Audio Preservation Engineer Duncan Harrison talks about digitising, summarising and becoming familiar with a small collection of audio tapes from the archive of Salisbury film maker Eda Moore.
When looking after sound collections the words ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you listen’ are constantly guiding principles. Even in the case of well documented and nicely organised collections it is common for our cataloguers to discover that a cassette tape they expected to contain one thing, in fact contains another. It’s a frequent enough occurrence to find that ‘Interview with Mrs. Smith 12.08.88’ turns out to actually contain 5 seconds of somebody testing a microphone followed by half of a Guns N’ Roses live album. This can happen for a number of reasons and is all part of what made tape such an interesting, adaptable format, but a useful analogy here is to think of tape as being like a notebook. In much the same way as we might scribble and jot down notes on a nearby piece of paper over a span of time, tape provided an equivalent of such a sketchpad for capturing sound. Sometimes, depending on the collection, we can have a real job on our hands making sense of what’s in there but we are fortunate that most of the collections we work on here at the Keep originate from well managed educational or cultural institutions that were wary of preventing these future issues. These recordings are made by trained professionals who are aware of good practices in the organisation and cataloguing of their materials and, as such, we may only average around 2 or 3 instances of these complications for every 50-60 perfectly organised items. Even the best of us are prone to occasional error!
What happens then, when we receive a collection of tapes made not by a university department or museum but a private individual? Tapes with recordings made for creative and personal use in the life time of the recordist rather than the aim of long term documentation?
‘Eda Moore Films’ (UTK032 the Keep/AV509 WFSA) is just such a collection.
What is the Eda Moore collection?
It is not our intention to spend too much time detailing the life and output of Eda Moore. The best description of known information around her life can be found in the catalogue of the Hampshire Archives, so here are a few key points: Eda Moore (1908 – 1995) was born in Johannesburg and moved to England to study at the Royal Academy of Music. She relocated to Salisbury with her family when her father became an Alderman and, armed with her Cinefilm cameras, recorded several short films mostly focused on the people, events and places of the local area. These films are held by the Wessex Film and Sound Archive (within the Hampshire Archives) alongside her obituary, some photographs and the audio tapes we received to digitise and catalogue as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.
Consisting of 34 tapes (all open reel besides a single compact cassette) the audio collection does not have a great deal of documentation to go with it, leaving us with only some very general ideas of what to expect were on them. It was understood that some reels contained audio accompaniments to Moore’s films but revealed a great deal more varied and in some cases unpredictable content, giving us a complex job of sorting through and understanding the recordings.
Collections such as these, though challenging, are actually very common. Therefore we thought it would be a good exercise to illustrate some of the processes and decisions we undertook during work on the tapes. This article will detail some of the challenges we encountered whilst digitising and creating summaries of the tapes, hopefully serving as a case study in handling similar collections as well as an overview of a very charming, valuable set of recordings.
A key difference between tapes from institutions vs private individuals is often evident in the physical character of the tapes themselves. In the case of, for example, a university oral history project you can reasonably expect to find recordings that were made on a single brand of good quality tape, having been clearly labelled and documented by the institution. Common protocol at the time of initial recording would require as separate access copy to be dubbed from the master tape, meaning that the original items see relatively little use and wear throughout the intervening years. Even when the number of tapes within such a collection amounts to many dozens, it remains commonplace to find a uniformity among them which is incredibly useful for all aspects of digitisation and cataloguing.
This is not so in the case of the Eda Moore collection where we can see a range of different sizes, brands, designs and quality of tape represented; all of which show clear signs of continued use and domestic storage throughout their original ownership. Many of the tapes were somewhat worn and crinkled where no leader was applied for threading into the tape recorder. The boxes, often a little dog eared and faded, do helpfully contain some hand written notes which indicate recording contents, yet these can often be difficult to read and have in some cases been crossed out and annotated where the tape has evidently been re-recorded over. When this happens it is typical that some of the older content remains on the tape, putting us in the position of having to identify that audio as well as what Eda Moore would probably have considered the most relevant recordings. As you may imagine this all presents us with quite a challenge in figuring out what to make of the collection as a whole.
Even so, it should be mentioned that the recordings held on these tapes have survived in considerably good health considering their age and condition. Of the entire collection only 3 reels required baking to temporarily resolve sticky shed syndrome and there were no broken splices nor any badly damaged sections of tape effecting the audio in drastic ways. The issues that did effect the quality of audio were in most cases related to the original recording conditions and while there is little that can be done to address this at the digitisation stage, the job of identifying and documenting those probably conditions is an essential part of the process.
Extract of the Moore’s in musical mode. Fairly typical of the audio quality throughout the collection. Not bad for 1960’s home made recordings!
From UTK032/11 and AV509/74
The Technical Part: Considerations and Challenges During Digitisation
The most immediate challenge we first encountered during digitisation was the discovery that certain recordings appeared to be made on quarter track machines. Quarter track machines allow up to 4 channels of audio to be captured on a tape as opposed to 2, so to best digitise tapes recorded in this fashion we would need access to similar machines we unfortunately we do not have! This puts us in a position where we must make decisions about whether we can successfully capture any audio on those tapes and if so, how much.
At its worst, digitising quarter track tapes on our machines results in chaotically overlapping sound sources that were not intended to be heard in tandem, giving us no way to separate them out. In these instances there isn’t much we can do besides accept and document our inability to work with the material, hoping that a means to digitise with a quarter track machine arises sometime in the tape’s future. In most cases in the Eda Moore collection though, the placement of the audio across the 4 tracks was fortunately coincidental, allowing most or all of certain tapes to be legibly captured even as a 2 track transfer. This was true with the tapes made to soundtrack Moore’s films as music, narration and location sounds were arranged on the tape to work in tandem with the visual accompaniment. The result is perhaps not as good as we could have achieved with a quarter track machine, but none the less gives us a linear sequence of sounds which make sense in 2 track a stereo form.
