Listening Well

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 OrganisationUnlocking Our Sound Heritage project, managed by the University of Sussex at The Keep, Brighton.
Main contactEsther Gill, Hub Project Manager, esther.gill@sussex.ac.uk
Nature of commissionTo create, test and deliver a downloadable resource using archive sound recordings to aid wellbeing.
Budget£8000 (inclusive of VAT)
TimescaleMay to November 2021

For full details download the brief:

Listening to Sussex’s Special Collections

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.

The ordered cassettes of an oral history research project.

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.

A tiny open reel of Bob and John Copper singing Come write me down.

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.

Ghost stories for Christmas

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. 

[UTK006-602]

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. 

[UTK006-602]

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.

[UTK006-602]

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. 

[UTK037-2]

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. 

[UTK006-906] 

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’. 

[UTK014-89]

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. 

[UTK002-153]

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. 

[UTK002-153] 

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.

Eavesdropping on Christmas Eve, 1968

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.  

Queens Road, Brighton, 1968. c. Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust

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.

  1. 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.

The social importance of oral history

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’[1]. 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[2]. 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’[3].  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.

A photograph of text from a printed book reading: Oral history is a history built around peopoe. It thrusts life into history itself and it widens its scope. It allows heroes not just from the leaders, but from the unknown majority of the people. It encourages teacher and students to become fellow workers. It brings history into, and out of, the community.
From Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past

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[4].  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.

Two women, sitting on a sofa. One is wearing headphones, the other is holding a mp3 player. Both are smiling.
Listening to an oral history interview.

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[5]. Thompson states this another way, remarking on the complex and multifarious nature of reality, noting that oral history supports the ‘multiplicity of standpoints’[6]. 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[7].


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.


[1] Paul Thompson. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, 23.

[2] Thompson, 1.

[3] Thompson, 5-6.

[4] Thompson, 8.

[5]  Hilde Hein (2011) The Matter of Museums, Journal of Museum Education, 36:2, 179-187, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2011.11510698

[6] Thompson, 6.

[7] Thompson, 12.

Raised voices

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. 

A grid of six photographs of four women and two men.
Portraits taken as part of a series to complement the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project 2006. c. Anthony Oliver http://www.aoimages.com

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. 

Brighton’s West Pier: from 1975 to today

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] .

A pebble beach, with blue skie and the rusting metal remains of the pier in the background.
The rusting remains of the West Pier, April 2020

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.

Libraries On Air

by Natasha Witts, Cataloguer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

The BBC Radio Brighton archive is a time-travelling treasure trove: hundreds of recordings from 1968–1983 on subjects ranging from local history, politics, the arts, and social issues, to light-hearted anecdotes and the latest stunt from the local escapologist. These recordings not only tell us about Brighton in this period, but about society, local radio broadcasting, and archiving (among other things). But as a cataloguer at the South-East hub of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project, my ears can’t help but prick up when the recordings mention libraries and librarians. What can the BBC Radio Brighton recordings tell us about libraries in the 1970s, how they were run, how they were used, and how they were viewed in their communities? And has much changed since then? 

Map showing Brighton branch libraries
Brighton branch library map [Image credit: The Keep BHBox20a/12]

One of my favourite recordings in the collection is an interview with John Allen, chief librarian of Brighton Library, in which he describes, in enthusiastic detail, the computerised system for book issue and return being introduced into Brighton public library (the computer itself residing in the Borough Treasurer’s office), involving the alteration of 100,000 books and the reregistering of 35,000 readers. As well as making borrowing books easier, the computer would also produce the first automatic overdue notices (and print them on postcards). This recording (thought to date from around 1970) provides a fascinating snapshot of a time when librarians were still imagining how computers could revolutionise their work, and when the processes library staff now take for granted, such as being able to see easily who has borrowed a book, were the stuff of a bold new future. 

UTK006/234 (excerpt)

Although library systems may have changed considerably since the 1970s, the ethos of libraries appears reassuringly constant. Here is West Sussex Chief Librarian Roy Hughes, recorded in 1975, offering his vision for libraries over the next 50 years: 

UTK006/570 (excerpt 1)

Preservation and accessibility lie at the heart of the UOSH project, aims shared by a Brighton reference library project in 1973 in which rare books and prints were photographed and issued as slides to enable them to be viewed without damage. In an interview about their project Elaine Baird and Dorothy Farmer describe the methods they use to photograph the slides – very different from reprographic facilities in today’s archives. They also talk about the creative use of libraries, as local theatres are also using the slides as backdrops for performances. This also has echoes in our current project – the rapper and producer AWATE is UOSH Artist-in-Residence, and creative responses across the UOSH project range from music composition and animation to embroidery. 

