J.J. Hobbins, Wireless School, 2 Catherine Place, Limerick.
In 1913, 31 year old, J.J. Hobbins and his wife Mary of 2 Catherine Place, Limerick had a school teaching Morse code to men and women who wanted to become Post Office clerks. Morse code was used in most of the larger towns in Ireland for sending and receiving telegrams between Post Offices. J.J’s sons Joe and Frank also thought Morse in the school.
The S.S. Titanic sank on the night of 14th/15th April 1912 with the loss of over 1,500 lives. Many more lives would have been lost only for the heroic work of the radio officers Harold Bride and Jack Philips. After the sinking one of the recommendations of the “Lord Mersey Report” was the call for wireless installations on all passenger ships and a 24 hour wireless watch on each ship thus requiring more radio officers. J.J. Hobbins saw the opportunity to expand his school to cater for sea going radio officers and on the 7th November 1913 the following advertisement appeared in the Irish Independent newspaper
He provided the Morse code training but the students then had to go to Belfast or the United Kingdom schools to complete their training in the maintenance and repair of radio equipment that was on board ship. Atlantic College in Dublin did not open until 1911 after it transferred from Caherciveen, County Kerry.
In 1914 when World War I broke out and the Admiralty required all ships over 1,600 tons to be fitted with wireless telegraphy and this required an increase of over 3,000 radio officers. The school went from strength to strength and on 30th November 1915 John Hobbins received the following letter from Marconi Marine, London:
In reply to your letter, I beg to say that Mr Alexander Weir, your pupil, has passed our test and entered our training School.-
Yours very truly,
Eighty-seven year old John O’ Sullivan from Galway remembers attending the school:
“In mid-summer 1942, I arrived at the radio school in Limerick, a large old Georgian house of three stories and a basement. It was owned by a Mr. Hobbins and his wife. They boarded 5 boys and also 2 girls who were training in telegraphy for the Post Office. In the first three months we were given a good knowledge of wireless theory and Morse code to 12-14 words per minute sending and receiving level and then we were transferred to Belfast Wireless College situated at North Street Arcade where we spent a further three months of intense training. We were now prepared to sit an exam at 16 words per minute code and 20 words per minute plain language. We were also tested on direction finding to help defeat the German U-boats. Then I was called up to Marconi’s”
Limerick Marine Radio School (1957-2004).
J.J. Hobbin’s school did not have the complete course for marine radio officers and in September 1956 the setting up of a marine radio officers’ course was discussed at a meeting of the City Vocational Educational Committee. The committee was told that the Marconi International Marine Company were anxious to assist in the setting up of a course. The successful students would be guaranteed employment at £30 per month starting and going up to £70 per month. The course would be £7 per term and the course would take 15 months.
Meanwhile J.J.’s school continued to teach typewriting and sadly the third floor of the building in Catherine Place caught fire during lunch time in April 1959 and the school equipment and furniture was completely destroyed.
Marconi Marine maintained a world-wide organisation for the supplying, operating and servicing of ships’ radio equipment. It also supplied radio officers to many shipping companies. As well as an attractive salary the radio officer had officer status along with his own private accommodation, steward service, food etc and the chance to travel all over the world.
The first school exclusively for the training of marine radio officers opened on 11th March 1957 at 2, The Crescent. It was under the auspices of the City of Limerick Vocational Educational Committee in conjunction with the Marconi Marine Company in England. The four story building was re-constructed into a modern fully furnished radio school. The classrooms comprised of two with Morse equipment, a radio room with transmitters and receivers and a general lecture room. Forty-six students enrolled. The teachers appointed were Larry Mc Donald and Jim Stack, both of the Marconi Company which had played a vital part in the sponsoring of the school. John Spencer was appointed the headmaster. He also taught the principals of electricity and magnetism. The student fee was £10 and at the end of the course students were guaranteed employment by Marconi Marine Company. The students attending the school came from all parts of the country. They came from as far north as Donegal. In conjunction with the course, lectures on sociology were given by Rev. Fr. Athanasius, O.F.M. Limerick. At the first examination 18 out of 21 students passed Part I of the Post Master General Certificate. (PMG).
In January 1960 heavy rain came though several broken slates in the roof of the building and water seeped down from the top story to the basement. Examinations were taking place at the time and had to be moved to the Limerick Clothing factory Social Club Hall. The Clothing Factory was situated in Edward Street and the Social Club was on the ground floor on the right hand side as you went in the gate.
When St Munchins College moved to Corbally in 1962 the Henry Street premises was vacant and the radio school moved in there. The City of Limerick Vocational Educational Committee rented the building and called it the Municipal Technical College, Henry Street. The radio section occupied the upstairs rooms of the building. In 1969 the site was required for a new Garda station to replace two stations – the old one in William Street and another one in John Street, Limerick. This time the school moved to the School Of Electrical Engineering, O’Connell Avenue for Radar and practical work and the marine radio communications course was held in the Municipal Technical Institute, O’Connell Avenue. The radio department was at the top of the building in the roof section. It consisted of 2 lecture rooms, practical room with transmitters and receivers for fault finding, Morse code room, and a radar room.
In 1988 the radio school made its last move to Moylish and joined other Limerick Vocational Educational Colleges. In 1993 the Colleges of Art, Commerce and Technology became a Regional Technical College and was finally upgraded to the Institute of Technology status in 1997.
Radio officers in the British Merchant Navy and the Irish Mercantile Marine were required to hold a certificate of competence issued by the Postmaster-General. P.M.G certificates were issued in three grades – Special Class, Second Class and First Class.
The Special Certificate entitled the holder to operate apparatus in small ships, such as fishing vessels and private yachts which are not by law compulsorily fitted with radio.
In the early 70’s the 1st and 2nd class certificates were joined into one certificate called the Marine Radio General Certificate. This qualified you to serve in the Merchant Navy or Mercantile Marine as a radio officer proficient in:
- Knowledge of the principles of electronics and the theory of radio.
- Theoretical knowledge of transmitters, receivers, DF equipment, Auto alarms and motors, generators, inverters rectifiers etc etc
- Practical knowledge of the operation of the equipment.
- Practical knowledge of fault finding.
- Ability to send and receive Morse code at a speed of twenty words per minute.
- Knowledge of rules and regulations and Q codes.
- A good knowledge of the world geography and shipping routes.
On successfully completing the examination and obtaining the certificate it was a matter of applying to Marconi Marine for a job. Then off to J.J O’Callaghans, Dame Street, Dublin to be fitted out in a Mercantile Marine or Merchant Navy uniform. After that Marconi’s would place you on a ship as a junior radio officer for 6 months ideally.
Once you joined Marconi Marine you would then be assigned to a particular shipping company. There was so such thing as a typical run. You could be with Bank Line on a round-the-world service, T & J Harrison going to the Caribbean for 6 weeks, Kuwait Shipping to the Far East or Europe. You could be 4 months away followed by 2 months at home.
In the 70’s on board ship you worked in the radio room from 8am working 2 hours on, 2 hours off until 10pm. Once in port you were free to do what you liked and the ship could not sail without you.
In the late 1980’s Morse code was phased out and replaced by satellite communications thereby doing away with the requirement to carry a radio officer on board ship. From midnight on 31st January 1999 international regulations no longer required ships at sea to carry a radio officer. The automated Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) using satellites and new state of the art communication techniques became the adopted system. The work of the Radio Officer was doing could now be done by the Master or Navigating Officer and the position of Marine Radio Officer on board became redundant. Many of the radio officers changed over to the engineering side or navigational side on the ship or simply retired and took up other careers.