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.

Night on London's River 1933

THE TWO TRACKS featured on this page were made in 1933 (BBC library number 304) and they may be the oldest surviving BBC location recordings. They appear on two sides of a 12-inch transcription disc which must have been part of a set. The other disc or discs can’t be found.

The disc labels bear the date 28 October 1933, and BBC Genome confirms this was when it was broadcast rather than recorded. The labels name the programme as Night on London’s River: Westminster to the Docks. What we can hear is the part of the journey extending eastwards from Wapping.

It all takes place aboard a motor launch, perhaps provided either by the Port of London Authority or the shipbuilders John I. Thornycroft & Company, both of which are credited. The commentator is Gerald Cock, then the BBC’s Director of Radio Outside Broadcasting and, in 1936, its first Director of Television. Here, Cock plays the role of tour guide describing places and buildings as the launch passes them.

The sound quality is surprisingly good for the time, even allowing for how well sound travels over water, with the cries of dockers or watermen clearly audible. London was then still a major commercial port so it’s not surprising how busy the river was at night. The photograph below, originally put on Geograph by Ben Brooksbank and reproduced here under the terms of its Creative Commons licence, gives some idea of the amount of daytime activity in 1949 along the Southwark bank of the Upper Pool of London:

View of the Upper Pool of London in 1949

In 1933 the BBC didn’t have its own outside broadcasting vehicles to carry around the heavy equipment needed to record direct to disc. The producer Lawrence Gilliam got around this obstacle the following year by hiring a recording van from the Columbia Graphophone Company to help capture the sounds for ‘Opping ‘Oliday at London Bridge station and among the Kent hopfields. The makers of Night on London’s River had evidently come up with their own solution of loading the equipment onto a boat, and it may be that this sparked the idea for the programme, rather than programme making the initial demand.

Gerald Cock belies the popular present-day image of BBC staffers from that era as fustian, as with Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondley-Warner. His youth was spent working as a cattle rancher, gold prospector and occasional Hollywood film extra, and he was described as being impatient with the minutiae of committees. A 1937 photograph of him looking suave can be found on the Birth of Television and a good account of his role in early TV broadcasting is given in Kenneth Baily’s 1950 book Here’s Television, available online at the Teletronic website.

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.

Night on London's River 1 4:32
Night on London's River 2 4:28