Have you ever wondered how Christabel Pankhurst sounded when rousing women to fight for the right to vote? Or Aga Khan III speaking to Muslim people? Or the Queen mom as a young woman exhorting the women of England to be brave during war? How about Robert Baden Powell, speaking to young boyscouts in the early 20th century?
We can easily find material to read about these people and what they stood for. But it is rare to actually hear their voices and hear their passion and personality come through in speech.
The British Library Sound archive holds recordings of various public figures including these and many more, most of them recorded before the advent of long-playing records and tapes.
They are recordings of speeches and messages addressed to the British parliament or the public at various events.
The library warns users to be aware that the recordings are historical documents and that language, tone and content could be offensive to present-day listeners
Another interesting collection within the British library’s sound archive are recordings of childrens’ games and songs made by Iona Opie and her husband Peter between 1969 and 1983, the Opie collection.
The Opie’s dedicated their working lives to the documentation of children’s play, folklore, language and literature.
They also published several influential works, most notably The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959).
Recordings are searchable by British county using an alphabetical drop-down menu, or by the name of the interviewer or interviewee.
Under the BBC Voices project, you can listen to speakers from all the counties of Britain to hear how they pronounce words in the early 21st century – and what words are in their current lexicon.
I took a quick listen to the people from Cornwall – because I’ve heard that people from that region have a strong accent that is difficult for outsiders to understand (though I didn’t find that from what I listened to – local accents are becoming less distinct with the movement of people from different regions). I also listened to speakers from West Yorkshire because that’s where the protagonist of my historical novel comes from.
Two of the recordings from the West Yorkshire area (Leeds) feature speakers from the Jamaican and Punjabi communities there which adds another flavour to the evolution of the English language
Between 2004 and 2005 group conversations were recorded in 303 locations involving a total of 1,293 people across the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The vast majority of conversations were conducted in English, but the collection also includes 31 interviews in Scots, 9 in Welsh, 5 in Scots Gaelic, 3 in Irish, 3 in Ulster Scots, and 1 each in Manx and Guernsey French. The selection available here represents the entire set of conversations conducted in English and Scots.
There are further recordings of accents and dialects on Sounds Familiar, which is an interactive, educational website with 78 extracts from recordings of speakers from across the UK and over 600 audio clips that illustrate changes and variations in contemporary British English.
While researching the specifics of early audio recordings for a short story I wrote a few months ago, I came across the Vernadsky library’s collection of sound archives in Kiev and it made me think of this different format of documents that – to a music lover and aurally-focused person such as myself – opens up a whole new world of fascinating historical materials.
It’s got one of the biggest collections of recorded sound in the world and includes music, spoken word, and ambient recordings as far back as 1905, mostly on metal cylinders.
A digitizing project began in the 1990s, allowing much of the collection to now be electronically accessible.
The British Library sound archive’s collection of six million recordings come from BBC radio broadcasts and privately made recordings . They include first hand accounts of Holocaust survivors and of WW I vets held in German prisoner-of-war camps, soundscapes of street scenes including open markets from the Victorian era, the sound of a sail being hoisted on its mast on an early sailing ship, recordings of early folk and opera singing, writers – including an interview with Leo Tolstoy and other noteworthy writers – bird calls and wildlife recordings from many parts of the world, and UK dialects.
In a nutshell – here are the classifications of different recordings available. I’ll delve into these more in the weeks to come.
Drama and literature
Popular music and jazz
Spoken language and dialects
Wildlife and other nature sounds
World and traditional music
It makes me think of all the amazing ways these recordings could be used – in art and theatre projects to help set a scene. In academic investigations comparing the predominant sounds of yesteryear to those we hear today. And to hear – perhaps for the first time for contemporary audiences – the sound of birds and animals that have become extinct.
Many of these archival clips and recordings are available online to the public and some can be imbedded into various kinds of documents, but there are others that are restricted to use by students and faculty of British universities that have subscribed to its collection. However – if you are in London – and go into the reading room, you can listen to almost anything in the collection.
More in the coming weeks on use of this collection, restrictions, and a selection of recordings.
It was a thrilling discovery for me to find an article a couple of days ago, about a real man who had the same thing happen to him as my novel’s character Ron – namely being pressed (forced) into the service of the navy.
I was researching the town of Androssan, in southwest Scotland where Ron came from to deepen my understanding of his early years, when I came across a news-article from 1899 about the town’s harbour.
The article was in a section of a local historical society website called, “This day in Androssan” that posts historical news-stories from Androssan for every day of the year.
And right below the article about the harbour was a short biographical piece from 1899 about the death of the city’s oldest resident, William Robertson who lived to be 97 years old.
But the part that really grabbed me was that at the age of 16, Mr Robertson was taken by a press-gang.
A press-gang was a gang of naval men who would hang around pubs in harbour towns in the 18th and 19th centuries, plying unsuspecting victims with liquor and shillings.
When the press-gangs had their victims good and drunk, they’d strong-arm them onto a ship waiting for the tide to change to work for the crown.
They Royal navy resorted to this method of recruitment because few went into the navy by choice. There weren’t many who were interested in a life-time of service onboard a naval ship, becoming involved in battles far from home, and earning low wages that life in the royal navy promised. Who would?
Many of those pressed into service never saw their homes and families again, though abandonment was common despite the penalty of execution or torture if the fugitive was caught.
Although press-gangs had largely been eliminated or outlawed by the time of my story’s setting, it was still in occasional use and I will plead artistic license to stretch the date so that I can work it into my story.
And seeing William Robertson’s obituary gave me evidence that this indeed happened in that region where my character lived, and at about that time.
But more than anything, it opened up a well of emotional feeling that will help me imagine Ron’s experience, an almost transcendent connection to a real-life person.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy finding out about my own local history so much. It gives me a direct link to people who really lived here where I do. To people who walked the same streets, went to the same parks, withstood the same weather, and marveled at the same beauty as I do, whether they were figures of notoriety, or rows of nameless children out of an 1892 Strathcona School class picture.