‘They were hard times, but I enjoyed it…’

The words of Ted Harrison, a resident of Hackney interviewed in 1983, capture the mood of his and others’ childhoods in London’s East End in the early twentieth century. His account of his childhood is part of a fascinating series of oral histories from Hackney Archives, being digitised at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. For the past few months I’ve been delving into many of these oral histories, recorded in the 1980s with residents of Hackney born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hackney audio collection edited
A few tapes from the Hackney Archives audio collection

One consistent theme in the recordings is that life in Hackney at these times was tough for many people. Day-to-day life was often about ‘getting by’; taking what work was available, working long hours, and living hand-to-mouth. There were no unemployment benefits, so a period without work could mean relying on the goodwill of extended family and neighbours, being fed by local missions and soup kitchens, being placed in a workhouse, or sent away for longer periods of labour on a government farm. Families were often very large – one interviewee had ten siblings! – and crammed into just one or two rented rooms in a house.

Hackney - Charles Booth's Poverty Map
Ted Harrison was born on Pitfield Street, shown here in the middle of Charles Booth’s colour-coded map of Hoxton showing levels of poverty in the area

Despite these conditions, the kids of Hackney found creative, ingenious ways of making the most of their free time. The recollections of Ted Harrison and others in the archives demonstrate that the streets and squares of London were their play spaces; whatever bits and pieces they could scavenge and scrounge were their toys.

Street games were many and varied, but very often rough (at least the ones that boys played were – we’re hoping to hear female perspectives on street games as we continue exploring the collection). One that crops up in many of the oral histories is Jimmy Jimmy Knacko (or Knacker), also known as ‘weak horses’. This involved a team of boys with one kid standing with their back to a wall, another making a ‘back’ by bending at the waist and putting their head against the first, with others lining up and doing the same behind them. Members of an opposing team would then take running leaps onto the backs of those bent over, resulting in a pile of boys on the ‘back’. One interviewee – Mr Ashton – explains that the knack (pun intended) was for the strongest jumper to go first, aiming to get as close as possible to the person at the wall, and leaving space for others to leap up behind. Ted Harrison recalls that most times the person at the wall (known as the ‘pillar’) would end up getting knocked quite hard against the wall as a result. Once all were ‘mounted’ the team would then chant “Jimmy Jimmy Knacko one two three, I bobbaree, I bobbaree, I bobbaree and away!”

Clip of Ted Harrison talking about Jimmy Jimmy Knacko – skip to 1 min. 23 sec. for the chant!

If they managed to do this without any part of them touching the ground then they would repeat the process. If not, the teams would swap around. Result: hours of fun, likely getting a sore back and a few scrapes and bruises along the way.

This film held at the British Film Institute shows the same game being played in Yorkshire in 1900 – skip to 22 sec.

Gentler street games did exist, involving toys such as hoops and skimmers, marbles, and diabolos. There was also a game called tippy-cat or tip-cat which sounds like as much fun as you can possibly get out of two sticks. One stick – the ‘cat’ – was short with tapered ends, so that it could be ‘tipped up’ into the air when hit on the end with a larger stick, then batted away while in the air. The batter would then get points based upon the distance away the cat has landed, as measured in jumps. Again, potentially hours of fun, likely with less chance of pain.

Other activities such as making ‘grottoes’ were seemingly creative, but actually were thinly veiled attempts to wheedle a few pence out of adults. This pastime involved collecting discarded oyster shells to build – no-doubt in a very artistic manner – a small ‘grotto’ or castle in the street. Passing adults would be invited (or harangued) to view the splendour of the grotto in return for a small coin – in Ted Harrison’s words: “ah go on Guvnor, only a farthing!”. Grottoes were invariably set up near pubs in the hope of captivating adults in a more generous mood. However, you had to beware rival grotto-crafting children who might come and knock down your creation to eliminate competition.*

For many of the interviewees, their childhood memories were strongly shaped by the experience of London during a time of war. Ted Harrison describes how when the First World War broke out, children in the East End formed ‘tin bands’ using tea chests, saucepans, comb and paper and the like as instruments, and marched around local streets. In an outburst of patriotism – coupled with canny entrepreneurial spirit – Ted actually marched his ramshackle band all the way from Shoreditch to Trafalgar Square and the Embankment, singing a song about the German General von Kluck along the way, and happily gathering up coins that crowds threw at them. However, his band’s glory was short-lived; a rival tin band from another street picked a fight with them and stole their ‘instruments’.

Fights and scrapes were evidently a common part of East End childhood, though they were more staged or ritualised, rather than truly violent, according to an interview with Hackney author Alexander Baron. He also tells of street rivalry being played out via an informal Sunday football league. Teams of players would be formed street by street, and fixtures somehow organised by word of mouth. The result was that come Sunday, a street team from, say, London Fields would end up playing a street team from Hackney Marshes.

