Unlocking the Huntley Archives

How saved sound heritage helped me discover the radical lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley

Kirsty and Eric

Eric and Jessica Huntley came to the UK from Guyana in the late 50s, part of the Windrush generation. They were pioneering political activists, involved in many grassroots campaigns for racial and social justice, both nationally and internationally. They are highly respected in the African-Caribbean community and beyond for their work in giving a voice to black people in the UK.

I’ve only recently discovered the legacy of Eric and Jessica through my placement at the London Metropolitan Archives, where the Huntley archives are stored. It was the LMA’s first major deposit from the African-Caribbean community, and it reveals the story of the changing cultural landscape in Britain since the 1950s.

Within the collection is a series of interviews that the Huntleys did with Professor Harry Goulbourne in 1992, recently digitised through a British Library-led project that the LMA are part of, called ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and, over a period of five years, will preserve almost half a million rare sound recordings that are at risk of being lost, on formats that are physically degrading and gradually becoming obsolete. Through this, I’ve been able to access audio heritage that has helped me understand the importance of Jessica and Eric’s story.

Here’s one of my favourite clips that I’ve discovered from the interviews, which is of Jessica describing her first job in a shirt factory back in Guyana:

I love this story because its shows Jessica’s early revolutionary spirit in calling out injustice, even before she moved to the UK. Once they did, she and Eric went on to campaign about everything from housing discrimination to National Front attacks, and even helped organise the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ march in 1981, which was the largest protest march of black Britons to take place in the UK. They maintained an international involvement in politics, continuing to demonstrate against government injustices in Guyana, the South African apartheid regime, and the incarceration of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row in Pennsylvania, USA.

Though not officially part of the Black Power movement, the Huntleys were influenced by its key figures. Here’s Jessica reflecting on Malcolm X’s visit to the UK in the 1960s:

A key part of the Huntley’s activism was through their publishing company and bookshop, Bogle-L’Ouverture, which they set up in 1968, originally in their front room. It was named in honour of two freedom fighters – Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Bogle – who were both figure heads in black resistance against the slave trade. It was one of the first black publishing houses in the UK, at a time when books by black authors were rare in mainstream bookshops. This was an important action to stop the voice of black history from being silenced. Once established, the bookshop became a venue for workshops, readings and lectures, and an important community hub. Some notable writers they printed were Linton Kwesi Johnson, the only black poet published by Penguin Modern Classics, and Sir Walter Rodney, after whom the bookshop was renamed following his assassination in 1980.

Eric and Jessica saw the importance of preserving history for community and education. They kept many records of British racism and black activism, and believed in the power of the written word to document the contribution of African-Caribbean people, as Jessica explains:

This belief in preserving heritage and passing down history led to the Huntleys depositing their archives with the LMA. They are managed by a charity called FHALMA (Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA), who work to bring the material to life and expose it to wider audiences and new generations. One way they do this is by hosting an annual Huntley Conference at the LMA. This year’s conference marked 50 years of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Attendees had the chance to record an audio memory of Jessica, who passed away in 2013, which will later be added to the sound archive. I had the opportunity to volunteer at the conference, helping record these memories – including this one from Eric himself, below. Having listened to so many of his archived interviews, it felt like a huge privilege to be recording one myself.

In June, the LMA and FHALMA are collaborating with arts and diversity organisation Culture& to host ‘The Memory Archives’, an event commemorating Windrush Day. The programme will use sound material, including that of the Huntley Archives, as a reminiscence tool for people living with dementia – particularly those from the African-Caribbean community. ‘The Memory Archives’ will take place at the London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday 22nd June – save the date and we hope to see you there!