An extract of the audio pictured above; the Soundtrack to Moore’s ‘Heart of England’ film. The transfer on a 2 track machine means each channel sits in opposite sides of the stereo field. From UTK032/3 and AV509/65
Outside of the film making context, Moore’s use of the quarter track was possibly a matter of maximising use of a single tape, reflecting an approach many home recordists would have taken in similar circumstances – tape could be expensive, after all! For example, some of the worst effected recordings were collections of musical pieces found on a tape simply labeled ‘Dancing’. It is unlikely any of this audio will be useful to us in 2 track form, however we can gather that it was something of a utilitarian tape for Moore; compiled for the specific purpose of dance. Since most of the content here is commercially available recorded music it needn’t be considered as high a priority as other unique recordings. Although we could not digitise these tapes confidently, perhaps their key value is simply in how they demonstrate one of the ways in which Eda Moore recorded and utilised audio.
Certain things we may learn from one set of tapes can lead us to important contextual understanding informing how we listen to others. Even just the knowledge that Eda Moore used a quarter track recorder became valuable to us in this sense too, as it lead us to be additionally cautious of any audio which sounded out of place or overdubbed on top of another recording. This became a big consideration where, for example, content such as a poetry reading or religious sermon would occasionally be underpinned by a piece of music. Though the likelihood was that these moments were intentional, such instances still needed to be marked for their possibility of resulting from a quarter track recording. Having worked through many of the tapes with this awareness, eventually a fragment of conversation between Eda Moore and her sister Mary featuring on one recording shone light on large sections of the collection. During a poetry reading with loud sections of music also audible, we can occasionally hear Eda and Mary quietly discussing the songs in between recitals. At one point while a piece of music continues as Mary speaks, she reminds Eda that she hasn’t remembered to switch off the record, to which we hear Eda reply ‘do you like that bit of music?’
This subtle. easy to miss moment resulted gave us far more confidence in understanding the recording circumstances and thus allowed us transfer and document accordingly. We never know where the clues may be found and so must listen carefully at all times.
Recording of music with audible speech beneath. The reference to this piece of music at the end of the clip, though said very much in passing, gives us confidence that the piece is placed deliberately into the recording and related to the rest of its content. From UTK032/18 and WFSA AV509/81
We also gained a sense that elsewhere in the collection some of the musical content could likely have been recorded with a microphone through a speaker. This results in some poor quality audio at times where voices, room noises and interference with the microphone are frequently audible beneath the main content. There is of course nothing we can do about this without dramatically intervening in the original recordings, however the observation helped us to understand a lot about Eda Moore’s potentially limited resources for recording and how this would inevitably influence the sound quality of whole collection and what we might expect to listen out for as we progressed through the tapes.
Thankfully, Eda herself was also occasionally on hand to explain the circumstances behind some recordings…
Extracts from the beginnings of two tapes. From UTK032/5 & UTK032/7 and WFSA AV509/67 & AV509/70)
The final point to make about digitisation is actually something incredibly common in collections of this nature. Though thankfully a rarer occurrence than may have been expected, some tapes had sections recorded at different speeds or with the azimuth position of the playback head set to differing angles. Perhaps more so than any of the other specifics mentioned so far, these problems best exemplify the ‘tape as notepad’ analogy we began with. As you might imagine, we do not want to make do with a transfer wherein certain sections play at the wrong speed or are missing their higher frequencies (if we can help it!) In these cases numerous different transfers of the tapes were required at varying speeds and adjustments in order to capture the best quality version we could. This is a time consuming and occasionally complex matter of identifying distinct sections of audio and making multiple new files and it also places additional stress on the often fragile tape as we find ourselves winding it back and forth, playing different sections at different times.
In all cases, actions and decisions taken were documented in depth for the future use of cataloguers and listeners alike, giving a clear picture of exactly what was on the tapes and how it was interpreted into its corresponding digital file. In the end, digitisation resulted in 72 separate wav files.
Summarising the Recordings
When cataloguing we aim to capture lots of details according to set criteria and standards. For example, the names of all speakers should ideally be identified in order of appearance, while titles, performers and versions of any musical pieces are accounted for in as much detail we can achieve. Where possible we also aim to create good descriptions of the overall content of a given recording, marking down names mentioned, works or events cited and subjects discussed. This is a time consuming job which requires close listening in real time to the audio in order to catch onto relevant information which will help us build the fullest picture of what’s going on in the recording.
With collections such as Eda Moore’s it was very common for one piece of audio to begin, end or interrupt another with no warning. This often presents a difficult task in deriving any firm logic or context from the sequence of sounds captured. To tackle this, we decided to make time coded summaries of each tape which run through events on each side of each tape in a linear fashion. These summaries do not yet constitute the finished job of cataloguing as it will take place later on in the project, however they allow us to install several time saving measures for the future work that will be done.
An immediate benefit of the summaries was the ability to pre-identify any commercial music recordings which Moore had recorded on her tapes. In most cases these will not fall within the scope of our project, so marking out these sections with time codes allows cataloguers to focus on more relevant areas. A lack of summaries would mean that even where tapes were mostly commercial music, cataloguers would still need to comb through the recordings one by one in order to ensure no additional materials were held elsewhere within. Similarly, the summaries also made efforts to identify the names of texts such as poems or play extracts being read throughout the tapes which will also hopefully put the cataloguers in a position to simply import these details into their documents and dedicate more of their time on identifying important background or contextual information..
As discussed earlier, Eda Moore appears to have made notes on the tape boxes which are in some cases quite useful. However, this information cannot be relied upon to wholly and accurately describe the content of the tapes and must be used in tandem with the recordings. As we said at the beginning, you never know what you’ve got until you listen and sure enough, there were occasionally inaccuracies found when the notes on some items were compared against what was found during digitisation. Occurrences such as this as well as the issue of hard to read or partially erased writing make even very basic initial summaries incredibly helpful in matching up audio to what is written on the boxes. A task that would typically be done item by item can now be viewed a little bit more broadly and in context of the wider collection. Where notes do correlate with recordings, the summaries give us a good basis to build more detailed, descriptive cataloguing.