Alexander Baron describes street football matches in Hackney

Uncovering these personal memories of childhoods in the East End has been absolutely fascinating for me, and especially so hearing about them directly via sound recordings of oral histories. It’s made me realise just how important sound archives are to preserving aspects of our lives that maybe otherwise we don’t give much thought to. It’s also inspired me to be more creative: I’m off to find some oyster shells and try my hand at making a grotto…

This blog post was written by Richard Crappsley, an Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteer at LMA. 

*For more information about grottoes see A. Roy Vickery and Monica E. Vickery’s ‘Memories of Grottoes, 1905-1935’, published in Folklore in 1977.

A week in sound: volunteering with UOSH

Blog post by Hannah Tame

After attending the Archives for London talk ‘London Unspooled: Sounds from the Strongrooms’ at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) back in May, I really wanted to learn more about sound archives and get involved in the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. I particularly wanted to get some hands-on experience with both digitising and cataloguing audio material. I got in touch with Kate at LMA and was thrilled when they agreed to have me for a week’s placement.

My hope for the placement was to come away with an understanding of the process of cataloguing and digitising audio material, as well as a more general understanding of what working with audio collections involved. Although I was going into the placement with no experience of working with audio archive collections, I had heard a lot about the UOSH project and have always been really interested in the digitisation of archive material.

My time at LMA was split between working with two very different collections: the Audio Arts collection and a small group of oral histories taken in a reminiscence group at the Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney.

Tape reel in tape box with 'Topsound' on the cover. From the Audio Arts collection.
Tape reel from the Audio Arts collection, held by Tate Library and Archive (TGA 200414/7/4/4)

I spent the first day working on the Audio Arts collection from the Tate Archive, which – being something of a Tate fan – I was really excited about. Audio Arts was a cassette-based magazine established in 1973 by William Furlong and Barry Barker. Over the next 35 years the magazine featured contributions from over nine hundred artists, including Tracey Emin, Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. For this collection, I catalogued some of the unedited tape reels and cassettes – including unpublished recordings – which involved recording any information on the tapes and their carriers. I also spent some time in the studio with Robin, the audio digitisation engineer.

Hannah and Robin in the sound studio, with masks on
Hannah and Robin in the UOSH studio

My remaining time was spent cataloguing the Woodberry Down Estate oral history collection, newly arrived from Hackney Archives. This was post-digitisation cataloguing, which involved listening to the interviews, writing summaries of the recordings, checking the transcripts and recording timecodes at key points. One thing I underestimated about this task was how time consuming it would be to compile each interview summary. Thankfully the interviews were a pleasure to listen to, as the interviewees described their experiences of growing up in the East End around the time of the Second World War. I only managed to catalogue the first few sessions, which mainly covered the interviewees’ childhoods. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how quickly I became immersed in their stories and was fascinated by the first-hand accounts of family and home life in east London in the 1930s. The interviewees described their experiences of poverty, class discrimination, school and home life, war, rationing, first jobs and first dates in frank and honest detail.

Architectural plan of Health Centre and Day Nursery for the Woodberry Down Estate
Woodberry Down Health Centre and Day Nursery plan (GLC/AR/G/09)
Photograph of blocks of flats on the Woodberry Down Estate, taken from Seven Sisters Road in 1955. People walk along the pavement next to the flats and buses and cars can be seen on the road.
Woodberry Down Estate from Seven Sisters Road, 1955 (SC/PHL/01/408/55/2939)

Something that really resonated with me during my time at LMA was learning about the time pressure of digitising sound material compared to documentary archive material. I learnt that there are only around 15 years to save sound collections through digitisation, before many of them become unreadable. It would be an incredible shame if sound collections such as the ones I had the opportunity to work with became lost without ever being digitised.

What I enjoyed the most about listening to the audio material was that with the oral history accounts, you get a sense of immersion that you don’t necessarily get with manuscript archive material. I certainly felt privileged to be able to hear such personal memories about East London and think it’s amazing that thanks to the UOSH project these recordings will be digitised and easily accessible for all. The biggest thing that I have taken away from my time on placement is that it has given me a confidence in being able to work with sound archives in the future.

A man passes a front door key to a smartly-dressed young girl, flanked by her parents. A man in mayor's chains is in the background. The family were the first to move into this block on the Woodberry Down Estate.
The first family in the block receiving their keys, Woodberry Down Estate, 1949 (SC/PHL/02/0898/76/10498)

‘Greetings, Future Listener’: The London Sound Survey

We were very excited recently to incorporate a large donation of field recordings from the London Sound Survey at London Metropolitan Archives. Founder Ian Rawes has been documenting the everyday sounds of the capital for over a decade and the resulting collection is an astonishing body of work capturing contemporary London in all of its colourful, chaotic glory – from street preachers to beggars, from marathon to carnival, all life is here. To commemorate the arrival of the collection, Paul Skinner, one of our team of volunteers (and a sound recordist himself) sat down with Ian to find out more about this remarkable project. Their conversation covers all manner of topics, including the genesis of the London Sound Survey, the ever-changing nature of the city’s soundscape, tips for aspiring field recordists and of course the recent release of Thames;  the vinyl LP of Ian’s recordings made at various locations along the great river. 

