As a 1990’s baby, I have had the pleasure of never experiencing an outdoor toilet, ‘long drop’ or ‘privy’. I have frequented many a bug filled campsite toilet but never the horror of a privy. A privy is described as a basic, outdoor toilet usually without a cover or running water. By the late 1800s, many workers’ homes in industrialised areas of Britain were built with outside toilets.
Here is a recording of six retired friends from Lancashire describing their awkward and humorous experiences of the privy growing up. It’s enough to make any millennial thank the heavens for growing up with indoor toilets! The ladies not only describe the windy, cold conditions of sitting on an outdoor toilet, but also the potential hazards of rats and even cats!
It wasn’t until after the First World War had ended in 1918 that all new housing developments in the suburbs of London had to include an inside toilet. In fact it was well into the 20th century before indoor facilities were finally a familiar sight in houses.
However this didn’t necessarily mean the end of the outdoor toilet. Although new houses had to be built with an indoor toilet, there was nothing stopping occupants of old houses from keeping their outdoor toilet. So much so, that according to a Halifax housing survey, an estimated 40,000 homes in the UK still had an outdoor toilet in 2010.
And why not? Although the friends in this recording speak of the horrors of the privy; in today’s world, estate agents suggest a well-kept privy can take house sale prices above the local average (assuming there is an indoor WC as well!). In a modern world of outdoor BBQs and children with muddy shoes playing in gardens, an outdoor toilet could come in handy. So perhaps the days of the privy are not so outnumbered?
This recording is part of the BBC Voices project, and was recorded in 2004. The recordings are a series of guided conversations that follow a loose structure based on eliciting opinions about accents, dialects, the words we use and people's attitude to language.
Discover more sounds from our homes on the British Library’s If Homes Had Ears website.
This week's selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.
‘Go on then, tell me about the duppies...’ Made in 1976, at Princess Junior School in Moss Side, Manchester, this recording captures a group of schoolboys talking about duppies, the malevolent ghosts of Caribbean folklore, or, as the boys put it: spirits of dead people that come alive at midnight.
Princess Road in Moss Side, Manchester, showing Princess Road Park nearby where Princess Junior School was located.
The conversation begins in an atmosphere of lively, scary fun with plenty of laughter over stories about salt cellars moving without warning and unseen presences casting shadows on the wall. Gradually, as the boys open up, they begin to confide their real feelings, talking about fears of sleeping alone and the effects of watching too many scary films. As an afterthought, and a reminder that ghost stories are sometimes preferable to reality, one of them remarks that he doesn’t like watching the news ‘because you see too many horrible things’.
So what is a duppy? As one of the boys says ‘If a duppy catch you you’ll soon find out’.
Made by Ian Mulley in 1976 as part of his research towards his M.A. dissertation 'Aspects of the West Indian Culture and its Survival in an Urban English Environment - Manchester', this recording is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, which consists of sound recordings of the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983, and dialect-related sound recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute. The sound recordings were donated to the British Library in 2019 for digitisation as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
We have all spent much more time at home since coronavirus abruptly changed our daily lives this spring. Perhaps, like me, you’ve paid more attention to the sounds within your house - the whistle of the kettle, the clack of the keyboard, the grumble of bored children, the chirp of birds outside. I’ve also been contemplating how we occupy our domestic space: who cooks and washes up, where do children play, which creatures live in and near our home and how has this changed within our own lifetimes? For the new British Library web resource, If Homes Had Ears we have delved into the vast treasures of the Library’s Sound Archive to explore the sonic landscape of the home. Key to this resource are the voices and memories of people speaking about home life over the last 140 years. We invite you to open your ears, draw back the curtains, and listen, discuss and reflect upon what makes a home.
If Homes Had Ears is grouped into five areas found in most homes: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and the garden. There are three discursive and thought-provoking articles for each space, and the web resource features over 70 fascinating audio clips to intrigue the listener. We hope the sound clips we will be a springboard for reflection and discussion and will provoke the listener to think of their own experiences.
Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list
No web resource on the home can ever cover all types of experience, but we have worked hard to try and ensure a variety of voices and sounds from different UK regions and nations, and stories from people who have migrated to the UK. We have included examples of different social-economic situations, ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders and time periods. The oldest recording is a 1911 edition of the popular song ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’, but we also explore the memories of a Welsh seamstress recalling her childhood in the 1880s. The most recent material was recorded in spring 2020 on memories of gardening.
I love this clip of Marjorie Atkinson describing the scullery in her family’s home in the North East of England in the 1920s:
What would children today make of the scullery in Marjorie’s home? In contrast, what might be the reaction of listeners from older generations to sisters Yasmin and Lana speaking in 2015 about sharing a bedroom?