Kirsty Kerr is an Archives and Digital Media Trainee at Culture& and a volunteer on the LMA’s ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at London Metropolitan Archives

Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA




From The Archive: ‘Potter’s Pigeon Problem’


Our exploration of the Inner London Education Authority’s archive as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project continues apace this week with a rather feisty little offering inspired by the city’s Caribbean diaspora. Mango Spice is a collection of songs recorded for distribution to London schools in the early 1980s as a double cassette and song-book, complete with liner notes, musical scores and amusing illustrations by Maggie Ling. There are over forty of them to choose from, but the current favourite in the UOSH office is this performance of the traditional Jamaican number ‘Good Morning Missa Potter’, sung here by Chris Cameron, Vallin Miller and a spirited chorus of ILEA schoolchildren. It’s something of an ear-worm and you’ll surely find yourself singing along in no time, even if the lyrics might initially seem a little impenetrable to those of us unfamiliar with Creole-based dialects. It goes:

Good Morning, Missa Pottter,
good morning to yu, sah.
Come to lodge a complaint to yu now, sah,
Plant a piece a red peas a red Sally land,
Mary Jane an pigeon come eat it out, sah.
Come out a me yahd, me neva call yu yah,
Come out a me yahd, me neva call yu yah,
For yu house rent money no done pay fah,
Yu house rent money no done pay fah.

You’ll be humming it for the rest of the day, trust me. A potted translation (pun intended) of the above can be found in the pages of the Mango Spice book, along with the clarification that this is being sung by a landlady to her tenant (despite being helmed here by two chaps and some children) as she gives voice to her grievances vis-a-vis his recent conduct. Don’t let the melodious nature of the tune or the cordial tone of the opening lines fool you; she is in a quite steaming rage and clearly on the verge of ‘shaking him warmly by the throat’, as your Dad might put it. The charges she brings against Potter are two-fold: on the one hand, he hasn’t paid his rent, which is never a smart move if you’re hoping to avoid a song-based altercation with whoever owns the roof that keeps the rain off. But even worse, this redoubtable woman whose palm Potter is contractually obliged to be crossing claims that his daughter Mary Jane and some pigeon accomplices have dug up and eaten all the kidney beans she planted in the vegetable patch, rendering hours of back-breaking labour null and void in one greedy feathered swoop. In other words, she’s certainly not belting out Mr. Potter’s Greatest Hits…

As an aside, it must be said that all this does make for a far more entertaining method of tackling tenancy disputes than the curt official letter or aggrieved voicemail that such transgressions more traditionally incur. Thinking back over my own years spent renting in the capital, besides a handful of delayed monthly payments I’ve also been found guilty on occasion of playing loud jungle music in the kitchen, using the butter knife to spread something other than butter and that time I accidentally flooded out my ground floor neighbours (those poncey, futuristic taps might look very fancy, but anything over a trickle and the water misses the bathtub completely). The closest anyone got to breaking into song during these conflicts was the downstairs occupant at the moment when her ceiling fell in, but while the sudden burst of anguished soprano could almost certainly have been heard as far as the Caribbean, her actual complaint pursued the usual formal channels. Yawn.

Anyway, back to Mr. Potter: what has this most hapless of tenants to offer in his defence? Very little, it would seem – perhaps wisely, because hell hath no fury like a wronged proprietress with an axe to grind and the power of song. Though who knows, maybe this traditional ballad did once contain other lyrics, now lost to history? Perhaps even whole other stanzas existed, in which Mr. Potter haughtily returned the serenade, assuring his accuser in a rich basso profundo that Mary Jane had actually been in her bedroom miming showtunes into a hairbrush at the time of the alleged incident, and then going on to enquire as to whether the landlady had any children herself and if so had she ever actually managed to convince one to eat anything remotely as healthy as a kidney bean; even when washed, cooked and served as a side-dish, let alone pulled cold and hard from the bare earth? Pausing to regain his composure after this outburst, Potter might then have sworn that the direct debit had definitely gone from his account as usual, definitely, unless the pigeons had somehow stolen that as well. And finally, casting an aggrieved eye upon these feathered felons, he might have rounded things off by proposing an admirable solution to all of their problems: the sudden abundance of well-sated and newly-plump game-birds waddling sluggishly around the yard in a contented, post-bean-feast stupor. Everybody wins – dinner is served, Potter is exonerated and we now have enough material for two weeks at the Palladium: Red Sally, The Musical!