Tip of the iceberg – the London Sound Survey front page

PS: Can you tell us about the London Sound Survey and give us a brief history of the project?

IR: The London Sound Survey is a predominantly website-based project in which I collect and present recordings that me and other people make in and around London, and it also presents quite a lot of historical materials which are related to the history of sound in London and increasingly further afield. Many years ago I wanted to do a website about London, about the aspects of London that appealed to me most, which tended to be the more humble down-to-earth things traditionally associated with the city, such as street markets, junk shops, old man’s pubs, canals, odd places and so on. A kind of ‘worm’s eye view’ of the city. I started working at the British Library Sound Archive in about 2004 or 2005. That was a storemans job, officially called the Vault Keeper at their old depot off City Road in Micawber Street. I became curious about much of the material that I was handling – what was on these tapes? You could read the tape box covers and there were some surprising things. There was somebody who recorded the sounds of foghorns around Britain. There was a very strange character from Bradford who had recorded the sound of all the bus journeys it seemed you could take in Yorkshire, and he would write very meticulous notes on the back of each tape box. And I began to think that I too could make recordings of London…

Some particular chance discoveries – from handling crates of CDs and other things – encouraged me towards field recording. One was a series of recordings called ‘The Time of Bells’, made by an American anthropologist called Steven Feld. And this man had a brilliant job, by the sounds of it. He was paid to go around the world recording bells in different geographical and social contexts. Nothing very dramatic happened in any of the recordings, but they were done well and had a very realistic stereo image, so when you listened to them over headphones it gave the strong sense of actually being in these places that Steven Feld had visited. He wore a very small pair of microphones on his head and each was encapsulated in what was called a “headband windshield”. This particular method of recording had been patented by an American sound engineer called Lenny Lombardo. I was very impressed, so I saved up and bought a pair of these mics from Lenny. And the first proper recording I made – well, the first recording outside the house – was to put them on and wear them to the cornershop, where I then bought, a newspaper, a pint of milk… And there were all, you know, voices and so on in the shop, the rattle of this aging refrigerator and so on. I went back home, listened to it and thought ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’

The next more adventurous recording was to go to Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday morning, this was April 2008. It was really lively there, all the traders had different cries. There was an old man who had a tray supported by a strap round his neck, like a cinema usherette, and he was selling what were claimed to be Duracell batteries. And he had a very interesting cry, which you couldn’t really make out, but he had a wonderfully weathered voice. There was a group of Christian evangelists at the north end of Petticoat Lane, who were singing while one of them banged a bongo drum. So, there were all sorts of things happening. That really got me hooked, and I began to make recordings in these sorts of noisy, lively public places. The London Sound Survey came into being a year later – when it went online, it had two or three hundred recordings of street markets, street preachers, political demonstrations, chanting football crowds – anything that was noisy and public. It was mostly about voices, and later the remit expanded to include things called ‘sound maps’. Instead of just recording rather precise verbal signals, I also started recording the atmospheres of places. And I think those two approaches, specific focus and atmospheres, were what dominated the site for a long time. 

PS: You’ve recently donated a large portion of the archive to the London Metropolitan Archives. What inspired that decision?

IR: Well, I had thought that some of the material might be of interest to people in the future. Even mundane recordings, with the passage of time, can become more informative and interesting. I mean, just imagine if you could go back to the 18th century and listen to just any old street scene in London, however mundane – it would surely be interesting. So, perhaps people in the future would feel the same way. There’s only so much a private individual can do to preserve their recordings. Perhaps when I’m older I might give up the website, or I might have no money, or I might fall ill or be hit by a bus. Even if it were fully paid up for ten or fifteen years, changing web standards may eventually make parts of the site unusable for visitors. So for long term preservation, it’s best to give your recordings to people who specialise in that kind of thing, such as London Metropolitan Archives. I found also that the approach adopted here was a very friendly one, giving the idea that the people here would be pleased to get the recordings, rather than that the archive was doing me a big favour by taking them off me! I thought ‘that’s the way forward for archives’!

PS: Yeah, friendliness counts.

IR: It sure does. It certainly did for me. But it’s very hard, I think, for archivists or anybody else interested in historical preservation, to predict what people will be interested in in a hundred years’ time. If you look, for example, at the BBC archives, the kind of stuff that they put aside for safe keeping in the 1940s and 1950s, there is an overwhelming emphasis then on the voices and activities of the great and the good of the age and there’s very little interest in what might be called social history. Nowadays I think tastes have changed somewhat. We are not so interested in hearing about Lord Lugard or Lord Curzon talking about the situation in Abyssinia (although I do think that’s important and should be preserved), but we’d like to know about, I don’t know, what life was like in the docks in London, or what it was like to work in the laundry, or something like that. 

PS: As you say, digital formats are so difficult to preserve in the long term. Even physical formats aren’t forever so an ongoing archive that can maintain this is essential.