Finally, the summaries allow for inclusion of engineer’s notes which identify potential issues with sound quality and whether or not this stems from the original recording or digitisation process. Anomalies in sound quality (irregular speeds, sudden cuts to new recordings, room noise or low volume) can be documented in summaries before the audio reaches the cataloguers, saving lots of time spent reviewing files to diagnose audio issues or even checking back over original tapes to confirm that these problems were not a fault that could be mitigated during transfer.
Listening to the Life & Times of Eda Moore
The time spent on untangling materials of this nature and arranging them into new contexts is ultimately time we spend engaging with a small part of the original owner’s life and times. Eda Moore remains a somewhat elusive figure from today’s perspectives, with a limited amount of information about her available in searches. Through working with this collection we not only come to hear what Eda Moore’s voice sounded like, but gain a deeper sense of her working process, relationships and living arrangements. Many names and voices appear throughout these tapes, most commonly those of her sister Mary and Mother Belle. In fact, Mary Moore’s voice might populate more of these recordings than Eda’s herself, with several tapes dedicated to capturing excerpts from Mary Moore’s speech, drama and literature classes.
Elsewhere, various audio letters sent back and forth between England and South Africa contain songs, poetry, prayers and conversation from larger family gatherings. One interesting recording sees Eda Moore bringing her tape recorder along whilst visiting her friend Phoebe Dunford, capturing the sounds as she recalls memories and dialect from her early life in Somerset. Similarly, moments on other tapes find Moore encouraging her sister and various other family members to speak in Zulu. Each new tape has the potential to bring us deeper into familiarity with a cast of characters near and dear to Moore until we almost feel as though we somewhat known them ourselves.
Extract from a recording made of family and friends celebrating Christmas Eve in 1966. From UTK032/8 and WFSA AV509/71
But what does it tell us that Eda Moore strove to capture these sounds on tape in the first place? What was it all for? Here, some historical context provides an interesting perspective.
The collection, which dates predominantly to the 1960’s, comes from an era which saw the tape recorder enjoy a boom in technological and industrial development. The result was a far greater domestic availability of such devices where expense and scarcity just a few years prior had confined sound recording more to the professional or institutional settings which could afford to invest in it. Knowing this, the time, place and home made nature of Moore’s collection surely reflects experiments common among the generations who lived through this boom; with instincts to turn cameras and tape recorders toward immediate surroundings resulting in audible documents of creative and technical discovery.
As with Moore’s films, much of her audio explores Salisbury and surrounding areas, with one recording featuring a ‘journey in sound’ through the town while another captures the opening night of its new Playhouse. A frequent presence across many of the tapes also are the bells and choir of Salisbury Cathedral. These recordings give the listener a vivid picture of the area and tell us much about the times in which they were made, but always we see the subject through the eyes of Moore and her family. Her take on the local surroundings was not just documentary but also poetic; comprised of and embellished by she and her family’s love of literature, music, prayer and speech – resourcefully created using just the few simple domestic devices to hand.
Extract from Eda Moore’s audio tour of Salisbury. Listen to how she combines recordings made in these various locations with her own narration recorded separately.
From UTK032/6 and WFSA AV509/68)
Exercises such as making summaries, recording technical processes and even writing articles such as this allow us to take a few steps back from our broader workload to gain a different perspective on sound collections; one which allows us to appreciate the way tapes like Eda Moore’s represent a form of homemade creativity unique to a distinctly vibrant era in the history of sound recording. Like lots of similar collections which come from private individuals we have only very little background information and the worlds which reveal themselves in the audio to work with. Where are able to solve some of the mysteries within we might reveal important new details around the life of that individual. Where we cannot do so we may still derive much from the sounds of times gone by that they hold.
Eda Moore’s work sits squarely within a particular geographical and technological reality common to her era. Ultimately, we do not have the information to know what long term plans she may have had for her recordings. Even if a simple enthusiasm for creative pursuits or the pleasure of family and friends was her primary motivator, we might still view her today as something of an unknowing historian; a (semi) silent recordist at the helm of her tape machines, unable to know that merely for having thought to capture the sounds and movement of her own world, she would do so for the benefit of the world yet to come.
References UTK032 are from the British Library catalogue
References AV509 are from the Hampshire Archives catalogue
By Jingjing Xu, Student Volunteer, & Esther Gill, Project Manager
Over the last month, we’ve enjoyed having Jingjing Xu working with the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project on a short placement as part of her MA in Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Sussex. Jingjing is a Chinese student, studying in Brighton during this very challenging year. Due to Covid19 restrictions, most of the placement has been virtual, and focussed on listening and writing about some of the recordings that the project has been preserving. I was interested to hear her perspective as an international student on the recordings, so I posed some questions about the BBC Radio Brighton collection that she has been listening to. Esther, UOSH Hub Project Manager.
Esther: Has listening to the Radio Brighton programmes increased your knowledge and understanding of Brighton and its past?
Jingjing: Before I listened to the Radio Brighton programmes I understood where certain places were, like the Palace Pier, the West Pier, Royal Pavilion, but I didn’t know the background to the buildings. Listening to Radio Brighton programmes has helped me to better understand Brighton. I feel know more about Brighton than before and have a more in depth understanding. I have learned a lot about the stories behind some of the buildings. For example, in 1980 the West Pier continued to crumble and campaigners carried on their fight and protested about the state of it (UTK006/1043).
Esther: And now we just see the rusty remains of the last bit of the pier!
Esther: How easy have you found it to understand the Radio Brighton programmes?
Jingjing: For some of the simple radio programmes, where you don’t need to know the background, it‘s easy, because when you listen to them you can understand what they’re talking about. But for some unfamiliar subjects, I have found it a bit difficult. One recording that I found difficult was ‘May Morning at Hollingbury Castle’ (UTK006/653-654). I needed to do some research to know, for example: this is about May Day traditions and has some specific religious ceremonies. This programme also talks about a maypole (dance). If you don’t do some research, you may not understand it as a foreigner. For my opinion, this radio is a description of belief and religion I’m not familiar with, so maybe some will find it hard to understand.
Esther: Do you think that the Radio Brighton collection could be used introduce new students to the City’s history and culture?
