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.

London street cries 1956

MOST ARCHIVED BBC recordings were made with specific radio productions in mind, but a few seem to have been gathered for a general-purpose library of atmospheres and sounds. These recordings from 1956 appear on a 12” disc (BBC catalogue 892337) simply titled ‘London Street Cries’ and feature a coalman, two chimney sweeps and a butcher’s stall in a market. No precise locations are given for any of them.

The coalman’s cry was recorded on the 15th of November, a Thursday. The coalman is named as Henry Halsey, and the catalogue entry notes that both he and his horse retired shortly afterwards. The absence of background noise suggests moodily quiet surroundings, perhaps made so by a thick London fog or even smog, in which case Halsey played a small contributing role.

London smogs came about due to a combination of cold, windless weather and widespread coal-burning. In the same year the Clean Air Act was passed and it sought to reduce the use of coal by specifying smokeless fuel zones in cities and offering financial incentives to adopt other forms of heating. The last outbreak of London smog occurred in 1962.

While legislation was necessary to safeguard the public commons of air quality, chimney sweeps helped maintain private property. The two sweeps’ cries on the disc belonged to Jack and William Rowles, possibly father and son, and were recorded in December.

No other itinerant traders, with the exception of prostitutes, were the focus of as much legislative effort and moral campaigning in the 19th century as were chimney sweeps. As part of the drive against the use of children to crawl up chimneys and along horizontal flues, the Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 was introduced and one of its provisions banned the raising of the sweeps’ cry in the streets.

A contemporary cartoon shows sweeps being hauled off by peelers for doing just that, although one tries to circumvent the law by calling out Does any Lady or Gemman’s flue-pies vont expurgating?

1834 cartoon depicting aggrieved chimney sweeps being arrested

The final recording is of a butcher’s stall in a market. The butcher is named as Mr J. E. Hulls and the slight reverberation of his voice suggests he may have been trading under cover, perhaps from a permanent stall with a roof or substantial awning.

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.

Coalman 1:04
Chimney sweeps 1:58
Butchers 1:26