The 24 two-minute recordings are believed to include the earliest surviving audio of Christmas time in the UK, if not the world. They were found on wax cylinders belonging to the descendants of the Wall family who recorded many of their Christmas and New Year gatherings on a phonograph machine between 1902 and 1917.
The Wall family lived in, what were then, the new suburbs of New Southgate and Friern Barnet in north London. Julia Hoffbrand, Curator of Social and Working History, said: “Music, chatter and laughter can be heard on these wonderful recordings which are bursting with vibrancy and life. It is extremely unusual for wax phonograph cylinders, containing retrievable recordings of this age, to survive – which is what makes this discovery so exciting.
“Another feature that makes these domestic recordings special is that phonographs were created for use in offices as dictating machines and cylinders would usually be wiped and reused. Also, wax cylinders were very fragile so those used for home recording were rarely kept as they were easily damaged. On hearing some of the musical recordings, classical music experts have commented that the sound quality is outstanding – superior to many musical recordings made for sale at the time.”
David Brown, the son of Muriel Brown (nee Wall), the second youngest of the Wall children, donated the phonograph and wax cylinders to the Museum of London in 2008. Nobody knew what was on the cylinders until the British Library transferred the recordings into digital format and 24, out of the 26, cylinders were found to contain discernible audio.
Cromwell Wall was responsible for making the recordings of his family who were extremely musical and very active in the church. The recordings include Cromwell’s sister Ellis Wall playing a piano solo at home, and the Wall and Baker families addressing the phonograph with their Christmas greetings amid cheers and laughter. Aside from recording at home, Cromwell Wall also wheeled the phonograph along the street in his children’s pram in order to record the sound of Old Southgate Church bells peeling in the New Year of 1904.
The family included Cromwell’s wife and nine children, plus his father William Wall who came to London from Somerset to make his fortune (he co-founded the major engineering firm Biggs, Wall & Co.). Other family members also feature on the recordings including Frederick Baker, the maternal grandfather and a prominent member of the community, and Cromwell’s three sons who later fought in the First World War, including Oliver who died of pneumonia three weeks before peace was declared.
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