Jingjing: Yes, absolutely. First of all, these collections are all about Brighton and because everything about Brighton is new to the freshmen, so these radio recordings give us a good idea of the city. My language teacher introduced us to the Royal Pavilion and the West Pier, and told us Brighton is vacation spot, so when I came to Brighton, I was already familiar with these places.
Secondly, the Radio Brighton collection is all about Brighton history. For new students, it is a new kind of knowledge; it can help them to understand and adapt to life in Brighton more quickly.
Esther: More generally, what do you think are the benefits of radio recordings as a source of information?
Jingjing: It is easy to listen to sound recordings at any time and to have them on in the background. We all have devices where we can easily listen to things like podcasts and it doesn’t require too much bandwidth. Sound recordings are also good to listen to in ‘fragmented time’, those bits of time when you are doing other things, travelling, cooking, etc.
Esther: I love the idea of ‘fragmented time’ and how a sound recording can just slip into those pieces of time that we all have.
Esther: Going forward, how do you think sound collections (radio, oral history, music, lectures, performance etc) be used to support the sort of culture activities and industries that you are interested in?
Jingjing: Audio collections are valuable for research and more and more people are interested in how radio collections can help you understand the past. As part of my MA in Cultural and Creative Industries, we have studied how having access to the cultural heritage of a city can contribute to creative clusters and creative innovation.
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a project to preserve, improve access to and raise awareness of archive sound recordings. We have been able to offer placements to a number of students from the Universities of Sussex and Brighton over the course of the project and are very pleased to know that each one has left with a greater understanding of the potential of archive sound recordings. For us, student placements are an opportunity to share our enthusiasm for sound heritage, but also to listen to different perspectives on our work.
Listening well: an online resource using archive sound recordings to support wellbeing
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) at The Keep, Brighton, would like to commission an individual, organisation or partnership to create, test and deliver an online Resource using archive sound recordings to support people’s sense of wellbeing.
The Resource will comprise sets of themed sound recordings from The Keep’s archives, with clips from other sources if required and downloadable ‘how to’ guides with ideas and guidance on how to use the sound clips with individuals and groups. It will be visually appealing, professional in tone and presentation, and meet all public sector online accessibility requirements.
As part of this commission, the Resource will be tested and demonstrated through five workshops with potential target audiences, and a training workshop for carers, community workers and other professionals on using it to support wellbeing.
We are open to creative proposals from applicants as to exactly how the sound recordings could be used to support wellbeing and which audiences the resource will be aimed at.
|Commissioning Organisation||Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, managed by the University of Sussex at The Keep, Brighton.|
|Main contact||Esther Gill, Hub Project Manager, email@example.com|
|Nature of commission||To create, test and deliver a downloadable resource using archive sound recordings to aid wellbeing.|
|Budget||£8000 (inclusive of VAT)|
|Timescale||May to November 2021|
For full details download the brief:
The University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep archive holds extensive material relating to 20th century literary, political and social history, as well as the history of the University. In amongst the books, manuscripts and images, are also boxes of open reel and cassette tapes holding oral history interviews, music, performance and incidental sounds. These recordings capture voices, emotion, laughter, performance, wildlife, the everyday domestic sounds that are all around us. Some are carefully constructed re-tellings of a life-story, others are audio scrapbooks, collections of sound ‘jottings’, scraps of recordings fitted onto the end of a tape. All add depth and richness to our reading of the past.
Two of these collections have been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project (UOSH), preserving them for future listening, but also making them more easily accessible to more people. The two collections are the British Australian Migration Research Project oral history interviews (SxMOA25/UTK001/84 cassette tapes) and the Copper Family recordings (SxMs87/UTK009/59 open reel tapes, 2 cassette tapes, 8 CDs).
Listening to the ‘£10 Poms’
The British-Australian Migration Research Project oral history interviews comprises 33 oral history interviews, over 84 tapes, exploring the experiences of the ‘£10 Poms’: British people who emigrated to Australia for £10 under the Assisted Package Scheme (1945-1982). Undertaken by Professor Al Thomson and Dr Lani Russell in 2000/2001, the research looks at the experiences of people who remained in Australia as well as those who returned to the UK, some coming and going a number of times. The collection explores the experience of migration, women’s lives in the UK and Australia, family dynamics, the challenges of returning to the UK. Interview transcripts and the resulting book ‘Ten Pound Poms’: Australia’s invisible migrants (Hammerton/Thomson, 2005) are available to read, but the recorded interviews and hearing the actual voices enable a much deeper ‘reading’ of the life stories being told. In the extract below, Joan Pickett’s description of how she and her friend decided to take the Assisted Package draws one in immediately with her very visual comparison between the winter of 1959 and the sunny presentation of Australia.
[Extract from UTK001/50. Joan Pickett talks to Al Thomson about her decision to go to Australia]
Running through the interviews one hears the excitement of travel and opportunity; the details of a first sea journey; the sadness at saying goodbye to family and friends; the challenges and sometimes disappointments of arriving in a new land. All the interviews have been cleared by the UOSH team at The Keep to be streamed via a new British Library sounds website, to be launched in July 2021.
Making music with the Coppers
The Copper Family recordings held by Special Collections is a very different type of audio collection. Whereas the £10 Poms recordings were gathered as part of a structured research project, the Copper Family recordings reflect a more organic approach and were not created as a ‘collection’. The recordings comprise three distinct types of material: firstly, the 18 professionally recorded master tapes for the Copper’s 1975 release, A Song for Every Season. Secondly, interviews undertaken with Bob Copper and folk experts, talking about the role and history of the Copper Family. And thirdly, a collection of open reels and cassettes found amongst Bob Copper’s possessions after he died. The latter tapes capture home recordings, material sent to Bob by aspiring folk musicians, rough recordings of pub performances, recordings of commercial music off the radio. The collection reflects a musician’s life in sound: the clean and clear sound of a professional recording studio to the raucous, distorted sound of a pub recording to what is captured when, in a creative moment, you press the record button on a Saturday night at home.
