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.

London street noises 1928

THERE ARE NO BBC radio recordings surviving from before 1931, so the job of representing the 1920s falls to this curiosity from the Columbia Graphophone Company. It’s a 12” 78rpm disc made in 1928 in association with the Daily Mail newspaper.

It seems likely that the disc was somehow tied in with a Daily Mail campaign over urban traffic noise. The commentator on both sides of the disc is a man named Commander Daniel and he doesn’t approve of everything he hears in the city streets.

The recordings were made from single, static locations in Leicester Square and Beauchamp Place on Tuesday 11th and Thursday 20th September respectively. Columbia probably used a recording van equipped with a disc-cutter.

The September of 1928 wasn’t very warm, but it was unusually sunny and a thunderstorm on the 8th dumped most of the month’s rainfall. We might picture bright, clear days for the recordings.

Leicester Square side of London Street Noises disc

The Leicester Square recording features hammering sounds from a building site, the repeated cry of Post! from a newspaper boy, the honking of car horns and the passing of horse-drawn and motor vehicles.

Commander Daniel warms to his task of identifying noise nuisances: “That was a large lorry with building materials, very noisy. There’s a motor bicycle without a proper silencer!”

Beauchamp Place side of London Street Noises disc

Unlike most Londoners today, the Commander uses the original pronunciation of ‘Beecham’ when identifying Beauchamp Place for his listeners. Within seconds a busker fortuitously begins playing the fiddle opposite the recording point.

Cars, lorries and two horse-drawn hearses are heard. The Commander notes a lull in the traffic but it doesn’t last long: “That was the self-starter of a small seven-horsepower car . . . that was an awful vehicle on solid tyres.”

If the Daily Mail was indeed running an anti-traffic noise campaign, then it didn’t exist in isolation. The late 1920s saw a growing recognition among British and American doctors and city authorities that traffic noise might contribute to stress and ill-health.

Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey.

Leicester Square street noises 3:53
Beauchamp Place street noises 3:52