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Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

Southend seaside barkers 1947

BARKING WAS A simple form of advertising in which someone would stand outside a shop or venue and keep up a loud and articulate stream of sales patter to entice potential customers to go inside. In the popular imagination it is connected only with fairgrounds and circuses (“Roll up! Roll up!”) but barking was once used by all kinds of businesses.

Today it is almost completely extinct, and over the last few years I’ve only managed to record one obvious example outside a butcher’s shop in Walthamstow, and a more theatrical variant used by a horror attraction at London Bridge.

The origins of this recording from 1947 are unclear. Notes on its open-reel tape box state that it was made as part of a series called ‘Home Flash’, but the BBC Archive catalogue lists no broadcasts under that title. A further clue comes from the presenter’s name of Christopher Stone listed on other ‘Home Flash’ recordings.

Major Christopher Stone earned his place in radio history by being the first ever disc jockey in Britain, playing records for the BBC in 1927. He later fell out with his employers and worked instead for Radio Luxembourg, but then rejoined the BBC. It’s not clear whether ‘Home Flash’ was a BBC or a Radio Luxembourg production.

Stone can be heard on another ‘Home Flash’ tape interviewing a railway station porter in York and he has a friendly, avuncular style. Whereas a modern radio journalist might ask the porter how he feels about pushing luggage around, Major Stone (Royal Fusiliers) takes a more bracing approach and encourages him with the words: Now, you’ve worked here a long time, you must have some good stories! The porter does indeed have a good story.

This recording is simply entitled ‘Southend seaside barkers’ and it has no commentary at all. Despite the title it features only a single barker, according to the strict definition of a barker as someone employed to advertise another person’s wares. The first voice heard is that of an ice-cream salesman, perhaps of the stop me and buy one variety equipped with a tricycle, and his style of delivery is a bit lacklustre.

Not so for the second voice, which is clearly that of a professional and tireless barker employed by a cafe. No one seems to get past him without being hailed: Roast lamb or beef . . . one and ten for a nice meat dinner, girl. At one point he says something which will make present-day listeners do a double-take:

You got no money, you can have it on the knock. Pay next time you come up.

Southend was a favourite holiday destination for east Londoners who could reach it by train in an hour or less. A day-tripper might reasonably assume they could get away with having a free dinner. Does the barker’s apparent faith in the public really reflect the honesty of past times?

Or is it a calculated attention-grabber, with the barker well aware that almost no-one would willingly risk being seen as too poor to buy themselves a meal? Either way, it might be an unwise strategy to pursue today.

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Southend seaside barkers 1:06