Morse code test - before a GPO transmitting licence could be granted. (16)

Lest it be thought that all Davey's correspondents were relatively well-off British boarding-school types, he received letters from BOP readers throughout the Commonwealth.   Indeed he is reported to have remarked that some of his most enthusiastic correspondents came from the poorest districts of South Africa. (17)

The Boy’s Own Paper faced difficult times in the early sixties with the rise of the pop music industry, competition from other teen magazines, and the fact that copies of BOP were often shared among many readers - a practice that had been actively encouraged during and after the war.   Davey designs of this period included a short-wave receiver capable of progressive upgrading, and a basic electric guitar using a headphone as a transducer.   The Boy’s Own Paper ceased publication in early 1967, although its offshoot Boy's Own Annual survived into the mid-1970s.

Later, Jack Cox recalled that technical and hobby articles had always been well received; as a young BOP reader, he had built radio sets himself to the designs of an earlier contributor.   Indeed, he went so far as to wonder whether he should have shifted the magazine’s emphasis toward these topics and away from the derring-do fiction for which it is chiefly remembered. (18)

Gilbert Davey went on to write several more Fun with . . . books, all edited by Jack Cox, including Fun with Short Waves, Fun with Electronics, Fun with Transistors, Fun with Hi-Fi and Fun with Silicon Chips in Modern Radio.   This, the last title to be written, was published in 1981, the year of Jack Cox's death.   To mark the occasion, the Peterborough Evening Telegraph printed the article reproduced below.   The picture shows Davey beside a splendid 1920s radio set with a horn loudspeaker.   Rather than his "first radio" as captioned, I wonder if this could be the set mentioned above, built by a family friend, that sparked his first interest in radio.

Article and photo from the    
Peterborough Evening Telegraph,    
23 October 1981, marking the pub-    
lication of Gilbert Davey's last book    
Fun with Silicon Chips in    
Modern Radio
.
   

Copyright © Peterborough Evening Telegraph/    
Johnston Press plc;    
reproduced by kind permission.    
Prepared from a British Library image,    
copyright © British Library Board:    
Shelfmark 3837-44 (1981) NPL.    
With acknowledgments to Claire Davey.    

Rather than Davey's 'first radio' as captioned,
could this be the set, built by a family friend,
that sparked his first interest in radio?

Fun with Radio ran to six editions in the UK; the sixth was published in 1978 by Kaye & Ward.   (For fuller details of articles and books, see DAVEY SOURCE PAGES.)

Both as a contributor to Boy's Own Paper and as author of his own books, Davey often sought or was offered products to try out and report upon.   He stressed that when commenting on an item of equipment he did so in order to inform his readers about that general class of product; he did not necessarily believe that a product he mentioned was superior to a rival product. (19)   One tape recorder did come in for some gentle criticism, and some rigorous testing.   This machine could not faithfully play tapes recorded on other machines because it ran at "differential speed", i.e. a non-standard tape speed.   However its push-button controls survived undamaged when thoroughly tested by Davey's daughter and her friends! (20)

He never pushed theory too hard, but encouraged his readers to learn circuit symbols, and perhaps ease themselves into the theory by taking a radio periodical or consulting theory books at a library. (21)

Safety was dealt with carefully - this was especially important for the mains-powered designs, many of which did not use isolated power supplies.   Davey always advised using a loudspeaker, rather than headphones, with mains-powered sets. (22)   Advice was given on proper earth connections where appropriate, and switching off when possible before carrying out adjustments. (23)   Properly constructed cabinets were insisted upon for mains-powered sets, to protect young children and inquisitive pets, especially cats. (24)   One wonders whether the specific mention of cats was the result of unfortunate experience; if so, one can but hope that Tiddles survived with just a fright and temporary loss of dignity!