IS: It is. Digital formats – particularly highly compressed ones – do seem very vulnerable to obsolescence. There used to be a digital format called RealPlayer. That was not just the format, that was also the actual audio player. And that was commonly used on websites. People would use RealPlayer or RealAudio files to present pretty compressed, easily streamable audio files online. And not just hobbyists, big concerns like the BBC used, I think, RealAudio. Now they just don’t work and I don’t know if anyone can really be bothered much to try and translate RealAudio files into something we can listen to today. So you just don’t know. A lot of people have been predicting the end of mp3s. I think they’ll be around for a while yet because of their convenience, but eventually they will surely go as well. 

PS: Can you tell us about the new LP Thames – what made you choose the locations and the recordings that make up the LP, and the fact that it doesn’t follow a conventional sound map from the centre outwards, it goes back and forth. What was the thinking behind that concept?

IR: There are eight recordings and I think six or seven of those were made long before any idea of an album came up. The idea for the album wasn’t my own – it was suggested to me by [the composer and sound artist] Iain Chambers, who offered to release an album of my recordings. I cannot remember if it was him or me who suggested that the theme of the Thames be used, but I did have some good recordings that I’d made inside Tower Bridge and also in some places along the Thames estuary, and it seemed logical that these should all belong together on a record. Now, there is one limitation on this and listeners will note that there is nothing further west of Tower Bridge on it and that’s not inverted snobbery of any kind. The river is posher as you go further west, it’s true, but it’s also blighted by aircraft noise. The flight paths as you approach Heathrow get very noisy as you go towards what used to be called the Arcadian Thames – the old Thames of Syon Park and Palladian mansions and Richmond Hill and so on. It should really be a very attractive part of the city, but it is really under the thumb of really oppressive aircraft noise. So I haven’t gone there to record. Also the range of activities you encounter is not as great as along the estuary, which seems to be on a bigger, grander scale altogether. The estuary had until fairly recently an oil refinery. It has big gravel and sandstone quarries. All kinds of activities happen along it. And there are also natural habitats as well where you get things like marsh frogs and wading birds and so on. You don’t really get that in London or to the west of it so much.

PS: And in terms of the sequencing, how did you approach that?

IR: Well that was more just for what sounded good together, rather than following a geographic course, say from the centre out to the sea for example, which would surely be a more logical and obvious choice to adopt. But when you put things in that order it didn’t sound like such a good sequence. The two sides are meant to be complementary to one another, for example, the first track on side A is inside the Bascule Chamber which is a kind of brick-lined void [beneath] Tower Bridge. So side A track one is the North Bascule Chamber and side B track one is the South Bascule Chamber. So the tracks are complementary across the two sides as well as being complementary in sequence. I hope that when listened together it makes for a pleasing combination.

One of the Tower Bridge Bascule Chambers. Photo by Jez B of Flickr

PS: How do you prepare for making a recording, and what decisions go into choosing what sounds you capture? I read in the past that you started off editing recordings and now you just choose to record in locations that are interesting, so you don’t have to edit?

IR: Yes. It’s pretty hard, I think, to find interesting sounds. Initially you pick all the low hanging fruit as it were – the football crowd, the street market, churches, all those sorts of things. After a while you start to run out of them or they become more difficult to find. So I think a big part of the preparation is just trying to think what to record, and on the website some of that is dictated by the need to construct web pages rather than discs of recordings or just an array of recordings. The website has quite a strong graphic element to it so I like to somehow feel constrained to thinking of series or themes of recordings which can be represented visually as well as audibly. So they have to make an attractive looking web page that people will want to explore and click on different bits and compare. That’s what I hope people will do. Whether they actually do that I’m still not sure. But some of the graphic schemes have worked quite well. Sometimes the ideas come very quickly and sometimes slowly or they’re second best to some other idea which seemed really good but proved to be impractical.

PS: So was there any further preparation? Did you know what to expect when you got there or did you think about what time of day to record?

IR: Oh, yes. Well I mean there’s all kinds of quite dull things you have to prepare for, like transport and how far you have to walk and so on. Is the spot that you want to go on reachable? I think the big issue for urban and near-urban recordists is what will be noticed and what won’t be noticed. If you are recording in busy situations it is useless to go along with a mic in a big windshield looking like you’re from a film crew or something. Amazingly I’ve seen people offering urban sound recording workshops in which they illustrate the course with precisely that – someone looking very serious with a pair of huge headphones on and a big windshield blimp. It is much better in busy situations to use very discreet microphones so you don’t look like you’re recording. Even given that some people out there are very good at reading people’s behaviour and if you act and move in a very slow deliberate way when you’re making recordings there are people out there who will spot that. They won’t know what you’re up to, but they’ll know that you’re up to something.

PS: You talked about moving around earlier in the first recordings. Do you tend to walk and record or stay static?

