The story of how the Museum of London put the recordings online began in 2008 when St Neots Museum offered us a Columbia Home Grand Graphophone phonograph dated around 1900 and 26 wax cylinders which David Brown, Cromwell Wall’s grandson and a local resident, had donated to it.
On each cylinder’s cardboard box was a carefully handwritten description of its contents, the date on which it was recorded, and the location where it was recorded. The many references to Friern Barnet and New Southgate led the St Neots Museum staff to believe they should return to London. (This incidentally is how local and social history museums – including the Museum of London – work. We tell the stories of our local areas and people, and will often pass enquiries about donations on to other museums if they may be a better match.)
The group was – even without access to the recorded sounds the cylinders held – a powerful link to another time and past lives. The objects were also beautiful to look at – the phonograph in its ornate, turned wooden case and the cylinder boxes with their curled hand-lettered descriptions. Two of the boxes were particularly pretty, printed with delicate roses and detailed instructions on how to handle the fragile cylinders inside. With David Brown’s kind agreement, we were delighted to accept St Neots Museum’s offer.
Next we wanted to find out whether any of the recordings on the wax cylinders had survived, and if they had, to transfer them into digital format so they could be preserved for the future. With its experience and expertise in this area, the British Library Sound Archive was the natural choice to do this for us.
Four years – and several Museum of London exhibitions – later, in spring 2012, we took the cylinders to the British Library in St Pancras.
There, Nigel Bewley, British Library Sound Archive Operations Manager, skilfully transferred the recordings for us. He successfully transferred clear sound recordings from 24 of the 26 cylinders (one of the cylinders was blank; the recording on another could barely be heard.)
Back at the Museum of London Bill Lowry, our Digital Collections (Preservation) Manager, worked on the digitised recordings, further enhancing them ready to go online.
One of the most enjoyable parts of researching the recordings was meeting Cromwell Wall’s descendants. In autumn 2012 with the oral historian and broadcaster Alan Dein I met David Brown and his family, and David’s sister Daphne Brown and cousin Alan White – both also of course Cromwell’s grandchildren.
Alan captured the family’s thoughts and feelings on hearing their grandfather’s, aunts’ and uncles’, great-grandfather’s and even great-great-grandfather’s voices.
The family’s generosity and enthusiasm in sharing their family’s history, their memories of their grandfather Cromwell, and showing us family photographs and documents (which you can see on this blog) have enriched the recordings in a very unique and personal way.
I was struck by how faith, and making music together, both so central to Cromwell’s and his family’s lives, remain important to David and Daphne and the younger members of the family. When we visited, Cromwell’s great-great-grandchildren Layla and Zac sang ‘Minstrel Boy’ accompanied on the harp and piano by their mother Marina (David’s daughter) and grandmother Joyce. This was the same song that Cromwell had recorded his seven year old son Leslie (Layla’s and Zac’s great-great uncle) singing almost a hundred and ten years ago in 1904.
In December I had the pleasure of meeting more of Cromwell’s descendants when Pallab Ghosh, Science Correspondent for BBC News, visited the Museum of London to interview the family . Cromwell’s grandsons Edward Pumfrey, Brian Wall and Oliver Wall and great-grandson Philip Wall joined David, Daphne, Alan and Marina to listen to the recordings and chat about what they mean to them.
There have also been some very unexpected and special outcomes of putting Cromwell’s recordings online. Other family members have contacted us and we’ve been able to put them in contact with David, Daphne, Alan, Brian, Oliver and Edward. One gentleman recognised in the face of Hampden Wall (aged about 19, standing on the left in the Wall family photograph taken in 1916), a colleague whose surname was Wall who had served with him in Malaysia in the 1960s. We forwarded his email to the family and he has now made contact with his colleague from 50 years ago (who is indeed a Wall descendant!) who now lives in New Zealand!
We’ve also been told that Cromwell’s recordings of the bells of Christ Church, Southgate, may be the earliest recordings of English church bell ringing.
And finally, since we put the recordings online we have only heard about one earlier Christmas home recording, a phonograph recording held in the National Library of Norway from Christmas Eve 1901.
If you know of any earlier home recordings, we would love to hear from you.
Blog by Julia Hoffbrand, curator of social and working history.