This collection contains some of the earliest, clearest and most vibrant home phonograph recordings known to survive. They were recorded between 1902 and 1917 by Cromwell Wall (1866-1937), a civil engineer who lived with his family in what was then the new north London suburb of New Southgate. Cromwell's father, William, had come to London from Somerset as a young man, working his way up from humble beginnings to co-found the firm of Biggs, Wall & Co. in 1884. By 1902, it was one of London's largest engineering companies.
The recordings include hymns, popular songs, musical pieces, talking and laughter, and even church bells pealing in the New Year. A sense of warmth and life radiates from them. Family members and friends and neighbours appear. A window onto the past is opened, and something of the first years of the 20th century is heard.
Phonographs had been widely introduced in the late 1880s but were first used largely as office dictating machines. A decade later commercial recordings by famous singers and orchestras had become popular. Home phonographs like Cromwell Wall's Columbia Home Grand Graphophone were made, but domestic recording remained limited because the machines and wax cylinders for recording on them were expensive.
Few phonograph home recordings survive. The wax cylinders were fragile and easily damaged, and as technology advanced and gramophones appeared, fewer and fewer families kept old recordings. Of those that do exist, most are anonymous. A baby cries, an audience cheers, but we rarely know who we hear, or where or when they spoke. These recordings are so special because we know so much about them.
In 1902 Cromwell, his wife Minnie and their children were living at 'Lyndale' in Parkhurst Road, New Southgate. Minnie's parents, the Bakers, lived just around the corner at 'Toppesfield' in Friern Barnet Road. (In 1905 they moved to a new house, another 'Toppesfield', 'up the hill' on Friern Lane.) Cromwell's parents, William and Martha, lived a few miles away at The Oaks, Galley Lane Ridge, Barnet. Many of the recordings were made during family gatherings at these houses. All still exist.
Faith played a central part in the family's life, and other recordings took place at their church, Grove Road Baptist Chapel nearby. Music was important too, and Cromwell himself was a talented musician and composer. On some recordings he plays his own works and on others his brothers, Russell and Howard, and his sisters Louise and Ellis, sing and play piano. Gladys, Hilda, Oliver, Leslie, Hampden and Doris, six of his nine children, and the rest of the family often appear.
Christmas was a special time for the Walls and the Bakers and every year they gathered at the family homes to eat, sing, make music together and enjoy themselves.
You can read more about the people and places in these recordings, and see pictures of them, by clicking on each recording's individual record.