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.

Wool auction 1935

AMONG A SMALL number of pre-war recordings from London auction houses is this disc from the 20th of November 1935, BBC catalogue number 870474. The disc has a lot of surface noise but the vigour of the proceedings at the London Wool Exchange is still apparent. As the very brief catalogue entry states:

Auctioneer’s voice calling prices and crowd very vehement over bids.

The Wool Exchange was in Coleman Street near Moorgate, in the City of London. Another recording from the Exchange in 1961 comes with a much more detailed written description:

The London Wool Exchange is controlled by the Associated London Selling Wool Brokers, who are a governing body represented by nine firms of wool brokers responsible for arranging the order of the sales. Each morning while the sale season is in progress bales of wool are on show at London warehouses. In the afternoon the auction sales take place in the Exchange which holds about 400 people. It resembles a large lecture hall built around a sunken platform, which forms the rostrum. Tiers of seats slope upward from the rostrum. From 3 p.m. when bidding begins, the ‘floor’ presents an amazing scene. Buyers of many nationalities join in a babel of tongues that would utterly confuse anyone unacquainted with the wool industry. Bids are made and accepted with a rapidity unequalled anywhere else.

A 1931 Daily Mail newspaper feature captures the same atmosphere but in more sensational language to bring alive the sounds of the Exchange in the reader’s mind:

The scene is a large room which suggests a science lecture theatre. The steep declivity of wooden seats is filled with men. But they are not quiet students. From them burst forth noises like the barking of sealions; the staccato yelps of guardsmen ‘numbering off’; the cries of dismay of those suddenly realising intense personal tragedy.

The lots go with astonishing swiftness. Three hundred lots an hour. Four or five seconds for some; up to twenty seconds when the bidding strings out. There are quiet lots, noisy lots, and some that sound like a barrage. The real explosions come with the much-desired lots. The buyers are straining on the leash. The auctioneer mentions tile number. Wow! They leap yelling into action, bombarding him with farthing bids as from massed machine guns. “Nine-one, nine-half, nine-three!” they shriek. But it doesn’t sound like that.

In 1963, the Wool Exchange moved in with the Fruit Exchange in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields. By the beginning of this century, the wool and fruit brokers had gone and the building is now scheduled for partial demolition to make way for offices and shops.

The presentation of this recording is dedicated to Felicity Ford, sound-artist and devotee of all things woollen. She runs the Domestic Soundscape blog.

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.

Wool auction 1:30