Harvest Festival 1951…The 78s

Some months ago, Angela brought an album of 78rpm records into the vicarage, and asked if I could record them to CD. It seemed that the discs contained a recording of a Harvest Festival Communion service, which had been broadcast by the BBC. The records were owned by Mr. Frank Speak, who had been a chorister when the recordings were made.

I was intrigued by this, as I am very interested in sound reproduction. I knew I couldn’t transfer the recording myself, but I soon located a company in Essex, Shaw Sounds1, who are very experienced in this field.  They undertook to clean the records physically, using non-invasive chemicals, and also to “clean” the resulting transfer electronically, in order to remove some of the surface noise inherent in the 78rpm medium.

While the records were with Shaw Sounds, I did some research as there was no date to be seen anywhere on the discs. I discovered that quite a lot of the Radio times listings are now available online2, so I searched this site and discovered that the BBC Home Service North broadcast a service of Holy Communion live from St. