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19 January 2018

Mary Lee Berners-Lee: the joy of programming and equal pay

This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Mary Lee Berners-Lee and her husband Conway for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/23) in 2010-2011.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee, originally Mary Lee Woods, is probably best known as the mother of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, but she had a considerable career in science and technology in her own right. After studying mathematics at the University of Birmingham, she spent the latter part of the Second World War working at the Telecommunications Research Establish (TRE), the secret centre of Britain’s radar development effort. With the war over she returned to her studies, before leaving Britain for the Mount Stromlo observatory in Australia in 1947, where she worked classifying the spectra of stars. In 1951 she returned to Britain and chanced across an advert for a job at Ferranti in Manchester that would change her life: “I was reading Nature and saw an advertisement one day for – saying, ‘Mathematicians wanted to work on a digital computer.’”

021I-C1379X0023XX-0001A1Mary Lee and Conway Berners-Lee in 1954

Mary Lee spent three days in a reference library learning what a computer was, “the most profitable three days I think I’ve ever had because when I went for the interview for the job I could ask intelligent questions and nobody else they’d interviewed had, so it put up my salary quite a bit!” Subsequently she joined the team working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first general purpose electronic computer to be commercially available – the first machine built to be sold to customers not just an experimental electronic brain developed by scientists. At Ferranti she discovered not only her future husband, Conway Berners-Lee, but also the joy of programming, as she recounts in this extract from her interview for An Oral History of British Science.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee on the joy of programming

Mary Lee left Ferranti to raise a family, but later worked in various computing related jobs. She was not only a pioneer of computer programming, but also for women in science and technology. Mary  fought against Ferranti’s concerns that it would be improper of women programmers to work on the computer overnight with male engineers, and demanded equal pay for women programmers.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee on equal pay for women programmers

You can read more about Mary Lee and listen to more extracts at Voices of Science; parts of her life story interview are available in the Library Reading Rooms.

16 January 2018

A Franck connection - the pianist Cécile Boutet de Monvel

Disc label

Two of my previous blogs were about unknown pianists, both of whom had recorded César Franck’s great work for solo piano, the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.  American Marion Roberts recorded it in 1927 and the French pianist Yvonne Levy recorded it in 1932.  They were both these artists’ only solo piano recordings.

There is another little known recording of this work made on 21st April 1937 in Paris for French HMV by Cécile Boutet de Monvel.  One of nine children, she came from an artistically talented family with her father Benjamin Boutet de Monvel (1820-1880) being a chemistry and physics professor while her maternal grandfather was famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) who at the age of twenty-four became leading tenor of the Paris Opéra creating all the major tenor roles in Rossini’s French operas working closely with the composer.  One of Cécile’s brothers was Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1850-1913) a French painter famous for his illustrations of children’s books. 

Drawing_by_Louis-Maurice_Boutet_de_MonvelEverybody's St. Francis by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel

Louis-Maurice was also a portrait painter.

Portrait_de_Paul_Mounet_By_Louis-Maurice_Boutet_de_MontvelPortrait of Paul Mounet by Louis-Maurice Bouvet de Monvel

One of his two sons, Cécile’s nephew Bernard (1881-1949), was also a well-known painter while the other, Roger (1879-1951) was a writer.

Cécile was born in 1864 and although she studied at the Paris Conservatoire it appears that she did not have a career as a concert pianist.  She took part in the Concerts Colonne in 1897 playing the Franck Violin Sonata (described as ‘Musique Moderne’) with Monsieur Parent and the following February gave a recital at the Salle Pleyel which included Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26, and a Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major by Bach.  Composer Paul Dukas, who reviewed the concert, found her ‘particularly interesting’ and declared that she was ‘an artist as much as a pianist.’ 

Quite why Cécile came to make her only recording on the 21st April 1937 at the age of seventy-three is uncertain.  She was a cousin of César Franck’s wife and had been the composer’s pupil so it is possible that someone thought her interpretation of one of the composer’s major works should be preserved and presented to the public as this is not a privately made recording.  She was already twenty years of age when Franck wrote the work in 1884 and he had died in 1890 so there must have been few people alive in the late 1930s who had had such a close association with him.

The performance has inaccuracies, but the wrong notes do not detract from the nobility of conception.  It has weight without being ponderous while her wide ranging contrasting dynamics and subtle use of the pedal all make for fascinating listening.  The recording is spread over five sides and as a filler for the sixth side she plays the Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 No. 4 by Chopin.

Franck Prelude Chorale & Fugue 1CL0019480

Cécile Boutet de Monvel died less than three years after making the recording on 13th February 1940 in a Paris very different from the one she had known with German forces invasion only three months away.

I have not been able to find a picture of Cécile but here is her nephew Bernard with the great pianist Alfred Cortot who made a famous recording of the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue in 1929.

Bernard_Boutet_de_Monvel _Paul_Schmidt _Alfred_Cortot _1927Bernard Bouvet de Monvel (left), Paul Schmitt (centre), Alfred Cortot (right) at the Cercle Interallié in Paris 1927

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15 January 2018

Recording of the week: Anglo-Romani and dialect

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

It was great to see Peaky Blinders back for a fourth series as, among its many delights, it offers a rare glimpse in the mainstream media of Anglo-Romani. Given the presence of traveller communities across the UK it’s perhaps not surprising that Romani has influenced local dialect in many parts of the country. Speakers either side of the English-Scottish border, for instance, will be familiar with terms like gadgie [from gaujo = ‘(non-gypsy) man’], mort [= ‘girl, woman’], mooey [from mui = ‘mouth, face’], radgie [from radge = ‘mad, angry’] and scran [= ‘food’]. A small set of Romani words are used more widely, including cushty [from kushti = ‘good’], mullered [= ‘dead, killed’] and mush [= ‘man (esp. as form of address’] and a recent collaboration between the British Library and Guardian newspaper to document regional words confirmed the relationship between Anglo-Romani & dialect as contributors supplied numerous expressions including chore [= ‘to steal’ (Poole)], dinilo [= ‘fool, Idiot’ (Portsmouth)], jukkel [= ‘dog’ (Carlisle)], ladging [= ‘embarrassing’ (York)] and tuvli [= ‘cigarette’ (Newark)].


Probably the most unfortunate contribution of Anglo-Romani to English is the word chav, which in recent years has been adopted by young speakers all over the country to refer negatively to a stereotypical young ne’er-do-well characterised by cheap designer clothes, anti-social behaviour and low social status. The word derives from the much more endearing Anglo-Romani word chavvi [= ‘boy, son’] and illustrates how certain social groups have unfortunately always attracted suspicion and condemnation. A WordBank contributor from the Medway, Kent who can pukker [= ‘to speak’] Romani explains, for instance, how he will often jel down the tober to see my little chavvis in my vardo [‘go down the road to see my children in my caravan’], while another contributor submitted an expression assumed to be local to Newark, seemingly unaware of its Romani origins. The book Romani Rokkeripen To-Divvus (Thomas Acton and Donald Kenrick, 1984) records mandi [= ‘I’], buer [= ‘woman’] and rokker [= ‘to talk, speak’].

Jel down the tober to see my little chavvis in my vardo  (BL shelfmark C1442/2355) 

Mandi don't know what the buer is rokkering (BL shelfmark C1442/1079)

Over 400 recordings capturing English dialect and slang worldwide can be found in the Evolving English Wordbank collection on British Library Sounds.  

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