For each room we have created a short montage of audio clips, brilliantly animated by students from the London College of Communication, who have responded to these audio soundscapes creatively and with sensitivity. Here is Jachym’s animation of the sounds of the kitchen:
There is plenty of family friendly material (my children have been singing ‘Beans, beans good for the heart’ for weeks!), but we have not shied away from difficult topics too – as the home is not always a place of happy memories. In this extract Tricia Thorpe describes an incident when she was resident in a psychiatric unit as a teenager in the 1980s:
There are also clips discussing menstruation, abortion, aging, family structures in the LGTBQ communities and funeral rites. Where we feature this more challenging content, this is flagged in both the introduction to the clips and the audio item descriptions, so that listeners (and their teachers or caregivers) can decide whether listening is appropriate.
This resource has been over two years in the making and is part of the 5 year Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It has been a true collaboration led by Mary Stewart (Oral History), Holly Gilbert (Digital and Multimedia Collections), Harriet Roden and Charmaine Wong (both from the Learning Team) with invaluable input from Megan Steinberg (former Learning Assistant), Chandan Mahal (Learning Projects Manager) and latterly Yrja Thorsdottir (Learning Team). Enormous thanks to colleagues from all across the Sound Archive for content suggestions and the support of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Intellectual Property Team, Web and Learning Teams. The greatest thanks, as always, must go to the speakers, sound recordists, performers and musicians – as without them there would no sounds in our archive to unlock.
Blogpost by Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History.
This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.
Husband and wife, David and Mairead, are expecting a baby any minute now! Mairead is already in labour and they came across the Listening Project booth while taking a stroll through a park near the hospital as a distraction from Mairead’s contractions. They decided to stop and record a conversation in this liminal moment while waiting for their baby to appear.
They reflect on their experience of pregnancy and look forward to being parents with both excitement and trepidation. They discuss which words they will use for ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, while referring to their baby as ‘cub’, and reflect on a future of feeling more and more out-of-date as their child grows up.
This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between David and Mairead can be found on British Library Sounds.
This week's recording of the week comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.
Sharon and Jonathan are colleagues who work together in the Finance department of the British Library, based in Boston Spa in Yorkshire. Sharon has been employed by the library for 42 years whereas Jonathan is the newest member of the team. They discuss their experiences of work and how expectations and attitudes have changed over time. Sharon talks about what it was like to work for the British Library in the past and describes some of the old equipment that was used, including a paternoster. She also mentions the surprising lack of health and safety regulations back then which meant that employees were actually allowed to smoke inside the library buildings, something that Jonathan can’t even imagine happening now.
This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Sharon and Jonathan can be found on British Library Sounds.
This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.
The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.
In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.
Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.
Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.
This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.
This week's recording of the week comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.
Gill and Deb have been friends for many years so when Deb split up with her partner during her first pregnancy she asked Gill to be her birth partner. Gill had already given birth to five children herself and Deb felt that she would be an experienced and reassuring presence at the hospital. Gill was someone she could trust at a time when she was at her most vulnerable and also someone with whom she wanted to share the magical moment of birth. Gill was very happy to be asked and they managed to make it work even though they were living some distance apart. Here they describe how they prepared for the birth and why it was such a positive experience for both of them. They talk about what they think makes a good birth experience and what can have a negative effect. They also discuss how attitudes towards birth and women’s bodies have changed in the 57 years since Gill had her first baby.
This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Gill and Deb can be found on British Library Sounds.
This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.
In this audio clip, Iona McDonald describes a familiar experience – failure to understand someone from a different part of the country or English-speaking world. Extremely broad dialect speakers can occasionally seem unintelligible, even to speakers of closely related varieties, as this amusing anecdote illustrates:
We used to have some friends from the Falkirk area who used to come up and stay with us every year in the summer time and they had a very very strong accent very strong Central Scots accent and Sandy had been playing outside and came running in very windy day came running in and he said to my mother yir streetcher’s fawin doun yir claes’re on the grund and we all looked at the poor boy blankly and he repeated himself again yir streetcher's fawin doun yir claes’re on the grund and we were still making absolutely nothing of it we had to say right slow it down Sandy and yir streetcher's fawin doun and yir claes are on the grund so oh right we've got it now it meant your clothes-pole has fallen down and your clothes are on the ground and he just stomped his foot and looked so put out and said yous are aw too polite.
Dialects differ systematically from other varieties in terms of vocabulary, grammar and accent (i.e. pronunciation). Sandy’s animated description here contains words, such as streetcher [= ‘clothes-pole’] and claes [= ‘clothes’], a non-standard pronoun, yous, and numerous localised pronunciations that render his Central Scots dialect incomprehensible to family friends from Skye. Yous occurs in a number of Scottish dialects and indeed in places like Merseyside and Tyneside, but Standard English no longer distinguishes between singular and plural ‘you’. Sandy’s pronunciation of doun, grund, aw and fawin are also typical of many Scottish accents and, to a lesser degree, of varieties in North East England.
This passage comes from a BBC Voices Recording in Portree, Isle of Skye, and is one of 300 conversations about language, accent and dialect made by the BBC in 2004-5.