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.

Festival of Britain 1951

THE 1951 FESTIVAL of Britain is well represented in the BBC Archives, with features ranging from a celebratory pets’ parliament in Southport to a thousand-strong march of Highland pipers through Edinburgh.

One twelve-inch transcription disc (BBC catalogue number 830646) carries an intriguing mix of recordings from the Festival’s epicentre on the South Bank in London. The catalogue entry summarises its contents:

Lion and Unicorn Pavilion, Eccentrics’ Corner: Matchstick Mandolin – ‘Frere Jacques’ – French trad. Smoke-grinding machine. Transport Pavilion: Buddicom Engine. Built by English firm in France 1843 – in use on French Railways ever since; lent by France as exhibit in Transport Pavilion. Children at turnstiles. Announcer (crowd): Visitors requested to use litter baskets. Festival Bell.

The Eccentrics’ Corner was organised by the writer Laurie Lee, best known today for his novel Cider with Rosie. The matchstick mandolin was made from glued-together matchsticks while the smoke-grinding machine was a nonsensical Heath Robinson-style contraption which offered smoke in three grades: fine, medium and coarse. Other exhibits included an egg roundabout and a special harp which would allow Underground trains to play music as they moved.

The Buddicom engine was the design of the Everton-born engineer William Buddicom. When Buddicom was in his mid-twenties he helped form a consortium to manufacture rolling stock in France for the proposed Paris–Rouen railway. On its delivery to London in 1951, the engine was not only exhibited at the Festival, but also ran short journeys to and from the now-vanished Bricklayers’ Arms station in south London.

On the other side of the transcription disc is a recording of a horde of enthusiastic children passing through a Festival turnstile, followed by a loudspeaker announcement urging visitors not to leave litter lying around. The final recording is of the Festival of Britain’s 21-cwt tenor bell in the note of E flat. The bell was cast in Whitechapel and, after the Festival, was installed in the church of St Mary the Virgin at Kelvedon, Essex.

Britain in 1951 was an austere place. The weekly meat ration was fixed at one shilling per person, including tuppence-worth of corned beef. Electricity restrictions had shut down the neon signs and display lights of the West End. A flu epidemic had broken out. The Festival was meant as a popular antidote to such woes, and its democratic outlook and promotion of eccentricity as part of the British character echoed the message of cheerful wartime films such as Tawny Pipit.

Two years later, with the coronation of Elizabeth II, attempts to define the national essence took a different turn with talk of a new Elizabethan age in which a confident Britain could reassert itself on the world stage. In reality, the prospect of managed decline became accepted in the centres of national power. The self-deprecating notes of the matchstick mandolin now seem more prophetic than the coronation performance of William Walton’s Crown Imperial.

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.

Festival of Britain Eccentrics Corner 1:10
Festival of Britain Buddicom engine 1:17
Festival of Britain turnstile and bell 2:14