Echoes of Florence Nightingale, James Joyce... and a Miss Dibnah from the East Riding in new exhibition

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HER forename has been lost in the mists of time but her old East Riding accent cuts through the years.

Miss Dibnah was a house­keeper already drawing her pension, when in 1955 someone from Leeds University turned up in her home village of Welwick, east of Hull, brandishing a recording machine.

A visitor listens to recordings from the British Library sound archive during a preview for Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London.

A visitor listens to recordings from the British Library sound archive during a preview for Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London.

The university was preserving an archive of English dialects before television killed them off, so she told them how to bake white bread.

“I purrit it i’ front o’ fire ti waarm with a cloat ower it,” she says, with a clarity that makes it sound as if it was just out of the oven.

The recording has been stashed away in the archive ever since, along with countless others that have, over the last century and a half, brought history to life.

But tomorrow, and for the next five months, they go on public display in an exhibition at the British Library celebrating the 140th anniversary of the invention of the phonograph.

A visitor views (left to right) a 1925 Radiolux Amplion loudspeaker, a 1922 Gilbert & Co radio receiver and a 1920's Radion loop antenna, part of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London.

A visitor views (left to right) a 1925 Radiolux Amplion loudspeaker, a 1922 Gilbert & Co radio receiver and a 1920's Radion loop antenna, part of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London.

Among the other gems are an 1890 wax cylinder recording of Florence Nightingale, made at her home in London, and another in which one of the trumpeters at the charge of the Light Brigade recreates the rallying call from Balaclava, on the original bugle.

There is a further recording of Alfred, Lord Tennyson reciting his poem about the charge into the “valley of Death”.

But it is Miss Nightingale’s testament, spoken in halting, formal tones, that resonates most.

“When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life,” she says. “God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore.”

Visitors listen to recordings from the British Library sound archive during a preview for Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London

Visitors listen to recordings from the British Library sound archive during a preview for Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London

Steve Cleary, who has curated the exhibition, said: “She recorded it twice and both takes are on the wax cylinder.

“It was one of three records made in aid of the Light Brigade Relief Fund. In that sense you could say it was the equivalent of the modern-day charity single.”

The fund had been set up to address concerns about the destitution of some of the survivors of Crimea, and the recording of Miss Nightingale was later re-released on a 78rpm disc.

It is not the only one to presage a later trend. The 1922 “wireless log” of a 16-year-old enthusiast named Alfred Taylor is a precursor to today’s video “blogs” on YouTube.

A visitor views a bootleg 78 rpm disc etched onto an old X-ray film, which were illicitly manufactured in the USSR from the late 1940's to early 1960s, part of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London.

A visitor views a bootleg 78 rpm disc etched onto an old X-ray film, which were illicitly manufactured in the USSR from the late 1940's to early 1960s, part of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, at the British Library in London.

His, and that of Miss Dibnah, are among hundreds of “ordinary voices” captured over the years that have helped bring history to life.

The East Riding recording is one of around 300 compiled by researchers in Leeds, Mr Cleary said. “It was the first really comprehensive study of the way people had spoken through the generations.”

Researchers who analysed the recording noted that Miss Dibnah’s “archaic” pronunciation “seems to hark back to English of an earlier period”.

Some of the other exhibits are even more obscure, including a reading from Ulysses by James Joyce in 1924 - one of only two recordings of him - and the smallest 78rpm disc ever issued, measuring 1.3 inches and made by HMV for Queen Mary’s dolls’ house at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

There are also examples of a bizarre period in the Soviet Union in which music fans, unable to buy discs from the west, made bootleg copies by etching the grooves on to pieces of discarded x-ray film.

“It happened from the 1940s to the 1960s and the x-ray sheets were an ideal material for the process,” Mr Cleary said.

“Certain records were frowned upon by the authorities there as examples of pernicious western influence.

“The practice only died out when portable tape recorders became available.”

The exhibition also includes playable postage stamps from the Kingdom of Bhutan, a recording of the aviator Amelia Earhart, made in 1932, and part of what was possibly the first radio programme to be created by splicing together magnetic tape.

Mr Cleary said: “Preserving the nation’s sounds is just as important to us as preserving the nation’s words.”

• Audio recording copyright of the British Library Board. Used with permission.