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.

Hampstead Heath fair 1939

THE FAIR AT Hampstead Heath was a major holiday fixture for Londoners during the first half of the 20th century, with around 200,000 visitors in 1910 and a visit from Queen Alexandra in 1920.

This recording (BBC catalogue number 871005) was made in 1939 as part of the Foreign Broadcaster’s Tour of Britain, although the catalogue entry doesn’t state what program it was used in.

There’s a wide range of sounds including the regular ding of a ‘test your strength’ bell, voices and whistling from passersby, and showmen touting shies and lotteries. One curiosity is the whine of a miniature siren belonging to one of the fairground rides. Sirens may have been a recent addition to the urban soundscape of the time, and their use for air raid warnings wasn’t foreseen in Alex Korda’s 1936 film Things to Come, in which men blowing whistles perform that duty.

Of particular interest is the voice of a showman running a weight-guessing pitch. Weight-guessing was recorded as a street occupation by Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor in the mid-nineteenth century, typically occurring outside major railway stations.

Weight-guessing was also an early example of the human voice becoming automated. ‘I Speak Your Weight’ machines began to be produced in the early 1930s by the British Automatic Co. Ltd. and other manufacturers. A shellac disc inside the machine bore voice recordings, and the customer’s weight made a needle move to the start of the appropriate track and begin playing.

In the 1979 comedy film The Jerk, Steve Martin pursues the noble calling of weight-guessing in an American fairground.

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.

Hampstead Heath fairground 2:49