England’s First YL Radio Operator

A Tribute to Barbara Dunn – G6YL

Barbara Dunn, G6YL was the first female British amateur to obtain an amateur license. The year was 1927. Having been quoted as saying, “I don’t like phone,” her station was CW only. Nell Corry, G2YL became the second woman to be licensed in the UK in 1932. Constance Hall, G8LY was the third, having received her operator’s permit in 1936 at the age of 24. Constructing most of her own equipment, she set up and operated from her bedroom. Cooperative parents allowed her to drill holes through the window frames to accommodate the lead-in wires from various antennas strung about the premises.


Following World War I, interest in radio broadcasting began to grow and radio amateurs were at the forefront in Great Britain. Hams in Britain began experimenting with speech. There were those who took it upon themselves to inform and entertain others, going as far as to broadcast music from gramophone records, often on Sundays, while actually growing an audience and gaining in popularity. Gerald Marcuse, G2NM had regular radio contact with an operator from the Bahamas. Their communication became frequent and sometimes involved the retransmission of radio programming from England to other operators in the Caribbean. Marcuse actually applied with the General Post Office for a permit allowing him to broadcast speech and music for two hours every day over an experimental period of six months on 23 and 33 meters at a power of 1000 watts. You’ll be interested to note that the BBC had its early beginnings in 1928 after conducting their own tests from G5SW in Chelmsford, England.

And Now –  The Rest of the Story

G6YL, Barbara Mary Dunn, born February 25, 1896, occupation independent householder, licensed on April 14, 1927 and was the first British licensed transmitting YL.

It was in 1923 that Miss Barbara Dunn received her introduction to broadcast radio and, eventually, to the “Ham” game. She says it was “YLish curiosity” that prompted her to find out the meaning of certain scratchy signals which interfered with 21.0 broadcast reception at her old home in Stock, Essex. Having discovered that these were spark signals from ships and coastal stations, she deserted the ranks of her broadcast listening, and set to learn the morse code. She mastered the code entirely by listening on a crystal receiver on 600 metres and 2,600 metres (FL time signals). After five months of self-tuition, in her spare time, the code was copied at 20 WPM.

At Christmas, 1925, a short-wave receiver opened up fresh fields. Many hams received useful reception reports, signed “B. Dunn”. In 1927, with encouragement from a friend, Gerry Marcuse G2NM, she was persuaded to seek admission to the Ham fraternity. Her appearance at the county head post office, where she walked through the morse test with a solid copy at well over 20 WPM, must have caused a great sensation in the ham circles.

Her original transmitter employed an L.S.5 in a Hartley circuit, with about 350 volts derived from a Mortley rotary converter running off a 6-volt car accumulator (no electrical mains), feeding a half-wave VF Hertz. Some idea of the enthusiasm of those days may be gained when it is realized that the accumulator supplied current for the gennie, L.S.5, and the two bright emitters in the receiver, and had to be taken six miles to be charged. However, with the aid of a spare battery, this outfit did very good work on 45 metres with an input of 6 – 10 watts on CW only. She used a Vibroplex Bug which she slowed down considerably due to her low power and what she terms as her “rotten lil” antenna.

G6YL station

Her first 2 way QSO was on November 21, 1927 with GI6YW. All Europe and much DX was worked. The amount of DX worked can be judged by an examination of the QSL’s which completely cover the high walls of her den from floor to ceiling. Her collection of QSL’s and photographs from ship stations is unique. There are forty QSL’s from ships of a dozen different nationalities! Skeds have been kept with great regularity with ships sailing out to Australia via the Cape, across the Western Ocean and to the Far East.

She enjoyed copying W1AW at 35 WPM and was proficient in copying DX through heavy QRM. “The 1st time I heard, and sent Morse code was when I was about 10 years old, at boarding school. I remember a man in a wheelchair talking about Wireless and giving demonstrations on the stage of our large concert hall. At the end of his lecture, he asked if any young lady in the audience would like to step up on the stage and stand between his aerial and his receiver, and see whether she could prevent the Morse signals passing over from one side of the stage to the other! Of course, I volunteered! The man keyed SOS, and he let me do the same. I was thrilled.”

She became proficient at embossing books into Braille for the National Library for the Blind. She was self taught by helping a friend that was blinded in the 1st World War.

In the 1930’s, ladies rarely attended P.D.M.’s. Provincial District Meetings were localized meetings of “The Society”, later to become RSGB. There were 2 important exceptions. Barbara Dunn, G6YL, was the 1st exception. Being of a quiet and retiring nature, few of the hundreds who contacted her efficient and intensely active low power station at Stock in Essex, knew the operator was a lady. Gerry Marcuse, G2NM, president of The Society 1929 – 1930, did know, however, and it was he who was probably responsible in persuading Miss Dunn to come to the 1930 convention. A few weeks earlier, G6YL had been awarded the newly donated 1930 Committee Cup for outstanding work in the first series of 1.7 Mc/s tests. Her presence at the Convention Dinner caused quite a stir as did the fact that when G2NM made the presentation she became the first lady to become the holder of a Society trophy. Barbara Dunn, who was licensed in 1927, remained Britain’s only YL transmitting amateur until 1932 when Nell Corry (the second exception) of Tadworth, Surrey, doubled the number by becoming G2YL.

