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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.

Petticoat Lane market 1941

WHEN THE BBC’s early recordists found a location that provided easy access and the right sound environment, they tended then to visit it repeatedly over the following years. This was to be expected with the bulky recording equipment of the time which had to be driven around in a van.

Petticoat Lane market was one such favoured spot. The earliest confirmed recording there dates from 1936, with the possibility of another made there the previous year. The three tracks on this page represent the beginnings of a tradition of recording in the market that would extend well into the post-war period.

They’re on a 12-inch transcription disc with the BBC catalogue number of 830549. Unfortunately, the disc suffers from rather high levels of surface noise but there aren’t any obvious, visible signs of excessive wear. It was recorded in January which was unusually cold that year in London, with average temperatures of 1.5C and a mid-month night-time low of –6C.

This evidently did little to suppress the manic energy of the market traders, nor what the catalogue entry describes as a male singer [with] a very emotional voice. There was obvious propaganda value in depicting business as usual in the East End despite the heavy bombing raids which had begun around four months earlier.

The market trader who dominates two of the recordings has a high-pitched voice and shouts so rapidly that you might think the record is playing a little too fast. But, according to Penny Dyer, who’s one of Britain’s leading voice coaches for the acting profession, average voice pitches for both men and women tended to fall somewhat during the second half of the twentieth century. She puts this down to the gradual disappearance of formal modes of speech in favour of a more relaxed style.

The street singer on the third tracks belts out a medley of patriotic songs, including Bless ‘Em All, There’ll Always be an England, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. The first two minutes of the track sound very indistinct and so have been edited out.

Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting the London Sound Survey permission to reproduce this recording. It is not covered by the site’s Creative Commons licence so please don’t try to download or redistribute it.

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Petticoat Lane traders 1 2:41
Petticoat Lane traders 2 0:57
Petticoat Lane singer 2:43