You have been listening to ...


Writing up a long overdue note of a talk at the Westminster Guides' monthly meeting it dawned on me that the subject matter would be of interest to a wider audience.

After attending London Historians'/Londonist's History in the Pub last March with the theme of London Recorded Sound I passed contact details of Simon Rooks, the BBC's multi-media archivist, to the Westminster Guides' programme organiser and later in the year he came to speak to us. The fact that I have now heard his talk twice together with the great resources on the BBC website helped greatly in writing this up 2 months after I had last heard it.

The recordings Simon shared with us spoke for themselves and were a fascinating insight into the past lives of Londoners and the spoken language of the time too.

Although the BBC was founded in 1922 it was almost 10 years before the first broadcast was recorded as preservation wasn’t deemed important at the time. When the BBC moved from Savoy Hill to Broadcasting House in 1932 they realised it would be difficult to make a programme about the Corporation’s first 10 years as no recordings had been made up to that point. The photograph below shows one of the bigger studios at Savoy Hill taken from a brochure entitled "Twenty-five years of British Broadcasting" which I acquired some time ago and have since wondered how it could be featured in a blog post.

Studio at Savoy Hill
It was for practical reasons that broadcasts were eventually preserved. The Empire Service (later the World Service) started broadcasting in 1932 and recordings were then needed because of the different time zones involved.

In 1942 Lynton Fletcher, Recorded Programmes Executive at the BBC, made a programme entitled “You have been Listening to a Recording” explaining the importance of recordings and what use they would be to people of the future. Click on the aforementioned link to hear the broadcast.

Fletcher mentions Marie Slocombe who was the BBC’s Sound Archive Librarian from 1937 right up until 1972. A fascinating interview about her life at the BBC, recorded in 1986, can be found here.

Simon then played us some more amazing recordings. From 1940 we heard a 92 year old man reliving his childhood attendance at the 1852 funeral of the Duke of Wellington and then from 1957 we heard Lady Gwendolen Stephenson recollecting her attendance at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Both recordings included fascinating details about daily life in the 19th Century.

The most interesting recording of the evening (for me) was writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm talking about how the London of today (1935) depressed him and how when visiting every couple of years from his home in Italy he wanted to leave as soon as he possibly could.

The recording started with Beerbohm saying (in what would be taken to be a posh voice today) that we could obviously tell that he was a genuine Cockney. Talking about Mayfair, St James’s and Westminster he described them as “places of leisure—of leesure, one might almost have said in the old-fashioned way” which made me wonder when the American sounding “leesure” would ever have been used in this country. Does anyone know?

Beerbohm then talked about the 2 milkmaids selling goats’ milk in St James’s Park but later went on to say that “London has been cosmopolitanised, democratised, commercialised, mechanised, standardised, vulgarised” comparing it to Dante’s Hell.  The text of this broadcast can be found here if you would like to read more.

If you would like to know more about what Simon had to say about the history of the archives there’s a recording of an interview with him here.

Sometimes hearing a talk twice makes you remember things better. I would happily listen to the recordings mentioned above again and again as they made for fascinating listening.


The author of this blog (Joanna Moncrieff) is a qualified City of Westminster Tour Guide who specialises in food and drink themed walks in the West End. 
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