Throughout Davey's writing career, his articles and designs kept pace with new developments (silicon chips and kit-sets, for example).   But he continued to include simple crystal and valve designs - in spite of some reviewers’ criticisms - so that young experimenters could have the chance to grasp first principles and also make use of old components. (25)

He did admit to difficulty reconciling himself to some aspects of technical progress.   He regretted the demise of the old 2-volt valve types whose freedom from background noise had been so valuable for short-wave receivers. (26)   He found it hard to ascend the learning curve when transistors took over, but knew he must because they were the future. (27)   He was dubious when quadraphonic sound systems were announced in the early 70s; were humans destined to develop four ears? (28)

As an amateur himself, Davey tried to keep in mind the problems faced by the young constructor: lack of experience and skill, lack of tools or test gear, and especially the changing availability of components.   Thus when the beginner's one-valver first appeared in Boy's Own Paper in February 1948, it featured an easily-available 2-volt triode and a home-made coil.   When miniature pentodes and commercially-made coils became available, the design was adapted to take advantage of them.   For later versions, when commercially-made coils to suit the simple circuit had become difficult to obtain, a home-made coil was once again featured.

Gilbert Davey was proud of his long association with the Boy's Own Paper and its offshoot publications, and with Jack Cox.   He was equally gratified that he had introduced thousands of boys and girls to a fascinating hobby and, in many cases, a rewarding career. (29)   All the while, he kept his life with Pearl Assurance and his writing career quite separate.   To his Company associates he was quiet, modest and unambitious; they knew little or nothing of his spare-time radio writing career or the huge postbags that it used to bring him. (30)

Gilbert Davey died at Peterborough on 6 April 2011, aged 97.


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(1): Fun with Radio, Gilbert Davey, 1st edition, Edmund Ward, 1957, p7.
(2): The Boy’s Own Book of Hobbies, Lutterworth Press, 1957,
      article by Gilbert Davey: "The Boy’s Own Radio Den".
(3): Peterborough Evening Telegraph, East Midlands Newspapers Ltd, 23 October 1981,
      unattributed article: "Tune in to the micro-chip".
(4): Fun with Hi-Fi, Gilbert Davey, Kaye & Ward, 1973, p12.
(5): Telephone interview with Tom Dougall (a former colleague of Davey's), 16 May 2011.
(6): Fun with Short Waves, Gilbert Davey, 1st edition, Edmund Ward, 1960, p6.
(7): Practical Wireless, PW Publishing Ltd, July 2010 (p9), August 2010 (p7), September 2010 (p36).
(8): The Writers' Directory 1982 - 1984, 5th edition, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1981, p226.
(9): Ibid. 5.
(10): Fun with Short Waves, Gilbert Davey, 2nd edition, Kaye & Ward, 1968, dust-jacket flap.
(11): Boy’s Own Paper, Lutterworth Periodicals, December 1957,
      unattributed article: "Hobbies for the Modern Boy", p39.
(12): Ibid. 1, p10.
(13): Email from C Davey, 24 November 2011.
(14): Ibid. 6, p6.
(15): Boy’s Own Paper, Purnell, November 1963, p20.
(16): Boy’s Own Paper, Purnell/BPC Publishing, August 1966, p48.
(17): Ibid. 5.
(18): Take a Cold Tub, Sir, Jack Cox, Lutterworth Press, 1982, p119.
(19): Fun with Electronics, Gilbert Davey, 2nd edition, 1972, p48.
(20): Fun with Electronics, Gilbert Davey, 1st edition, 1962, p52.
(21): Ibid. 1, pp8-9.
(22): Ibid. 6, p26.
(23): Fun with Radio, Gilbert Davey, 5th edition, Kaye & Ward, 1969, pp34-36.
(24): The Boy's Own Annual (1969 No 5) Purnell, pub. 1968, p36.
(25): Ibid. 23, p8.
(26): Ibid. 6, p31.
(27): Ibid. 20, p21.
(28): Fun with Hi-Fi, Gilbert Davey, Kaye & Ward, 1973, p63.
(29): Fun with Radio, Gilbert Davey, 6th edition, Kaye & Ward, 1978, p9.
(30): Ibid. 5.