THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

21 May 2018

Recording of the week: "We regret to inform you" - bad news from the sound archives

This week's selection comes from David Govier, Oral History Archivist.

An Oral History of the Post Office includes memories of telegram delivery boys who delivered telegrams by hand with news of war casualties during the Second World War, and their reflections on what it was like delivering the bad news. Delivery boys were always told what the news was. They were instructed to ask if there was a man in the house first. They also had to wait at the door in case a reply was requested.

Roger Osborn (C1007/16) discusses the wording of war telegrams which would always start with the words “We regret to inform you…” A friend of Roger’s in Tring, Hertfordshire, ignored his instructions when delivering news of the killing of a woman’s husband. He noticed the woman out shopping and gave her the telegram. Her first reaction was to hit him over the head with her loaf of bread.

Des Callaghan (C1007/38) remembers delivering three telegrams in Nottingham to one home: one with the news that the son was missing, the second the incorrect news that he was dead, and the third that he was actually in a prisoner of war camp - and Des got a ÂŁ1 note in return!

These extracts come from An Oral History of the Post Office, a collection of life story interviews with a sample of Royal Mail and Post Office staff in the UK conducted between 2001 and 2005. Interviewees include, of course, postmasters and postmistresses, postmen and postwomen but also those involved with postal sorting and transportation (by road, air and train); stamp design, printing and marketing (the story of the stamp); legal, purchasing and property departments. The collection also includes interviews with staff who worked in lesser-known departments such as the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office Film Unit and the Lost Letter Centre.

There is an emphasis within the collection on change within living memory from the 1930s to the 1990s: the separation of post from telecommunications, computerisation and automation, new management practices and the diversification of new services offered by Royal Mail and the Post Office.

A CD of extracts from the collection entitled “Speeding the Mail: an oral history of the post from the 1930s to the 1990s” was published by the British Library and the British Postal Museum and Archive in 2005, and over forty extracts are available online at British Library Sounds.

Speeding the Mail CD

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 May 2018

50 years since the Ronan Point disaster

50 years ago today at approximately 5.45am Ivy Hodge entered her kitchen on the 18th floor of the Ronan Point building in Canning Town and lit a match. The match triggered a gas explosion which blew out her panel built walls and led to the partial collapse of the 21-storey tower. Four people were killed and seventeen injured. The casualties were lower than might have been expected but the impact of the Ronan Point disaster on architecture, urban planning and building regulation would be enormous. 

Ronan_Point_collapse_closeupR0nan Point after collapse, 1968 (Image credit: Derek Voller)

An inquiry found severe weaknesses with the Large Panel System method used to build Ronan Point and suggested many other tower blocks were at risk. In response legislation was passed to change building codes, to regulate the use of pre-fabricated parts and to safeguard buildings in the case of explosion. Notably the Ronan Point disaster shook public faith in high rise building itself, construction of new buildings halted and many were eventually demolished. Ronan Point was torn down in 1986.

The National Life Stories oral history collection Architects’ Lives contains over 140 interviews with British architects and their associates and unsurprisingly Ronan Point features heavily. The interviews are able to help us understand how the disaster affected those working in the industry. 

Kate Macintosh knows the architecture of London well having designed buildings in Southwark and Lambeth. She is able to give us the context of how Ronan Point was built through precasting, the lack of supervision of this method and some shocking discoveries from her friend Sam Webb’s report into the disaster: 

Kate Macintosh on precasting (C467/132/07)

Ronan Point was built by the private firm Taylor Woodrow and it's easy to look back and say the issue was with private construction. Yet our interview with Norman Engleback challenges this and he talks of how the Greater London Council used the same construction method and that reconstruction only took place afterwards.. According to Norman it was only the “luck of the draw” that GLC buildings didn’t also collapse “like packs of cards”:

Norman Engleback on GLC construction (C467/62/09)

For Maurice Ash, who would in 1969 become Chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association, the disaster justified his long campaign against high rise construction and his view that the people who lived in the towers “hated” it:

Maurice Ash on high rise construction (C467/40/04)

Regulation change is a legalistic process but it has deeply human consequences. The interviews in Architects’ Lives are a fantastic resource for understanding these consequences but they are at the same time limited. Notably in this case they do not include the voices of those who lived in Ronan Point or other tower blocks. With this mind it is useful to contextualise the collection among other local oral histories and oral histories of housing; for example the interviews in the East London People’s Archive as well as the work of the Woodberry Down Memories Group and Tony Parker’s ground breaking book The People of Providence. Taken as a whole these oral histories shed some light on how disasters like Ronan Point as well as broader changes in housing were experienced by the people involved and affected. 

Architects’ Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project which began in 1995. Many interviews from Architects’ Lives, included those mentioned in this blog, can be accessed via the British Library Sounds website in the Architecture collection. To explore the collection in detail, please search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. The catalogue reference used for all the recordings in the project is C467. A list of interviewees is also available.

14 May 2018

Recording of the week: the Moken - seafarers of the Andaman Sea

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Ko Surin is a group of five small islands in the Andaman Sea, sixty kilometres off the Thai coast. They are entirely covered in primary rain forests, with two small villages inhabited by Moken communities of roughly 160 people. The Moken used to live almost entirely on their boats as they travelled in the seas between Thailand and Myanmar. These days they have been forced to settle on the islands where they have built small huts standing in rows on stilts in the surf.

MokenVillageMoken village (photo: Aroon Thaewchatturat) 

Tom Vater (sound recordist and writer) and Aroon Thaewchatturat (photographer), during their research stay on Ko Surin Nua in 1999, became part of a campfire singsong. The songs, lead by Tawan and Ko Yang (two women singers) accompanying themselves on a single plastic barrel, told of their daily experiences and of their relationships with one another. This song, lu iu ma iu (brother and brother) is a good example.

The Moken - Lu iu ma iu (brother and brother)

This recording is part of the Tom Vater Collection (C799) at the British Library. A longer extract has been published on The Moken: sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea (Topic Records TSCD919, 2001). The full collection also includes recordings from India, Laos and Cambodia. It will be digitally preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.