IR: It depends really on the environment. Some places and some situations are much better to walk around. Let’s give a familiar example – the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Now you could stay in a static spot to record the Lord Mayor’s Parade go by, but here are the problems with that. First off, you’re then at the mercy of the people around you and it would be your luck that there’s someone with a really loud voice close by or someone with a braying irritating laugh or something like that. The solution is to walk, not with the parade but against its direction of movement. That way you pack in more variety within a given space of time and you’re not at the mercy of particular individuals in the crowd. So that’s an obvious case, but there are some environments where the changes of timbre and activity are rewarding to record I think. Let’s consider some of the narrower streets in the City or the little alleyways you get in the West End. You’ve probably been down Gerrard Street in Chinatown. You could walk along there and there are some strange little alleys with little shops in them. There’s all sorts of variety that would occur during the course of such a walk. So it makes sense to make a walking recording. I also think you have to be able to walk quietly. You should wear clothes that don’t make any noise. There is a kind of strange sound recordist walk – I’m sure it looks a bit odd. But it does look very deliberate and I think for that reason people tend to get out of your way when you do it without them having to ask them, which is really useful! 

PS: So you’re not present in the recording itself, although with that type of recording the listener is still conscious that you’re present because you’re guiding the movement – as opposed to a static recording.

IR: Yes. I’ve read some debate about whether you should include traces of yourself in your recording or not. And I’m not really sure which way to fall on it. Some people criticise the idea of the disembodied recordist that doesn’t make any sound. I don’t think those criticisms have any substance whatsoever. To me it just demands more skill not to get yourself in your recordings. To control your breathing, to move quietly, and so on. It’s a bit like taking photographs and making sure your thumb is not over the lens or that you’re not constantly getting glimpses of yourself in reflections in windows. Anyway, it’s supposed to be about the environment and the city, not about me, you know. I would rather that you listen and made up your own mind. Use your own imagination, triggered by sounds, to picture this place in time.

Paul Skinner and Ian Rawes at the London Metropolitan Archive’s Sound Studio

PS: Can you tell us a bit about the sonic nature of the recordings you choose and their potential geographic or historical importance? For example, the refinery sirens are amazing, but also have a historical angle as well.

IR: Well that was double bubble. I didn’t know the refinery was due to be closed when I made the recording. I didn’t even know the refinery made the particular noises that are in the recording, which is an eerie, almost whale-like, wailing sound made by the sirens. I thought I was just going to record the kind of deep powerful rushing sound made by the gas flares as they are burnt off. But it was the World Cup that day, the 2010 World Cup, England v Germany match. And I think the siren was being sounded really to cheer on the England team. Didn’t do them a lot of good – people will know that Germany won in a very decisive way. So I guess that’s of a particular time. I didn’t know then that the Coryton Refinery was due to be shut down, but it was, and many of its workers have now scattered throughout the oil producing countries of the world. Some have gone as far afield as the Gulf states and so on. So inadvertently that became quite quickly a recording perhaps of some small historical significance. I would guess most of the time I would hope that the sonic quality comes first because that’s immediately rewarding. I’m not being paid for doing this, so I guess I’m entitled to give my own pleasure foremost consideration, and the satisfaction of my own curiosity about the city. I have to be honest and say I think that comes first but I hope that as a byproduct that things of some social or historical significance are captured. 

Now, sometimes I do try and think of [historical significance] foremost but there is always the worry that you thought of a very worthy subject, but when you actually go there it’s just going to sound really boring. A case in point – yesterday when I had to come in to London I went down to the Borough and I was early for my meeting, so I went a bit further and got off the train at Elephant and Castle, because I know the area has been redeveloped and I used to live near there – I lived in a bedsit in the 90s for about a year. I used to go to the shopping centre a lot and I quite like the kind of scruffy market that extends around the outside. [Now] there’s an enormous new development of housing, virtually all private, which is springing up behind the railway station and extending right along the New Kent Road. And it’s all very new and clean looking, and much of it is still under construction, but it made me think that this is not the only really big area-based development that is going on in London. There are others; the south bank of the Thames between Waterloo or Vauxhall down to Wandsworth is being transformed very quickly. There are enormous private flat developments there. And very startling some of them look as well. Sort of silvery spaceships that have plonked themselves down – quite mysterious looking. This is the new London. This is not the world of the neighbourhood and people chatting over the garden fence. This is the world of people being polite to one another in the lift or on the stairs but then going back behind doors and getting on with their own very private lives. And this I think is becoming a more and more common way of living and a more common general form of architecture. London’s population is estimated to rise to as much as maybe ten million by 2035, that’s the most recent figure I’ve come across. And that’s a big change. The London I grew up in as a kid had a population of only about six and a half million. In those days, the 1970s, it was falling. People were moving out. Now hordes of people are moving in and most of it’s probably going to have to happen within the Green Belt and that means building upwards and more flat living. Here and there you see little plazas set aside, supposedly for the recreation of the inhabitants. It seems perhaps a bit early to say whether they will be used and whether a new sense of community will arise in these places. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t. But it seems a significant new environment perhaps to go along and make recordings in.

PS: It sounds like even though the population is rising, conversely human voices are being taken out the soundscape. 