The UOSH team is still cataloguing the Copper Family recordings and are yet to confirm what all the recordings are, but what is already clear is that the content of these tapes are an essential element of the Copper Archive (SxMs87). Alongside Bob Copper’s correspondence, writing, song books, sketches and lifetime ephemera, the recordings bring sound to the archive of a man whose life had music and sound at its centre.
Once complete, the digital recordings will be stored at the British Library for preservation and listed in the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image (sami.bl.uk) catalogue. People interested in listening to them should contact the Special Collections Archivist.
These two collections have been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Project (UOSH) based at The Keep and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The recordings were identified from the British Library’s 2015 audit of sound collections across the UK as being unique and important, but also being at risk due to the loss of playback equipment and the risk of tape decay and CD rot. However, Special Collections also holds other sound collections, including interviews from the University’s 50 Voices project, celebrating its 50th anniversary and the oral history interviews of the Archive of Resistance Testimony.
This blog first appeared on the University of Sussex Library Collections blog in January 2021.
by Angela Bachini, Cataloguer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
There is a long tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. As the days become shorter and the darkness creeps in, we illuminate our houses with flickering fairy lights and candles in an imitation of the fires our ancestors lit to see them through the long cold nights around the winter solstice, and to protect them from what lurked outside after crossing the veil. And what better way to pass the time during those long nights than by telling tales of these spectral visitors?
The weaving of stories of death and resurrection has roots in old beliefs, but there has been an unceasing appetite for these accounts through the ages, with the means of circulation evolving. One of the most famous Christmas ghost stories is of course the Victorian novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, who passed the baton to the early 20th century writer M.R. James among others. Some of James’ stories have been adapted for ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, a series of BBC films for television originally broadcast in the 1970s and revived in the early 2000s.
We’ve come across a number of ghostly tales while listening to the recordings we’re digitising as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project here at The Keep. The following clips were taken from recordings made between 1974 and 1996, and include accounts of recent sightings as well as retellings of local legends. They hark back to the oral tradition of storytelling but are preserved and made available through progressions in audio technology.
On 26 December 1975, BBC Radio Brighton broadcast a Boxing Day edition of ‘Coffee Break’, their daily morning programme ‘especially for the women at home’. This festive broadcast was recorded in the atmospheric setting of a 13th or 14th century farmhouse somewhere in the Sussex countryside, and featured a group of people sitting around a crackling fire discussing Christmas traditions, food and song with presenter Joanna Holles, and also telling ghost stories. Sonia, their hostess who lives in the farmhouse, tells them about a shadowy presence she has seen on more than one occasion.
The following two extracts are also from this episode of ‘Coffee Break’. In the first clip Ruth Cowell recounts a tale about a haunting linked to a grove of ilex trees by a farmhouse in South Heighton near Newhaven.
Bernard Rutherford tells the story of the White Lady of Preston Manor, a Georgian villa built on the site of an earlier 16th century mansion in the Saxon village of Preston, now part of Brighton and Hove.
Although this spectre may never have been seen again, Preston Manor still has the reputation of being one of the most haunted houses in Britain. Here is an eyewitness account of a sighting of the Grey Lady by Mrs Cooke, a former housemaid at the Manor in the 1920s, who was interviewed in 1984 as part of an oral history project collecting the reminiscences of those who worked there.
Ladies in monochromatic attire seem to regularly feature in ghost stories. Here, in another BBC Radio Brighton recording, this time from 1974, local tour guide Cliff Edwards is showing Chris Warbis around old Brighton, and has stopped in The Lanes to tell him about the numerous phantoms seen in the area, including a Lady in Grey. Cliff’s jovial delivery somewhat diminishes any fear factor in his stories, which feature historical and contemporary sightings.
An interviewee from the Southampton Oral History Unit’s Millbrook collection, a series of interviews with residents of the Millbrook area of Southampton, tells Jillian Jackson about growing up in a haunted house. Her experience, while containing the usual tropes such as footsteps heard upstairs and a disembodied breathing, goes against normal ghost story conventions in that the house was a new build, and it seemed that the supernatural activity was of a premonitory nature rather than a haunting; the disturbances ended after the death of her mother, who had been told by a fortune teller not to worry as ‘it’s nothing that can really hurt you. It’s not a ghost, it’s more of a sad presence’.
Finally, in an audio family history made for a relative in 1996 and archived as part of the University of the Third Age Lewes branch’s oral history collection, Ted Naldrett introduces the story of a visitation upon his mother, who was his father’s second wife, by his father’s late first wife Ada, surely something to strike terror into the heart? After all, the second marriage had taken place only a few months after Ada’s death in 1908.
This apparition, which was actually of the benevolent sort, appeared in the very domestic and not particularly spooky setting of the scullery of their Lewes home on wash day, as Ted’s mother recounted to him.
Ted goes on to say that his mother noticed the figure was wearing a distinctive brooch; this had been passed on to Lou, one of Ada’s daughters, and had not been seen since but Lou was able to produce the brooch and prove that her mother had indeed been the ghostly visitor. It is very touching to think that Ada had returned to give her blessing to the step-mother of her seven children.
As a cataloguer on the UOSH project I sometimes wonder if I am one of the only people to have listened to a recording since it was made all those years ago, and feel as if I am hearing ghosts from days gone by. The recordings above were all made within living memory, but they contain recollections and stories stretching back across the centuries. It is fantastic to know that these voices from the past are now digitised and preserved and so made accessible to a wider audience.
The sound recordings in this blog are from a number of collections being digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage and preserved at the British Library. Information on the recordings can be found on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue.
The BBC Radio Brighton recordings are part of a Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust collection (R6111 | UTK006); the Southampton Oral History Unit recording is part of a Southampton Archives collection (AV/SOHU/M | UTK014); the Archive of the University of the Third Age (U3A) Lewes & District Branch Oral History Group recording is part of an East Sussex, Brighton & Hove Record Office collection (AMS 6416/1 | UTK002); the Preston Manor interviews recording is part of a Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust collection (R6158 | UTK037).
Image of Preston Manor from Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust’s Digital Media Bank.
