BBC sound effects 1940–86

In 2018, the BBC made freely available for non-commercial use some 16,000 of its sound effects recordings. A few hundred come from known locations around the UK, and most of these have been sorted and presented here through a sound map. All recordings © BBC.


THIS IS A sound map made up of recordings taken from the BBC's database of freely-available sound effects. You can search the database here – – and download the recordings yourself in WAV format. They're all under BBC copyright but can be used for non-commercial purposes, and the database's homepage links to more detailed information about this.

A large majority of the 16,000-odd sound effects recordings don't have a place of origin noted and many were created entirely in the studio. However, about 400 are from known locations across the United Kingdom, and from those I've selected just over 300 for presentation by leaving out near-duplicates and a few others. The BBC's numerical filenames have been replaced with descriptive ones, and brief descriptions of the recordings have been copied from the database. You can use placenames and other distinctive words from the descriptions to look up the original recordings on the sound effects website.

Picking the mid-1980s as a cut-off helps emphasise the historical interest of this collection. Through it snatches can be overheard of an older country of coal mines and shipyards, street markets and trawler fleets and trams. Others bear witness to more specific disappearances, like that of the one o'clock gun in Liverpool. There also seems to have been an insatiable fascination with church bells, giving the impression of pre-war levels of religious observance.

The pie chart above shows the proportions of recordings according to broad subject categories, where places of origin are known. The sound effects database has a lot of industrial process sounds, but only rarely are their locations given. Church bells, on the other hand, are nearly always attributed to a particular church in a particular town or village. One result of this is to skew the country's representation on the sound map towards London and the South-east. This is a shame but unavoidable without levelling down, which would be worse.

Throughout the rest of 2018 I'll be fleshing out many of the individual recording entries with some research on their subjects. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy listening to this contingent, half-hopeful account of the United Kingdom of the near past.