Sadly, until these extra verses are discovered (or until Tim Rice finally accepts the reverse charges), we will have to assume that the tenant simply declined to counter the accusations and dined instead on a large helping of humble pie. While one must of course never automatically assume a man’s guilt just because of his silence, it is true that the vehemence with which the landlady holds Mr. Potter responsible does suggest some kind of lapse on his part. The most likely scenario is that he was the owner of the birds and that his negligence that had caused them to stray towards the forbidden delights of the vegetable patch; another is that Mr. Potter was in fact supposed to be actively guarding the bean patch himself in his capacity as a scarecrow. Either way, guilty as charged.

But it’s rarely ever as cut and dry as all that, is it? Is there really anybody with experience of renting in London or anywhere else who couldn’t trade a few horror stories regarding their accommodation tribulations over the years? How many stories have ever ended with the landlady/lord or letting agent as the noble hero? Not Red Sally, The Musical, that’s for sure! And so, in solidarity with all of the Potters (and some of the pigeons) of this world, I would like to hereby propose a riposte in the form of ‘My Landlady’, a calypso classic by Trinidadian icon and former resident of the capital, Lord Kitchener.

This song is one of many treats from London Is The Place For Me, that much-loved compilation of Trinidadian Calypso songs from 1950-56 that beautifully capture the joys and sorrows experienced by these first members of the Windrush generation. Indeed, ‘Kitch’ himself was on board that very ship and famously sang the album’s title cut accapella for the waiting Pathé news cameras upon arrival at Tilbury docks:

Full of characteristic warmth and wit, these recordings are an integral part of London’s rich sonic history, and tell tales that still ring true six decades later – Kitchener’s amusing misadventures on the Underground, for example, never fails to raise a smile. And while the nine million people who call London their home these days should hardly be in need of it, recordings such as this and Mango Spice are a perfect reminder of just how rich a cultural stew is forever bubbling away in this city of ours. Just as well it’s a metaphorical stew, because we’re all out of beans…

Sound Conservation: Baking Cassettes

During our work on the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, the team will potentially encounter a range of conservation issues during the digitisation process. For example, how to prepare degrading formats for digital transfer.

Cassettes and reel to reel tapes (particularly the latter) can build up moisture over time, which damages and erodes the material, impairs the sound quality and makes for a poor transfer. This build-up of moisture cannot always be spotted on visual inspection, but playing the tape may give you some audio clues: these can include muffled or ‘watery’ sound, excessive wow and flutter etc. Basically if the audio sounds ‘wobbly’ or muffled, baking may be the solution.

Another problem that frequently occurs is ‘sticky shed syndrome’, where the binder holding the oxide in place on the tape surface begins to break down. In severe cases this oxide can literally powder off on your fingers and create an audible ‘squealing’ sound which can be heard both in the studio and on the recording. This last one in particular is more common with reels, but cassettes can be affected too. Either way, a spell in the oven will be necessary.

Tape baking

In the above example we see a cassette placed on one the trays inside the oven. There are three trays for the baking of multiple tapes. Place the offending items in the oven and cover with the lid. The controls are very simple – set the timer for 8 hours and the temperature for 50 degrees.

Baking tape 2

The tape must be allowed to heat up and cool down naturally, so once the baking process has started, resist the temptation to throw in a couple of extras that you might have missed!

Once the tape has been left to return to normal temperature (ideally on the following day – the sooner the better), the theory goes that you’ll have a brief period of a few days to attempt another digitisation before the tape returns to its former state. The theory also goes that you have ONE CHANCE ONLY to digitise the tape once baking has been completed. It’s generally a good idea to adhere to these guidelines, but also to bear in mind that each tape is unique and can act in different ways. The baking may have completely remedied the problem – and it often does – but isn’t always the miraculous cure you might hope for. There are other tape restoration methods you can try, but that’s for another time.

Unlocking our Sound Heritage is a Heritage Lottery Funded project led by the British Library, for which London Metropolitan Archives is one of ten regional hubs. Discover more via our website.