IR: Yes. It’s a private world. Why would you talk in the street? I think more and more people direct their voices only towards those they already know. Think, if you go to a shop you don’t have to talk to anybody. You can go and use an automated machine which sort of talks to you. I went to one in Marks and Spencers and it said ‘Hi, I’m Eleisha”. So real human interaction is going to be replaced with a simulation. If you wanted to live like a hermit it would be really easy now in the heart of London to live like that. You could have all your food and other things delivered to you, pay all your bills in an automatic way. You might even be able to work from home. If you wanted you could interact with no one at all for weeks on end. It doesn’t sound like a very cheery prospect, but it may be that more and more people head, not towards that end, but certainly towards greater privacy and greater anonymity. Things which of course are not new in London at all but I think perhaps an acceleration of that trend.

Thanks to both Ian and Paul for such a fascinating conversation. The London Sound Survey website can be found here and you can listen to extracts from Thames here. Both are highly recommended resources for the whiling away of a pleasant afternoon… 

Photo by Benjamin McMahon

Learning with ILEA: Double deckers and green bananas

Anansi and the Green Bananas storybook and tape

Blog post by Sarah Crompton, part of our fantastic volunteer team.

I am privileged to have the opportunity of volunteering at London Metropolitan Archives on Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), a nationwide project aiming to digitally preserve audio archives in danger of being lost through degradation or because the technology for accessing it is becoming obsolete. As the owner of a well-preserved video recorder and cassette player for the playing of our family collection of school and recital recordings, skilled in the art of using a pencil to respool tapes that have disgorged themselves into the inner mechanisms of the machinery, I can understand the fragility of analogous methods and the concern that nationally important resources are stored by these means. A countdown of 15 years to digitise how much! I’ll be keeping my ancient technologies functioning just in case they are called upon…

I’m currently working on education resources produced by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which was in operation between 1965 and 1990. Unlocking this particular part of our sound heritage is akin to unlocking a primary school teacher’s private resource cupboard: 1970’s and 80’s teacher packs of the type familiar from my own education, with workbooks supported by bespoke recordings of specially commissioned songs, stories and renditions of folktales. London teachers may remember the names of such series as ‘Make-a-Story’ for 5-8 year olds, and ‘Share-a-Story’ for 5-11 year olds. London pupils may remember listening to stories with titles such as ‘The Space Dragon’, or singing ‘Double Decker’, a song about the experience of riding on a bus. Past pupils would definitely be transported by just a few seconds of hearing those distinctive electronic sounds from ILEA’s Creating Music in Class.

Listening to these resources now, what is initially striking is the intention of the content to be as wholly inclusive as possible – to simply provide what was needed, for a huge range of needs. So far, I have encountered musical resources made to encourage self-sufficiency and independence in children with learning needs and storytelling resources remarkable in their striving to create a true community amongst children and young people brought together from diverse communities in the post-war years. The focus is very strongly on ‘cultural pluralism’ – understanding and appreciating the culture and experiences of children who were newly in the country, and on recognising the talent and skills of the individual child.

As I was musing on how LMA’s collection of schools resources might be corroborated by information on the strategy for their development, Kate (Catalogue Editor on the UOSH team) dived into the wider ILEA archive, particularly the resources and newsletters produced by the Learning Resources Branch. A 1980 Media Resources Advisory newsletter contains an article by Mike Hussey, Inspector for Multi-Ethnic Education and Community Relations, which defines ILEA’s objective of developing education in a multi-ethnic society and shows how the legislative backing of the 1976 Race Relations Act positively impacted the needs-serving of the entire population.The opening statement comments that this objective was part of the ‘long standing general duty of all authorities’ – perhaps hinting at opposition to a modern progressive approach?

Media Resources Advisory Team newsletters
Media Resources Advisory Team newsletters

One has a sense that the 1976 legislation provided much-welcomed support for ILEA’s plans and the green light for a huge programme of activity. Predating the ‘Share-a-Story’ and ‘Make-a-Story’ resources by just two years, it surely was a factor in ILEA’s confident investment in the large bank of resources now represented in the collections at LMA. Hussey’s article describes the multi-ethnic approach as rooted throughout all activities in the primary school curriculum, and we see represented in the story series the exact same messages reiterated in a statement from the ILEA sub-committee: ‘to live and work harmoniously’, ‘the strengths of cultural diversity’, ‘to meet appropriately and effectively the particular needs of all people having regard to their ethnic, cultural, linguistic or historical attachment’ in both the curriculum and the ‘hidden curriculum’.

The resources

The hard evidence of this inclusive approach contained in the schools resources shows how the Learning Resources Branch in its various incarnations produced a rich flow of curriculum material, books and resources based on London school experiences, gathered through the Media Resources Officer’s liaison with schools and the secondment of teachers to work with Learning Material editors. The stories from both these series I have worked with at the LMA are wonderfully even-handed in the way they distribute the actions of groups of primary school children irrespective of race and gender.