Elaine Baird pictured at her retirement party at Brighton reference library.
Elaine Baird pictured at her retirement party at Brighton reference library [Image credit: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove]
UTK006/236 (excerpt)

The knowledge and enthusiasm of library staff comes through in the recordings, and that their voices were heard on local radio gives us an insight into how libraries were perceived in the 1970s. Although we now have the resources of the internet at our fingertips, these recordings are a reminder of the continued need for libraries and librarians. Here is Miss Greenhill of Brighton reference library, interviewed on her retirement (how many librarians get a radio interview on their retirement?), talking about the qualities needed to work in the reference service:  

UTK006/103 (excerpt)

The importance of libraries to their communities also comes through in the recordings. A whole half-hour interview is dedicated to the Whitehawk toy library, the first full-time toy library in the country, which opened in 1973 and is still in use today (see https://twitter.com/BBCArchive/status/936241555182153728  for BBC Archive footage of the opening). The 50th anniversary of the West Sussex library service in 1975 also merits a whole programme on the history of public libraries in West Sussex, including this anecdote from former village librarian Hazel Grinstead about the perils of being a reader in a small Sussex village: 

UTK006/570 (excerpt 2)

Described by a newsreader as an ‘ugly duckling story’, the commendation of the new Worthing library by RIBA in 1977, gives borough architect Frank Morris the opportunity to talk about two of its important features – accessibility for disabled users, and an innovative system of heating the building by recirculating heat from the lighting system. This recording shows that accessibility and sustainability are not only contemporary concerns (although innovation in the 1970s was being driven by fuel economy rather than environmental concern). 

UTK006/710 (excerpt)

Finally, praise for Brighton library pops up in an unlikely place – during a 1975 interview with American lyricist Eddie Heyman (who wrote the lyrics to songs including ‘When I Fall in Love’ and ‘The Wonder of You’) who was staying in Brighton. A perfect example of encountering the unexpected in such a wonderfully varied archive. Who knew in the 1970s that these recordings about much-loved local libraries would eventually find their way to being preserved by the British Library?

UTK006/588 (excerpt)

Transcripts of audio excerpts available at: https://keep-sounds.com/libraries-on-air-transcripts/

The BBC Radio Brighton archive is held at The Keep by the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (ref. R6111) and digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (ref. UTK006), funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

27th October: Your Window to the World

by Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

27th October is the UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Here at Unlocking Our Sound Heritage we like to think that it’s ‘our’ day.  

As a project dealing entirely with audio heritage, we’ll be marking the day all week, with a series of new blogs from the team reflecting on different elements of the project, an opportunity to #AskUsAnything via the new media of Twitter and a short film about what actually happens in the UOSH studio: The journey of a tape.

But what is a World Day for Audiovisual Heritage? Why did UNESCO feel there was a need for it?  

It was established in 2005 as a way to ‘raise general awareness of the need to preserve and safeguard important audiovisual material for future generations’1.  Film and sound recordings are rich historical records of lives in the 20th and 21st centuries, of technological development, of changes in communication and of cultural expression. As a medium, recordings have captured sounds and moving images of things that no longer exist, and obviously of people from long ago. The safeguarding of these recordings cuts right to the heart of what we are doing at UOSH: digitising them for preservation and to enable people to listen to them and understand them. We predominantly understand the past, prior to the 20th century, through the written word, creative expression, the historic environment and the objects of the time. But with the advent of sound and moving image recording, we can step back in time and hear the voices of the past, see the people and places come alive. Our engagement with the people, the events and the landscapes of the past is transformed. It’s hard to describe my excitement when I first heard Florence Nightingale’s crackly and distorted voice talking about the Light Brigade Fund in 1890. To my mind she was entirely consigned to the past, to book and stories. Yet here is a recording of her and 130 years later I can hear her talking: quite possibly the closest I’ll get to time travel. 

The audiovisual heritage that we are preserving as part of UOSH – historic sound recordings from across the south east – are at risk from the twin problems of: deterioration of the medium itself (disc rot, tape shedding, etc) or the loss of the equipment and expertise required to play the sound recordings. The most common format we’re currently digitising are open reel tapes: generally stable and in good condition, but the open reel tape players and the engineers to maintain them are a scarce resource. Without intervention now, these historical records will become increasingly difficult to find or listen to 

The theme for 2020 is Your window to the world

‘audiovisual materials as documentary heritage allow us to observe events that we cannot attend, to hear voices from the past who can no longer speak, and to craft stories that inform and entertain. Audiovisual content plays an increasingly vital role in our lives as we seek to understand the world and engage with our fellow beings2’.

The audio recordings give us and future generations a ‘window on to the world’ of the past, of past sounds, of past voices and past lives. Through our work, we are able to hear Mollie Taylor talk about a job that no longer exists: that of the crossing keeper for the railway at Barcombe, East Sussex [UTK002/68]; we can hear the ‘militant mothers’ of Boundstone Comprehensive school in West Sussex, campaigning against speeding motorists in 1972 (see how little changes) [UTK006/61], and we can notice that in the 1970s, an unknown sound recordist filled gaps in their recording with the speaking clock [UTK007/387].  

