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.

Street traders interviewed 1955

BBC CATALOGUE records for the mid-1950s show a small cluster of recordings of London street cries and atmospheres. Some were made with specific programmes in mind, others appear to have been collected for a general-purpose library of sound effects.

The two recordings presented here (catalogue numbers 889193 and 889191) were made in August and September 1955 respectively. They consist of interviews by Audrey Russell with a violet lady and a muffin man. Both were made on location and street noise can be heard in their backgrounds.

The brief interview with the violet lady, named as Mrs Agnes Pegg, was broadcast on the BBC’s North American Service. Russell begins by mentioning ‘the flower girls of Piccadilly Circus’, letting us know where we are. Mrs Pegg sounds cheerful as she explains and performs her cry of Violets, lovely violets, but notes that the habit is dying out.

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams had worked an earlier, sung version of the cry into his 1912 A London Symphony and its melody later appeared in Johnny Hawksworth’s signature tune for Thames Television. The spoken version, as given by Mrs Pegg, was around in the 1930s and appeared in the signature opening for the BBC radio series In Town Tonight.

The second interview is with a muffin man, Mr Marshall. He’s described in the catalogue entry as getting his crumpets and muffins from a baker in Forest Hill, and then doing his rounds in south London on Saturdays and Sundays. No exact location for the recording is given.

The general direction of the interview suggests that selling muffins is a vanishing trade. Russell asks Mr Marshall to tell listeners what the work was like in the ‘old days’ and asks him to perform the sales cry and song of his father: Now ladies and gents there’s a nice little treat, if you’ll only buy off the muffin man in the street. He then obliges by ringing his bell as he passes the recordist, moving off into the distance and, perhaps, into history.

The muffin man’s trade was old enough to have become the subject of a children’s playground song and turn-taking game, simply titled The Muffin Man. A 1938 recording of it being played by children in Millwall can be found on the London Sound Survey here.

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.

Violet seller 0:51
Muffin seller 1:51