The accompanying teacher guide booklets in the ‘Share-a-Story’ series, for example, educate teachers to recognise that although a West Indian child’s first language might be English, they were on the receiving end of a range of different English accents and pronunciations – standardised, classroom language and creole variations with their distinct inflections. Teachers in England needed guidance to recognise that these children were using a heightened intelligence to negotiate their surroundings, adept at adjusting to whichever version of English was appropriate to whatever situation. Stories were especially written or culled from other cultures, involving characters like Anansi, a well-known figure from Caribbean folklore.

The integration message is also borne out in stories like ‘The Space Dragon’ where children were encouraged to be resourceful, to rely on one another and to appreciate cultural difference as an asset. In the story, a group of children are threatened by the appearance of a dragon until the child from a Chinese family acts as interpreter – as she opens communication with the dragon, the threat evaporates and the children celebrate a new friendship with a dragon-ride across the London skies. Bonding through a true celebration of both individuality and community cohesion.

The Space Dragon
The Space Dragon, from the ‘Make-a-Story’ series (illustrations by Ronald Jackson)

At a time when the media and children’s book publishers are desperately trying to address the dearth of stories with BAME characters in lead roles and illustrations which do not accurately represent children from BAME backgrounds, look here for a wealth of stories with just those enterprising role models and accurate and celebratory pictorial representation. The voices, too: following the Caribbean story-telling tradition where the stories are told naturally in everyday language, these recordings were progressive for English schools in their use of the local and international accents that children would be hearing all around them. Clearly recognising that using English received pronunciation would be inappropriate, alienating and isolating for multi-ethnic audiences living in a local working-class environment, on the tapes from the ‘Share-a-Story’ series children would instead hear the ‘cockney’ voice of Bill Colville saying ‘I wish we could go ‘aht”. This was certainly not a commercially driven enterprise, but there is a feeling that ‘best practice’ was sourced in the very settings that ILEA sought to serve.

I am left with the feeling that children were lucky to be educated in London with this approach at the time – and wonder how this experience might compare with that of children in towns and cities with smaller minority ethnic populations and fewer resources to draw on. A couple of generations further on from the children in these stories, issues of intolerance for other cultures break regularly in the news.  There are valuable lessons to be learnt from these resources, still, and surely a huge potential for reworking and reusing the content.

Audio-visual equipment, illustrated in the Learning Resources Branch newsletters
Audio-visual equipment, illustrated in the Learning Resources Branch newsletters


Handling and Storing your Vinyl Records

Throughout the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project our team will work closely with the British Library to support and develop training around the best way to work with analogue sound carriers such as vinyl, open reel and cassette.
In this first of three introductory shorts, we discuss the best way to handle and store vinyl records.



The vinyl collection you have spent years building and adding to is something you will want to look after. It tells a story of who you are and reminds you how important music is in your life.

Below are a few simple tips to keep that collection in good condition …

– always handle records by the outer edges and the labelled area only – never touch the playing surfaces with fingers or any other part of the hand

– once you have finished using the record, return it to its protective sleeve. If the sleeve is damaged, replace it with a new one

– avoid leaving your vinyl on the turntable when not in use, in particular with the stylus resting in the groove

– make use of the turntables’ cueing facility, never lowering the stylus onto or lifting the stylus off a record by hand



Once you’ve finished listening to a favourite musician or band, keeping the vinyl clean and stored properly is an important way to extend its playback life.

Below are a few simple tips to think about when putting your records away or into permanent storage …

– always check your record is free from dust and is unaffected by mould, insects or active corrosion before storing. Try to clean this dust or dirt from your vinyl before returning it to its sleeve.

– always store your records in sleeves. If there is an inner and outer sleeve, the openings of the two sleeves should be arranged at right angles, with the inner sleeve opening at the top.

– when placing your records on shelves, store them upright and without any significant pressure from the sides (but, enough to prevent sliding or warping).

– avoid stacking a single vinyl for any length of time in an upright position with the edge leaning against a vertical surface.

– and finally, never leave your records near a radiator or other source of heat (e.g. computer equipment); nor in direct sunlight


If you have any questions about your own collections or want to add anything to the advice above, please do so in our comments sections below.

We would love to hear not only about your collections, but your experience of handling and storing vinyl.




The London Soundscape: Pirate Flava

It would be impossible to conduct a thorough exploration of London’s sonic heritage without acknowledging the seismic role played by Pirate Radio in shaping the sounds of the city. While the powers that be may not care to admit it, a sizable number of the most intriguing musical trends and subgenres of the past half century – rap, garage, grime – have germinated and flourished thanks to these shadowy illegitimate bandwidths, much of it here in the capital, yet still far enough away from the attentions of more formal, mainstream broadcasters to prevent them becoming diluted. It’s also a fact that many of today’s biggest selling stars of stage and screen cut their teeth ‘spitting bars’ over a jury-rigged transmitter from the roof of a London towerblock. And if the work of grime legend turned pop star Tinchy Stryder has taught us nothing else, it’s that it is genuinely possible to enjoy a career trajectory that starts off trading playfully verbose rhymes on pirate radio and finishes trading banter with beloved end-of-the-pier children’s entertainers The Chuckle Brothers. How about that for cognitive dissonance?!