By Esther Gill, Hub Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
Let’s go back 52 years to 1968 and to preparations for Christmas in Brighton. It is Christmas Eve and local radio station BBC Radio Brighton is out on the streets talking to traders and last-minute shoppers, chefs, police officers and taxi drivers about Christmas.
The station’s reporters record the life and energy of the town as it moves towards the Christmas shutdown, and talk to those who are closing up and others who are getting ready to work over the festive period. Mr Worthington, the general manager of Plummer Roddis1 department store on Western Road, has closed the doors and now stands in an eerily empty shop reflecting on how business has gone. There has been a large volume of sales in December 1968, but with a focus on practical items: more people in the shop, but spending less. The top sellers for ‘the ladies’ are: jersey knitwear, housecoats, calf length boots and ‘wigs, wigs and more wigs’ (cue a dated joke about not knowing whether you are kissing a blonde or brunette!).
In Sydney Street at the poultry centre stallholders are calling out the prices for their final turkeys and chickens. Prices have tumbled since they opened at 6.30am; the market has sold thousands of birds, but pork seems to be proving popular in 1968.
[UTK006/14-15 Extract from Newsdesk, 24.12.68]
A dairy farmer from Lewes talks about his Christmas day appointment with the milk lorry and how his work goes on as usual, starting at 4.30am. Meanwhile, at the Metropole Hotel, plans are in place for entertainment and food across the Christmas period, for the 300 booked guests. Events include a dinner dance, carol recital, cocktails with the general manager, a children’s party, Yuletide buffet and ball, bingo on Boxing Day, a disco, a screening of Can-can staring Frank Sinatra, a car treasure hunt and the casino. Chef Camille Frison recounts the huge amount of food that will be prepared for the ‘special Christmas lunch and the special buffet’, including: melon, fried Dover sole, traditional turkey with chestnut stuffing, cranberry sauce, pomme chateau and sprouts, and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, mince pies, buche de Noelle and Charlotte glace opera.
Mrs Collier illustrates the turn against turkey this year,confirming that she and husband are going to have pork instead. She remembers Christmases from her childhood in a family of eight children, but feels that younger people have ‘lost the true spirit of Christmas, with too much fun and jollity without a focus on the real meaning of Christmas’.
At the police station, Chief Superintendent William Rostrum and two officers reassure us that anybody arrested on Christmas Day will still get a festive meal and reflect that Christmas Day is ‘just another working day’. And outside a noisy railway station, the taxi drivers are getting ready for one of the busiest evenings of the year, as shoppers finish off and people fall out parties heading for home.
Radio Brighton’s reporting of Christmas Eve in 1968 marks the station’s first Christmas as it only came on air in February 1968 with a commitment to truly local broadcasting. With six reporters on the streets of the town and out on the farm, the report captures the bustle and the race to finish off preparations as the deadline of Christmas Day comes towards us. We hear a range of voices and sounds from busy streets, the shops, the Metropole kitchen and outside the station. Many of the themes of the reporting seem familiar: nostalgia for Christmas past, the centrality of the Christmas meal, a sense of people having less money to spend. But the passage of 52 years slips in when you realise that not one working woman was interviewed (despite both police officers commenting that their wives worked at the station); the Plummer Roddis department store was closing for three full days, opening again on the 28th December; and the existence of an active poultry market on Sydney Street, Brighton, now seems very unlikely among the coffee shops, bonsai shop, vintage clothes stalls and vegan food sellers.
Happy Christmas from 1968 and 2020.
The Radio Brighton recordings (UTK006) are a Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust collection. The recordings are being digitised as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at The Keep and will be preserved at the British Library. Information on the recordings can be found on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue under the reference UTK006.
- Plummer Roddis was taken over by Debenhams in the early 1970s. As I write, Debenhams itself is closing down, ending a long history on the high street.
By Jen Grasso, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
‘Oral history is a history built around people,’ explains Paul Thompson in his book The Voice of the Past, ‘It thrusts life into history itself and it widens its scope’. It was Thompson’s book I looked toward when I started working on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at The Keep. I eagerly embraced this opportunity to gain firsthand experience of the archive sector because my background is in the visual arts and only recently, in collections and heritage studies. So it was to Thompson I looked for help understanding this media and its wider social importance.
Thompson starts his book declaring that all history depends upon its social purpose. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the continued calls for the restitution and repatriation of colonial artefacts and the importance in acknowledging the role of colonialism in the Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum (GLAM) sector within the UK, adds a critical level of social importance to this project. My task has been to summarise oral histories from members of the Windrush Generation for inclusion into the British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Much like museum labels that look to summarise the complexities of individual objects in a handful of sentences, I’ve been tasked with summarising the details of someone’s life, or at the very least, the stories shared on one side of cassette tape, in a mere paragraph. Both are deceptively difficult tasks! And most importantly, this has to be done without bias, judgement or censorship. I’m not here to construct a story, like in the case of museum labels, but I am here to help document, to assist with the cataloguing of these histories in order to make them accessible to the public.
Thompson states, ‘once the life experience of people of all kinds can be seen as its raw material, a new dimension is given to history’. This dimension, or rather I would argue dimensions, are both macro and micro in their appraisal. On a macro level, I see the UOSH project as a step in the right direction, one that challenges the status quo and the domination of white, Eurocentric narratives within the GLAM sector. I am, even if marginally, helping towards increasing representation among minority groups in the UK. That the histories I have been working on are taken from members of the Windrush Generation, not only gives voice to this community, but by including the interviews in the British Library, this further reinforces the community’s place within Britain’s social history.
On a micro level, these histories also provide something for many that they will never be able to obtain otherwise. Thompson describes this as ‘a much fuller history of the family’: the patterns, trends, changes over time, and changes from place to place. A good friend, a child of the Windrush Generation, saw the work I’ve been doing as contributing to a type of extended family tree, helping to document this community’s historical legacy, a legacy she has only learned from the oral histories told within her own family. While her partner’s family, as well as mine, as well as many of yours, often have detailed family trees with branches spanning centuries, as my friend pointed out, her family, and most others of the Windrush Generation, don’t.
