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.

Dock atmospheres 1935

THE RECORDINGS reproduced here comprise two sides of a 10” BBC transcription disc simply titled ‘Dock Atmospheres’. The labels on each side are blue, a feature of many discs made between 1934 and 1937, and they have brief notes written on them in fountain pen:

Side 1: Conversation, handing over cargo. Loading fruit cases. Side 2: Conversation on quay re cargo.

The BBC library number of 7676 is also given. There’s no date or place of recording but, judging by the accents of the stevedores on side 1, they were almost certainly made somewhere in the Port of London. The blue label, quite poor sound quality and stilted dialogue are typical of recordings made around the mid-1930s.

In 1935 the Dinner is Served documentary series was broadcast, and it included features on Covent Garden market and Billingsgate market – you can imagine the phrase Everyone’s got to eat being uttered by an enthusiastic producer. It seems quite possible that the dock atmosphere recordings were intended as part of it, so I’ve provisionally dated them to that year.

The first side begins with a staged conversation between two merchant seamen in which the ship’s cargo is helpfully described as including meat and general cargo, plus currants and raisins ‘all ready for the Christmas puddings’. Next we hear stevedores at work on a ship. ‘No swearing down there’ warns somebody, followed by more instructions and brief bursts of song.

The second side features several attempts at recording the same exchange between two men about how much is to be loaded onto a ship. ‘How many more do you want down there Joe?’ ‘Twenty-five eighty’ comes the reply.

The stevedores on side one would have ranked among the higher-paid dock workers at the time, being employed in London directly by ship-owners or their agents rather than by the dock companies. They formed small teams each of around a dozen men, headed by a Master Stevedore, and it was their job to load and unload ships as efficiently as possible while making sure that the loads were correctly balanced.

London’s upstream docks began to close in the late 1960s, first with the East India Dock, followed by the London and St Katharine’s Docks. The last to go were the Royal Docks in 1981.

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.

Dock atmosphere 1 2:28
Dock atmosphere 2 1:10