Another question: ‘What would be a radio be if it tuned itself?’ A query both posed and answered by DJ Wrongspeed in his weekly radio programme ‘Pirate Flava’ back in the early years of the twenty-first century. Broadcast on the (legal) community/arts radio station Resonance 104.4FM between 2002-3 (roughly the same time as Tinchy’s earliest forays onto the airwaves), the show was a weekly 15 minute collage of illicit and lo-fi broadcasts put together by randomly sweeping across the city’s airwaves, looking to ‘[draw] together some of the characters and musics which make up London’s chaotic radio space’. In the days before social media, online streaming and DAB broadcasting, this was how the city talked to itself and how it listened. Is there a more thrilling way to discover the hidden history of the capital than taking a trip both back in time and across the radio dial?

Truth be told, in this example we’re travelling even further back: the mentioning of artists with evocative names such as Bug Khan and the Plastic Jam and the slightly more prosaic DJ Kid Andy dates these particular recordings between 1991 and 1993; making them roughly contemporaneous with this short but fascinating BBC Arena documentary on the Hackney-based pirate Weekend Rush. For this writer, observing from afar as a teenager, the programme’s opening minute alone made London look like the most thrilling place on Earth. This was the time when the sound of jungle was poised to leave its birthplace among these Hackney tower blocks and sweep the nation’s pop charts – a period that, as the late writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher once observed, ‘sounded like the future rushing in’.

You can find other more contemporary recordings from 2002-3 elsewhere on the Wrongspeed Soundcloud Page, but be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted! The language and opinions on offer in these unregulated hinterlands of the London airwaves can be pretty abrasive and on occasion even downright offensive. And yet at the same time all life is here and there’s a strange unruly magic at work amidst the chaos: duelling rappers, quarrelling cabbies, domestic phone-ins, political debate, community disputes, homemade adverts for club nights and hair salons, phoning home to Mum, defending the honour of the family dog and an incident involving a pot noodle are just a few of the more intriguing moments on offer; all delivered in a multitude of languages, accents and dialects, colloquialisms and slang. Thanks to the efforts of Wrongspeed and a generation of others committing these broadcasts to cassette, we have these perfectly preserved time-capsules of an era that already feels a lot further away than a mere couple of decades. And yet a surprising number of London’s pirates live on to this day, shunning the technological developments that should have rendered them obsolete and continuing to engage the authorities in ever-more elaborate games of cat-and-mouse. Even more surprisingly, others have ‘gone legit’ and gained community radio licenses, websites, youth training schemes and online archives. Jungle, garage and grime remain cultural mainstays to this day and, perhaps most shocking of all, sales of the ‘Bombay Bad Boy’ remain robust. Perhaps 2002 isn’t so far away after all…

Those of you still hungry (no pun intended) will find a comprehensive list of London-based pirate stations old and new on The Pirate Archive homepage. A less formal but equally remarkable private archive along with a fascinating oral history comes courtesy of one Michael Finch, owner of perhaps the largest collection of recorded pirate broadcasts in the UK and the subject of Rollo Jackson’s charming 2011 documentary Tape Crackers. The DVD is well worth tracking down, here’s the trailer to whet your appetite in the meantime:

Under Ground London Soundscape – UOSH In Action!

The new soundscape created by staff and volunteers from the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project has been going down a storm in the exhibition space here at the London Metropolitan Archives in Farringdon. ‘Going down’ also happens to be the subject of the exhibition itself: Under Ground London is a fascinating and extensive exploration of the hidden histories submerged beneath the surface of the Capital – from lost rivers and sewers to tunnels, bunkers, shelters, remains and ruins. You can listen to a short extract from the soundscape below, and for maximum effectiveness we would encourage you to enjoy the following clip below ground, perhaps while travelling on the tube, provided the wifi holds out?

Designed for use at low-level and accompanied by projections of vintage films from the LMA collection, the soundtrack consists of electronic tones and textures combined with modern field recordings by London tour guide and UOSH project volunteer Andrea Vail. The brief was to produce ‘…an abstract sound portrait of some of London’s hidden spaces’ and the response so far has been most gratifying. The team wanted to create ‘an experience evocative of the sounds every Londoner will recognise: distant trains in tunnels, the squealing of wheels, the rush hour claustrophobia and the occasional sudden moments of unexpected calm and solitude. The creation of a modern soundtrack also acts as a slight juxtaposition to the more historical nature of the films on display, bringing the past into the present…’

Entry is free and this fascinating exhibition runs at the London Met Archives until the end of October 2019. Well worth a visit if you’re passing – and you might even catch a glimpse of the UOSH team, hard at work in our endeavours to catalogue and digitise the 5,000 ‘at risk’ sound recordings we’ve been tasked with preserving. But one minor note of caution, not all of the exhibition is suitable for those of a squeamish disposition!