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.

Godfrey the Bagpipe King 1936

THE BBC PRODUCER John Cheatle was remembered for his talent for improvisation and for making up scurrilous limericks. He also made a short-lived series called ‘Street Show’ in which street musicians were invited into the studio and recorded. Two such recordings are reproduced elsewhere on the London Sound Survey.

A transcription disc with the BBC Archive catalogue number of 823930 holds two more ‘Street Show’ offerings. One is an attempt at a field recording of an accordionist in Petticoat Lane, but the results are so indistinct that they haven’t been included here.

The other track has no such problems. In fact, it’s quite startling and although interesting it’s not necessarily what you’d want to wake up to first thing. The catalogue entry is very brief:

Patter and bagpipes, by London street musician known as ‘The Bagpipe King’.

Addtional notes give the recording date as 18 December 1936 and the Bagpipe King is named simply as ‘Godfrey’.

There’s a minor folk tradition of English people affecting horror at the sound of bagpipes. This probably expresses some nationalistic urge to ridicule the Scots in the same spirit as jibes against the Welsh and the Irish.

But Godfrey doesn’t sound Scottish. I had assumed that he wasn’t using Highland pipes either, and they were more likely to be of a bellows-driven design such as Northumbrian pipes, because he seems to be able to talk while he’s playing them. Fortunately Paul Roberts, who actually knows about pipes, sent me this very helpful email:

Very much enjoyed the bagpipe king! However, the bagpipe is defo not a Northumbrian smallpipe which has a cylindrical bore chanter (like a clarinet). Godfey’s chanter has an unmistakable conical bore sound (like an oboe). Could be bellows-blown as you suggest, but I suspect not – it’s perfectly possible to sing and talk with most mouth blown bagpipes by letting go of the blowstick during the vocals, and giving a quick refill puff in between phrases. Continental pipers do this all the time.

In fact bellows would probably be far too complex a feature for what is almost certainly a factory-made toy. If you listen to the patter he is clearly selling them: “only a few left . . . sixpence a bagpipe” etc. They could even be home-made, but conical chanters are more difficult to make and in my experience home-made bagpipes are almost always cylindrical bore, using things like cane and old tubing. Loads of them on YouTube!

The catalogue entry doesn’t confirm if this was ever broadcast and Cheatle was surely trying his luck in recording Godfrey to begin with. Why did he do it?

Cheatle’s suicide in 1943 by gas-poisoning seems less surprising when set against his legendary exuberance at work, and he may have spent his life under the thumb of manic depression. Cheatle’s enthusiasm would have been fleeting but also intensely and genuinely felt. In Godfrey’s ear-grating music and stream of nonsensical patter he had found an ally in the crusade against life’s greyness.

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.

Godfrey the Bagpipe King 1:51