G6YL card
G6YL station

In July 1939, Barbara used a long-lines transmitter (a self-oscillator with long lines at five meters). It was while listening on her 56 MHz receiver that she became the first to hear the ‘hissing’ sound from a solar burst on this band.

Some of her other accomplishments were WAC, WBE, HBE, WAS, DXCC, DXYL (1st G-YL), WPX (1st G-YL). She was a member of RSGB, and ARRL. She was an honorary member of SSA, REF, EAF, BERTA. Barbara joined OOTC December 30, 1967.

The Old Old Timers Club (OOTC) was founded in 1947 by a group of amateurs who had played a part in laying the foundations of electronic communications. The requirement for membership was 2-way communication by wireless 40 or more years prior to 1947. At that time the members were “spark” operators in 1907 or earlier when there was no licensing authority. The requirements have continued to this day. The current requirements are two-way wireless communication by amateur, military or commercial means 40 or more years ago. Barbara was member #910.

G6YL card

John R. “Reg” Witty G5WQ was licenced in 1923 and was Barbara’s brother. They shared the same father but different mothers. This is due to the first wife dying when Reg was very young. Their father remarried very soon after, as was the normal thing to do in those days. Reg built much of Barbaras’ radio equipment. Barbara and her brother G5WQ kept in touch regularly whilst he was sailing around the world. Reg G5WQ went silent key in 1975. See info on G5WQ here!

Both G5WQ and G6YL (along with around 1500 others) helped with the war effort in 1939-45. They were “VI’s”, Voluntary Interceptor’s in the “Radio Secret Service” listening for German transmissions. T&R bulletins for 1939 and 1940 under ‘Khaki and Blue’ make reference to her. There was no mention of her wartime work which was not made public until 1979 with a BBC broadcast by Rene Cutforth, called the Secret Listeners. Barbara was not mentioned by name in the programme. The “VI’s” were not paid so no record has been kept of who they all were.

Barbara Dunn, when first licensed, was living at Lilystone Hall, Stock, Essex where she operated on 45 meters & 23 meters. After the Washington Conference of 1927, amateur bands were changed to 160M, 80M, 40M, 20M etc. as per today, upon which Barbara operated. In 1928, she moved to a place called Acton House, Felton, in Northumberland. Acton House stands on a hillside, which slopes down to the river Coquet and sea, and can be seen for many miles to the south. The first thing which strikes one’s eye as one walks along the drive is the antenna suspended between a 30-foot-pole fixed up in an oak tree and a chimney, a slightly bent 60-foot AOG with an average height of about 40 feet. This gave G6YL excellent results. Barbara lived the latter part of her life in Cardew Lodge, which was a fortified house near the Scottish border. It was the home of her mothers’ family. They were a fairly well off family. She did not need to work. They made their fortune from the railways in Northern England. She lived with her housemaid and chauffeur. She did not marry. Here is a photo of the house where Barbara lived and finished her days. (unfortunately this photo cannot be found )

G6YL station

Peter Witty (son of G5WQ), Barbara’s nephew, visited Barbara when she was very old. She still had her shack all complete although not used for some time. Her house was “stuck” in the 1930’s. It still had flagstone floors, big solid stone washbasins, etc. Her shack was complete with all the old equipment and much covered in cobwebs.

The transmitter, which she used for operating on 45 and 23 meters  is in the museum at RSGB HQ; this is a 1 tube T.P.TG transmitter. There is a stations description in the October 1933 T&R Bulletin.

It is understood that Barbara Mary Dunn died in 1979, her death being registered in the July-September quarter of that year, in the Carlisle registration district. Barbara had a younger sister named Edith who died shortly before Barbara.

See several of Barbaras’ QSL cards by typing G6YL into the search engine located at http://hamgallery.com/qsl/.

Read her autobiography sent to Spark Gap Times magazine, some of which was outlined above.

Information courtesy of Ian Williams, current holder of G5WQ (ex M0BCG)

Provincial District Meetings paragraph from the RSGB book by John Clarricoats G6CL;

“World at their Fingertips”

Research and information courtesy of Bob Ballantine W8SU

Autobiography from “Spark Gap Times” magazine and application information courtesy of OOTC

OOTC help by Milbert A. Wells, Troy Wideman W6HV, Joseph Schroeder, Jr W9JUV

QSL on this page from G4UZN Collection

QSL’s on Ham Gallery courtesy of Norman Field

Info on 45 & 43 meters from T&R Bulletin October 1927 courtesy of John Crabbe G3WFM

RSGB museum info courtesy of John Crabbe, G3WFM (RSGB Hon. Historian)

Help from Catherine Pearson, Radio Society of Great Britain

Radio Secret Service information courtesy of Bob King G3ASE

Info from The T & R Bulletin October 1933 by G3VA and G3ASE

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