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

24 May 2019

Bicentenary of Queen Victoria – is this her voice?

Queen_Victoria_by_BassanoQueen Victoria in 1882 by Alexander Bassano

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Queen Victoria was born two hundred years ago on 24th May 1819.  The most famous and, until recently, the most long reigning of British monarchs, Victoria represented a whole century of development and achievement where Britons were at the forefront of science, engineering and the arts.

It is known that she was persuaded to record a cylinder of greeting on 8th August 1898 to send to Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia but insisted that it be destroyed after he had heard it.  In return, the Emperor and his Queen recorded greetings to Victoria in 1899 and these have survived (BL shelfmark M 1865; digital access via BL reading rooms). 

There are references in letters and first-hand accounts of hearing a recording made by Queen Victoria reported in the book by Paul Tritton The Lost Voice of Queen Victoria (1991 Academy Books).  With the circumstantial evidence it would appear that the recording is probably Queen Victoria, but the unfortunate fact is that the few sentences she speaks are barely decipherable.  There are various interpretations of the spoken text, but she seems to say:

Britons restless for their Queen to speak,

let me answer,

if can be,

XX,

that I have never forgotten.

The fourth line is unintelligible and has been variously interpreted as ‘we all had a wonderful festival’ and ‘towards the end of a wonderful gift to me’, referring to her Golden Jubilee.  It sounds like neither to my ear, but we have subjected the National Sound Archive’s original 1991 transfer by Peter Copland of the Bell-Tainter Graphophone cylinder owned by the Science Museum to the latest restoration technology.  The wax coated cardboard cylinder is believed to have been recorded by Sidney Morse at Balmoral in 1888.

Queen Victoria

While the sound of that recording is poor, we can hear the Queen’s cousin and contemporary Prince George, Duke of Cambridge (1819-1904) in better quality, recorded by Edison’s agent Colonel Gouraud on 22nd December 1888.  His message to Thomas Edison, the inventor of sound recording, is as follows:

I congratulate you on the marvelous success of this invention which I think will produce singular results in the future.

The recording comes from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Duke of Cambridge

George_-_Duke_of_CambridgeCollodion of Prince George by Roger Fenton 1855

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

23 May 2019

One of the very first MEPs: Joyce Quin, Baroness Quin, remembers the early days of the European Parliament

Photo # 1MEPs their vote in the ballot box on 17 September 1979 in Strasbourg. This election would reveal Simone VEIL as the new directly elected President of the European Parliament. Credit: European Parliament

Today, despite the Government’s best intentions, Britons vote again in the European elections, nearly 40 years since the first cohort of MEPs was elected in June 1979.

Joyce Quin, now a member of the House of Lords and former MP for Gateshead (1987-97), was one of the 410 MEPs elected in 1979. She served as an MEP for ten years, and in her 2014 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project, she describes how she came to be selected as a Labour MEP candidate.

“Well, that was a very chancy thing in a way. About the time of the European elections, because I was lecturing on European policy and I was a member of the Labour Party, and also through my mother I still had links with where I grew up near Tynemouth in Witley Bay, I got asked to speak to a newly formed Fabian Society, the North Tyneside Fabian Society, about the European elections which I did and we had a nice meeting.

Then a couple of weeks later the secretary rang me up and said they had realised that they could nominate someone on the selection process for their local [European] constituency, because it was a constituency system in those days, which was called Tyne South and Wear.

And she said that the members would like to nominate me and I thought about it, and even though I was thinking that I would probably stay in the academic world, obviously it was a very interesting offer and I thought I’d really be interested in doing that, so I said yes while realising it was the first rung on an extremely long ladder.” [C1503/61 Track 1, 00:11:32 - 00:12:52]

Quin goes on to explain the backdrop to her selection process, aspects of which are as true today as they were 40 years ago.

“The trade unions were less organised for that European election than for any other selection I’ve ever come across because it came across people at the last minute, the Labour Party wasn’t certain whether they wanted to fight the European elections, there was a lot of pro- and anti -Europeanism, I mean it was quite a troublesome issue in the Labour Party at that time. … There were no women MPs in the north-east at all at the time and it was just the beginning of the rumblings of discontent about this in the Labour Party in particular and therefore a lot of the women’s organisations in the Labour Party looked at me with some interest.” [C1503/61 Track 1, 00:14:28 – 00:15:22]

Once elected, Quin was part of a new project in which fellow MEPs “were thrilled to be creating something so different and democratic and hopeful.” In this clip, she describes the idealism that permeated the atmosphere during the early days of the new institution.

Joyce Quin on the European Parliament (C1503/61) [00:16:14 - 00:18:37]

For the candidates of 2019, the atmosphere that awaits those that are elected as MEPs could not be more different.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.

You can listen to the complete interview with Joyce Quin at British Library Sounds.

16 May 2019

Mother Carey's Chickens

Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds writes:

In 19th century coastal folklore, the harsh and unforgiving nature of the sea was often personified by the cruel sea witch Mother Carey.

Carey was said to wreak havoc on the ocean waves, conjuring up devastating storms that would destroy any vessel unlucky enough to be caught in her sights. The ship’s crew would be sent to their deaths so that Carey and her partner, Davy Jones, could feast upon their rotting bodies.

She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed yound seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.’

(Extract from John Masefield's poem 'Mother Carey (as told me by the bo'sun)' published in 1902)

Mother Carey didn’t travel the open ocean alone though. Like any villain worth their salt, Carey was accompanied by her very own entourage, which, in this case, happened to be a flock of Storm Petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus). Dubbed Mother Carey's Chickens, these little seabirds were thought to signal the imminent arrival of the dreaded sea witch. 

Mother_Carey_and_her_chickens_by_J_G_Keulemans_1877_(frame_removed)Mother Carey and her chickens by J. G. Keulemans, 1877 (Biodiversity Heritage Library via Wikipedia)

As far as accuracy goes, Storm Petrels are a pretty good choice. Not because there's anything sinister about them, but because they're most at home on the open sea and can easily cope with the severest of weather conditions. While many other birds would be caught short in the middle of a tempest, Storm Petrels just take it all in their stride.

What you wouldn’t hear was their voice. For Storm Petrels are generally silent at sea (not a great trait for heralds of doom, but there you go). The complete opposite can be found at their breeding colonies however. Here individuals engage in sustained vocal activity, producing far-carrying purring calls from their burrows. The following extract, taken from a longer recording made by Alan Burbidge on Skokholm Island in 1998, is a great example of this.

Storm Petrel purring calls from burrow (BL ref 145176)

Harbingers of death should, at least in my mind, be loud. Very loud. Terrifying too. But our Storm Petrels are anything but that. Rather selfishly, they save their spine-chilling voices for when they're off duty. So if I was Mother Carey, I'd feel a little short-changed.

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