Mollie Taylor talks about her work as a railway crossing keeper in Barcombe, East Sussex. [UTK002/68]

BBC Radio Brighton reports on self-styled ‘militant mothers’ protesting against speeding motorists outside Boundstone School, West Sussex, 1972. [UTK006/62]

A clip of the speaking clock! [UTK007/377]

For World Day for Audiovisual Heritage I encourage you to listen to the world around you, hear the daily sounds and think about how sound impacts upon your life. I hope you enjoy our blogs and if you have questions about what we are doing or why we’re doing it, do follow us on Twitter @KeepSounds or email us at uosh@sussex.ac.uk with your questions for #AskUsAnything.

Happy listening.  

  1. http://www.un.org/en/events/audiovisualday/
  2. www.fiatifta.org News report, 29.09.20

20 years on: the Lewes floods of 2000

By Nancy Jones, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

12th October marks the twentieth anniversary of the Lewes floods. For many who were unaffected that day is probably a distant memory – twenty years is a whole generation after all.

Recently it seems there is a major flooding event every winter, television images from Boscastle, Wokington, the Somerset Levels, Laxey (Isle of Man) all blur together. Repetition has numbed me to the reality that flooded communities face. Just this year’s storms, this year’s floods.

That changed for me in February; the buckling barriers and swamped homes in Ironbridge were hard to get out of my mind. For anyone not directly affected, that flood was quickly eclipsed by world events which have had an impact on us all. But throughout the lockdown, I’ve been thinking about the people flooded out of their homes just as the rest of the country was asked to stay indoors.

What changed my perspective? By coincidence I happened to be helping to catalogue stories of the flooding of Lewes in 2000 by the River Ouse, just as the River Severn was bursting its banks in Ironbridge. The Keep holds a collection of oral history recordings, made by the Lewes U3A History Group in the immediate aftermath of the October 2000 flooding. These recordings, made on cassette tape and recently digitised for preservation and access, contain the personal stories of losses, close escapes, rescues and the long, long process of cleaning up which was just beginning in Lewes.

The interviews are full of vivid images of a town caught unaware. An elderly couple living opposite The Pells watched the water rising across the road as it had done many times before. When suddenly their carpet began to float – water having risen unseen below the floorboards – they knew, this time, the situation was going to be much more serious. They describe escaping upstairs where they were reassured to find a next door neighbor, similarly flooded, sitting on her first floor windowsill holding a mobile telephone. A Fireman returned from moving his car to higher ground to find water rising rapidly in North Street, about to swamp the fire station. He was involved in the immediate rescue response whilst worrying what was happening for his family just along the road at The Pells.

Cars submerged in the Safeways’ car park, Lewes. (R/L/37/1)

On the other side of the river, in the house closest to the water at Malling Deanery, Peter Atkins describes trying to rescue his belongings whilst the water was rising inside his home.

‘It was quite remarkable…once it got to table height it was rising so rapidly, and continued to rise, and our efforts were more or less ineffectual really. So in no time, it seemed, we were up to our shoulders in water. And I realized that we were both shivering, not surprisingly as the water was very cold, and I think we were just beginning to get hypothermic because we were getting kind of irrational… and doing hopeless things’.

He goes on to explain, ‘It didn’t feel frightening, it just felt kind of overwhelming really…it was weird’. (AMS 6416/1/7/222 | UTK002/222)

The driver of an ambulance washed into the flood describes the grim situation as he and his colleague tried to escape, clinging to the outside, awaiting rescueas the floodwater rushed around them. Mabel Pratt describes the moment her ground floor was overwhelmed by rising water:

‘You didn’t know where it was coming from. It just rose up all the time, so quickly. I was up to my knees in no time, and up to my waist before long. It was very hard to keep my feet because the water was coming underneath the carpet’. (AMS 6416/1/7/207 | UTK002/207)

She retreated upstairs before remembering the door key in her coat, now lost somewhere under the murky water. By that evening she was one of about a hundred people who had been rescued and evacuated to the Town Hall, others were taken to the Malling Centre.

Then there are stories of the clear-up. One woman talks of diaries and family photos out in the skip on the street, personal items contaminated and no longer private. The owners of the flooded Cliffe bookshop describe the daunting process of having to stocktake the pulped contents of their shop, especially devastating as it was also their home.

For me, the pictures on the telly in February 2020, the helicopter birds-eye-views and the brief soundbite interviews blended with the voices of Lewes residents from twenty years before. I was not in Lewes in October 2000, I have never been caught in the sort of devastating weather event that we see happening so often around the world these days. But this capsule of not-so-distant local history opened a dialogue for me. I was re-sensitized to things that, I am ashamed to say, I had started to shrug my shoulders at.

The Lewes residents reminded me of the individual struggles. And they reminded me that only twenty years ago I thought of this as a shocking and unexpected event.

The Lewes U3A oral history collection has been digitised and catalogued by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, developed by the British Library and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This project is preserving archive sounds to ensure they will continue to be accessible for future generations.

Audio recordings from the Lewes U3A oral history interviews are available for listening at The Keep (collection reference AMS 6416/1) and will be available on a new British Library website, to be launched in 2021. The interviews are catalogued on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue and can be found under the reference UTK002.