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.

Covent Garden market 1935

IN 1935 A BBC documentary radio series titled Dinner is Served was devised by Gerald Noxon with the aim of ‘depicting the organisation of our national food supply; the production and distribution of vegetables, fish and meat from source to consumer.’

The results show off to good effect the BBC’s growing willingness and ability to make location recordings. The two recordings featured here were made at Covent Garden market and come from BBC Archive catalogue number 870307.

Covent Garden market had grown from a modest collection of stalls in the 16th century to become London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market throughout most of the 20th century. By the 1960s it was recognised as a major cause of traffic congestion in the West End and in 1974 the market was closed and relocated to its windswept new home in Nine Elms.

The first recording is a vivid sample of market life with an auctioneer at work. As with many of the best street sellers, it’s not easy to make out everything he says. ‘Jonathans, fancy jonathans’ might be a type of apple. The second track consists of general market noises including the shouts of porters and rumble of barrows.

Other Covent Garden market recordings made for Dinner is Served include interviews with a night porter and the market superintendent. They’ve not been reproduced here, but the catalogue entry makes for interesting reading:

A night porter talks of his work – arrives at market at 10.00 p.m. First job to arrange the samples, work goes on all night. Heaviest period at 4:00 a.m., gets half-hour coffee break at 5.00 a.m. Average porter can pull about half a ton per term, on head can carry about 2 bushels (roughly 1 cwt). Has worked in Covent Garden all his life and has 60 relations also working there. Job finishes about 10.00 a.m.

Superintendent describes how work is done: historic market dating beyond time of Henry VIII never closes, winter, summer, night and day fruit, vegetables and flowers pour in from all over world. Over one million tons of fruit and vegetables pass through market annually. Scene at its liveliest at 4.00 a.m.

F.W.H. Sheppard’s Survey of London has a potted history of Covent Garden market which can be read at the excellent British History Online website. British Pathe have a newsreel in which porters and traders are interviewed on the eve of the market’s relocation.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

Covent Garden market auctioneer 1:01
Covent Garden market porters 0:35