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 1937

PETTICOAT LANE MARKET in Middlesex Street has attracted radio journalists and recordists many times over the decades. The earliest BBC field recording from there seems to have been from 1936 and it includes the sales patter of a herbalist. The recording was later used in a 1968 radio program by John Betjeman with the title London Before the Motor Car.

This recording (BBC catalogue number 870501) was made in November 1937. The general hubbub of the market is captured before the recordist begins to home in on the voices of individual street traders. One man offers ‘the machine for printing ten bob notes’ – what can it have been? The catalogue entry lists a ‘negro selling wares’ and we can hear him knock his prices down with a sharp cracking sound for added emphasis.

The star performer is Mike Stern, seller of ladies’ knickers. Stern is good at comic timing and his articulate stream of high-octane sales patter must have made him a decent living. But it’s unlikely that radio listeners would have ever heard him during the era of the BBC’s Director-General John Reith. Women’s underwear were still among the list of banned subjects for radio comedies in the BBC guidelines of 1948.

The previous year Stern had led the market traders to victory in securing an Act of Parliament which finally made legal Petticoat Lane’s Sunday trading. He was described by William Addison in his 1953 book English Fairs and Markets as dressing in a Lord Mayor’s costume while sticking to his usual sales patter: ‘Oh, when I am dead and forgotten as I shall be, and sleep in dull, cold marble with . . . these lovely utility towels, ten bob a pair.’

Stern also managed to get himself in among a series of cigarette cards issued by the Imperial Tobacco Company, appearing alongside Brick Lane’s racing tipster Rass Prince Monolulu and the explorer Neville Whymant.

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.

Petticoat Lane market 2:58