Archive for December 25th, 2012

The first recordings of a family Christmas

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

As ever, I am a sucker for a theme post and the curators of the Museum of London have graciously hooked me up with just the thing. They have restored and uploaded to their website what may be the first surviving home recordings of a family Christmas.

Starting in 1902, patriarch Cromwell Wall began recording family get-togethers and events on wax cylinder phonographs by Columbia Home Grand Graphophone. Cromwell Wall was a civil engineer who worked in a London firm his father had co-founded in the late 19th century. He and his wife Minnie had nine children and lived in a home called Lyndale in the London suburb of New Southgate. Minnie’s parents and Wall’s parents lived in the same neighborhood. The families along with cousins and uncles got together on the holidays and made merry, merry which Cromwell saw fit to record on carefully labeled wax cylinders.

At this time, home recording equipment was expensive and rarely seen in homes. It was the province of office work, a rudimentary form of the Dictaphone. Cromwell took the phonograph home and recorded their holiday toasts, parties, carol singing and musical recitals. When the action moved outside their home, Wall packed the equipment in the baby’s stroller and rolled it along with them to various events. The pram phonograph traveled the neighborhood to the in-law’s house (Toppesfield), Cromwell Wall’s parents’ house (the Oaks), to St. James the Great Church and once to Grove Road Baptist Chapel to record the bells peeling on New Year’s.

According to Julia Hoffbrand, curator of social and working history at the Museum of London, experts who have listened to the restored recordings have declared their quality outstanding, superior even to the commercial recordings of the era. That’s not to say they sound like they’re made yesterday. They don’t. Many of them have a strong hiss in the foreground or that bumpity-bump rhythm so common in early phonograph recordings, but they are in great condition for their age.

The wax cylinders are easily damaged beyond retrieval and require particular knowledge and care to maintain for more than a century. The few home recordings that have survived are small snippets of sounds with almost no identifying information of accompanying detail. Fresh cylinders were expensive, so people often scraped off the grooves of one recording to reuse them for a new recording. Cromwell Wall kept all of his untouched. He labeled the cylinders in detail and subsequent generations kept them safe and dry even when the phonograph was broken and they didn’t really know what a treasure they had.

The cylinders and phonograph were donated to the museum by David Brown, son of Muriel Brown, the second youngest of the nine children of Cromwell and Minnie Wall. He stored them in the attic and donated them when he came across them again four years ago, not having any idea if there was still any sound on the cylinders that could be retrieved.

This summer the museum restored them, first reducing noise by cleaning the cylinders with a brush fine enough to get between the grooves and then cleaning up the recordings further with software once they’d been digitized. In October, the Wall descendants finally got to hear their family gatherings from 110 years ago. From the BBC article on the recordings:

It brought back some great memories for Oliver Wall, one of Cromwell’s grandchildren.

“It was a wonderful atmosphere. I remember the occasions always at Christmas and we always had big parties and singing round the piano with grandpa playing and he used to take us marching upstairs and all over the big house they had.”

His cousin Daphne reminisces how their grandfather used to dress up as Father Christmas. “There was a great deal of excitement,” she said. “It was fun!”

Now it’s our turn to press our noses up against the historical glass. The entire collection of 24 recordings is available for your listening pleasure on the Museum of London’s website. There are pictures of the family and equipment accompanying each recording.

Here’s the Wall family singing Angels from Realms of Glory and We Wish You a Merry Christmas at the Oaks in 1902:

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