It makes UOSH all the more valuable by not only continuing, but adapting this oral tradition for the 21st century, converting these personal, vibrant, illuminating and captivating histories from the confines of the fragile magnetic tape they were recorded on to easily accessible digital sound files. So while my friend might not be able to look up her family tree, she can, through the eventual transformation of these summaries into metadata and keyword tags, look to these histories and extract elements that personally relate to her story, her family’s story and their place in Britain, and be able to pass this down.
In my postgraduate studies at the University of Brighton, I repeatedly referred to professor and museum scholar Hilde Hein’s notion of polyvocality as a tool to help open up, and democratize the GLAM sector. The idea being that every view, every perspective, can contribute to a more holistic understanding of whatever topic is at hand. Thompson states this another way, remarking on the complex and multifarious nature of reality, noting that oral history supports the ‘multiplicity of standpoints’. I fully believe the future of the GLAM sector lies in this multiplicity, it should embrace polyvocality. There is no end to the amount we can learn and no limit to what can be taught, and the inclusion of one, or many, additional perspectives, might make the proverbial boat sail in an entirely new direction. And when looking not only through the lens of BLM, but also Covid, I think we all, not just the GLAM sector, could use a new direction.
So while I started the UOSH project feeling out of my league, in the short time I have been contributing, my scope has been drastically widened, not only with regards to oral histories and the function of archives in general, but also with regards to my understanding of British history, as Thompson promised. And hopefully the work I have done has also contributed to widening the scope and greater purpose of archives. I will continue to hone my summarising skills, and I do so full in the knowledge that, following Thompson, I am part of a larger collaborative process, and one I feel fortunate to be a part of.
Jen Grasso is working on summarising oral history interviews that have been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. The Windrush interviews come from the Southampton Archives Black History collection. These summaries can be found on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue under the reference UTK010.
 Paul Thompson. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, 23.
 Thompson, 1.
 Thompson, 5-6.
 Thompson, 8.
 Hilde Hein (2011) The Matter of Museums, Journal of Museum Education, 36:2, 179-187, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2011.11510698
 Thompson, 6.
 Thompson, 12.
By Henry Rowsell, Rights Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
I’ve been a librarian for about 20 years and have worked on digitisation projects and access to online resources for most of that time. That has meant a lot of wrangling with copyright, licensing and accessibility issues, but for the most part it’s been with the written published word not the spoken recorded word. Working as Rights Officer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project’s South-East Hub based at The Keep, Brighton, for the last 16 months has changed that.
2020 has been a reflective time for many (a time for anxious questioning for many too), so in the process of writing this blog, more ‘big picture’ and personal career context has come into my thinking than I’d originally figured. I’m sat here working from home, feeling a bit disconnected in many ways, and in asking myself what to write about my work on audio-visual heritage, it occurred to me that what is front and centre right now in my working life, has been colliding and connecting with my past as I try and make sense of things.
From 2012 to 2016 I worked on the Mobilising Knowledge for Development (MK4D) Digital Library, a collection of publications (over 6,000 at last count) produced by 30 research institutes and NGOs in Africa and Asia focussed on economic and social development. Working in partnership we (a group of librarians and administrators dispersed around the world) digitised publications originally published from the 1940s to the 2010s, and previously only available (but not readily accessible) in hard-copy, and made them available online in an Open Access repository. A typical day on this project might involve talking to partner institutes by email about progress, supervising project assistants on scanning, uploading and metadata creation, and contacting potential new partners.
Ambitious Open Access projects like MK4D reinforced the importance of libraries and archives in removing barriers to information, and enabling participation and visibility of researchers and groups who are excluded both financially and culturally from the established scholarly publishing system, often because of the national environment they are working in. This unevenness, sectoral, geographic and linguistic, is often referred to as ‘Digital divide’ and ‘Visibility gap’. In addition to attempting to address the global discrepancies and power dynamics present in the visibility of publications, MK4D also made the case for the value of older research being available as readily as new research outputs being published by major academic presses.
In my now portfolio career, as well as working on UOSH I am the Librarian at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London where we are also interested in digital preservation and access to an otherwise untapped resource of audio-visual materials held in the museum library at Forest Hill. The historic collections at the library are mostly centred around musical instruments, anthropology and natural history, and include field recordings, recordings of performances of instruments held in the collection, and the archives of the Boosey & Hawkes instrument company. We are finalising a new digital preservation strategy for ‘born digital’ assets, and identifying analogue (print and audio-visual) resources in the library and archives from which digital surrogates could be made for preservation and access. Even with general good-will, finding the capacity and resources to do this work remains challenging.
I mention the aims of other initiatives to show how the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project is an example of innovation (in its aim to digitise and clear for online access a large part of the nation’s sound heritage) as well as of wider ongoing effort by libraries, archives and museums to use digital technology to open up (and preserve) their collections. These ambitious initiatives often mean working with multiple partners, and always involve navigating the regulations and licensing relating to making copies, intellectual property rights and personal information.
As well as the aims, the challenges are familiar too, and exacerbated in 2020: how to connect, co-create, and solve problems in partnership when opportunities to meet with individuals and organisations are constrained. The patchiness of resources and capacity is familiar to anyone in the sector.
Drawing more connections between these past and present efforts, a quick search of the MK4D Digital Library highlights various papers published by African research institutes relating to the importance of sound recordings. These include papers on oral histories in qualitative research; the benefits of community radio; and investments in audio equipment in countries looking to upgrade their educational technologies often in the wake of cultural renewal post-independence. I know too that an inventory of the Horniman Museum library’s audio-visual collection already benefits from what I’m learning as part of the UOSH project, though being furloughed the last number of months this work is patiently waiting for me to pick it up again.
