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.

Petticoat Lane herbalist 193?

A HANDFUL OF recordings which can no longer be found among the surviving BBC transcription discs have been preserved on tape through their inclusion in John Betjeman’s 1968 Radio 4 broadcast Scenes that are brightest: London before the motor car. You can find ones featuring religious meetings elsewhere on this site.

The brief recording reproduced here is of a Petticoat Lane herbalist, running a stall in the street and crying his wares, and the sound quality almost certainly dates it to the 1930s. Betjeman introduces it as follows:

People are less credulous now than they used to be be, I think less credulous of those herbalists, marvellous people they were. I remember one at a stall in Queens Crescent, Gospel Oak, proclaiming the powers of a herbal pill for worms. And he then produced a huge jam jar with two of these pale white things wriggling about in it. These stall-keepers had a splendid flow of oratory and they often called themselves professors, like conjurors used to do. Here is a herbalist in Petticoat Lane.

The herbalist peddles cures such as juniper, horehound, mandrake and senna with a bold, rapid delivery and a quite high-pitched voice. Both this style of selling and of speaking in public, shared by fairground barkers and street lecturers charging money to view fleas and pollen grains through microscopes, are most likely extinct now. Men’s voices have generally slowed down and lowered in tone as part of the long-term trend towards greater informality in speech, abandoning the excited yelping which can be heard in this 1935 wool auction recording and these 1941 Petticoat Lane recordings.

He belongs to a very old tradition which lingered on in London’s street markets until at least the 1960s when, for example, Chapel Market in Islington still had its own quack podiatrist selling various ointments. Mayhew’s mid-19th century survey London Labour and the London Poor recorded the sales pitch of the street herbalist Doctor Bokanky:

Now then for the Kalibonca Root, that was brought from the Madras in the East Indies. It’ll cure the tooth-ache, head-ache, giddiness in the head, dimness of sight, rheumatica in the head, and is highly recommended for the ague; never known to fail; and I’ve sold it for this six and twenty year. From one penny to sixpence the packet. The best article in England.

Doctor Bokanky, street herbalist

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.

Petticoat Lane herbalist 0:34