Arts, Culture & Media

London museum uncovers century-old recordings of family's holidays

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Cromwell Wall and his family pose for a picture in 1908.

The Museum of London has released a set of family audio recordings that span the years from 1902 to 1917.

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Cromwell Wall made the recordings on wax cylinders using what was then the latest in audio technology, the phonograph. Curators say the recordings, which were made around Christmas and New Year’s, offer a fascinating look into family life in Britain during the early 1900s.

Christmas was a time for family gatherings, Wall’s grandson Oliver told the BBC.

“I can remember the occasions,” he said. “We always had big parties. And singing, around the piano with grandpa playing, and then he took us around marching.”

Grandpa Wall, the story goes, could be seen pushing a baby stroller. But often it didn’t contain one of Wall’s nine children.

Instead, Wall used it to cart around a phonograph and some wax cylinders.

Wall liked to record the family’s holiday happenings. In many, like the recording done in 1904, you can hear Cromwell Wall sending greetings to his own parents and grandparents.

A number of Wall’s recordings survived the years, and ended up at the Museum of London, where curator Julia Hoffbrand helped unearth them earlier this year.

“The hair on my arms stood on end. It was fantastic,” Hoffbrand said. “We had an idea of what was on the recordings, because Cromwell had written very detailed descriptions on the cylinder boxes. But it was really like a window opening into the past.”

For curators, the find was incredible for two reasons. First, it is rare for wax cylinders like this to survive intact for so long. And second, such devices were mostly used at the time by offices for dictation and the like, not by individuals looking to record their “funniest home audio.”

So, for historians and curators, hearing Cromwell’s son Leslie singing Christmas songs is, well, solid gold.

After curators found the cylinders earlier this year, they cleaned them very carefully. Then, they made digital versions, and cleaned the sound up a bit. Finally, the Museum of London notified the Wall family, and in October, they heard the recordings for the first time.

Cromwell Wall’s niece, Daphne, says it brought back fond memories of him.

“He used to dress up as Father Christmas, and I’ve got a photograph of a windmill he made one year that they put presents in. There was a great deal of excitement,” she said.

Museum officials say that 24 of Cromwell Wall’s recordings survived. They described the sound quality as “outstanding,” considering some of them are more than 100 years old.