Another parallel across such initiatives is the language used in the projects, across various formats and contexts. The words ‘Unhiding’ and ‘Unlocking’ are frequently used for interventions where the status quo risks continued lack of accessibility or invisibility (not to mention permanent loss or damage) to heritage resources, or where collections are ‘hidden/locked’ in obsolete formats or in inadequate conditions for long-term access. The word ‘voice’ was also often evoked. The voices to amplify being those representing countries and communities where digital divide and the visibility gap prevented them from being heard (or read) by a wider audience. In repeated project documents and presentations reference would be made to ‘making all voices count’, ‘ensuring different voices are heard’, and working to change ‘a system that only gives a voice’ to a certain few.
I’ve noticed that the word ‘voice’ is used a lot less to define UOSH’s work on sound heritage. Perhaps that is so as not to dismiss the wonderful range of non-vocal sounds, like the wildlife, engine noises and train slam-doors that feature in our sound recordings alongside all of the oral history and radio broadcasts we work on, or simply to avoid being so literal! But for me in the UOSH project, the idea of less-heard voices being unhidden, being heard more, is what I’m most engaged with.
The less-heard voices collected at our regional hub are fascinating to me, telling rich stories that connect the local to the global. The range of voices include those that you don’t normally hear, or familiar voices that perhaps you’ve never really stopped to listen to at length or with full attention. Many of the stories told by these voices in our oral history collections remind us of how resonant the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century are with the issues of here and now. Among the collections we’ve digitised, we have reflections on migration from Brits who migrated to Australia post-war (the ‘£10 Poms’ [UTK001]) and back again, and Caribbean migrants to the UK (the Windrush Generation in their own words) who settled in Southampton, and often experienced institutional racism [UTK010]. There are memories too of a changing country life intercut with world wars and local issues told by elders of Lewes [UTK002] and Ashdown Foresters [UTK003] of a certain age.
In another blog I will go into more detail about some of their stories, and the balancing act of allowing these to be heard more easily and any legal and ethical concerns in doing so. I’m happy to say that we will be able to share a lot of voices that deserve to be heard.
by Alison Hulme, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
I moved to Brighton in September 2019 to study at the University of Brighton for my Masters. In January 2020, I began volunteering at The Keep on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. I was originally interested in volunteering as a way to gain practical experience in an archive environment, something which would boost my CV when I began to apply for jobs. Undoubtedly, it has enhanced my applications. I have gained valuable insight into archival institutions and their operations. Yet, when I reflect on my time volunteering, the most significant lessons I learnt have been about Brighton and the surrounding area.
As well as an academic endeavour, I view attending university as somewhat of a cultural exchange. You meet people from across the country, and often across the world, with the chance to learn about their lives and experiences. It is often a chance to move to to a new city and explore. Brighton is a very unique place, and listening to the BBC Radio Brighton [UTK006] collection of recordings, held at The Keep, has enriched my experience of the area.
1975 was declared European Architecture Heritage Year. This was a chance to celebrate the diverse buildings and structures across Europe, working together to develop common policy around conservation and preservation. Chris Warbis, a BBC Radio Brighton journalist, interviewed John Wells-Thorpe, architect and chairman of the European Architecture Year British Panel, to discuss the scheme and what comprised good architecture [UTK006/902].
In the interview, part of the regular BBC Radio Brighton Viewpoint series, the pair discuss the West Pier. Today, the metal framework of the West Pier is one of the main attractions in Brighton. I even bought a postcard of an orange sunset setting behind the structure. The expansive ocean, ever-changing sky and constant flocks of birds flying overhead provide a calm, picturesque view. When touring friends around the area, the West Pier is always high up on the to-do list.
Yet when Chris and John discuss the West Pier, they are less enthusiastic about the beauty of the site.
Photographs were taken documenting the West Pier on 6th October 1975, shortly after its closure to the public, depicting the conditions Chris and John are discussing. These images can be viewed on the Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust’s Digital Media Bank and shed some light on why Chris and John are pessimistic about the future of the Victorian structure.
I knew the West Pier had burnt down at some point in the 2000s. My parents, even though they live in Manchester, remember seeing the fires covered on the news. This provides some idea of the scope of the event, which was covered nationally.
Hearing Chris and John discuss the West Pier made me enquire further about the series of events which led to the pier becoming what it is today. The pier was opened in 1866, and became increasingly derelict until it was closed to the public in 1975 when it was deemed unsafe for use. This is when Chris and John discuss the pier. They seem to hold the view that it is too late to revive it, and suggest it needs to be pulled down as it is in such a state of disrepair. It would be hard to imagine in 1975 what would happen to the structure in future years, or the status that would be allocated to this structure despite the disrepair.
During a hurricane in October 1987, the pier was badly damaged. In 1991, the causeway which provided access to the pier from the shore was removed. At that point, the buildings on the pier still remained, such as an oval concert hall and octagonal kiosks. Various proposals were made, with pledges of money to restore the pier, yet none came into fruition.
In 2002, the pier partially collapsed during a storm. A temporary walkway connecting the concert hall and the pavilion collapsed into the sea. In a BBC report on 29th December, 2002, Geoff Lockwood, the Chief Executive of the West Pier Trust said “What we don’t know is what will happen now – it is a grand old structure and it has survived for a long time so it might be okay.” [BBC news]
The same BBC news report states ‘The main restoration had been scheduled to start in summer 2003 and was due for completion in 2005.’ [ BBC news] This is a stark contrast to the pessimism of Chris and John in 1975 who have little hope the pier can be restored, even though the pier was much more structurally sound in 1975 than it was in 2002. The infamous fires which left the exposed metal structures struck in March and May in 2003. After this, the pier was deemed beyond repair. [The Argus] .
This series of catastrophic events, each damaging the pier more than the last, have created what I think is one of the most beautiful attractions in Brighton. It is interesting to hear the pier being discussed on the radio in 1975, and I would love to hear what Chris and John would say about the exposed metal structure which remains in the sea.
As a volunteer on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, I have gained insight into the history of Brighton. The sound footage inspires me to learn more, and has provided me with a fair amount of niche knowledge! It is fair to say my volunteering work with The Keep has enriched my university experience, and I highly recommend getting involved!
The Radio Brighton collection [UTK006] is a Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust collection, comprising recordings across many areas of broadcast output from BBC Radio Brighton, during the years 1968-1983. It has been digitised for preservation by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.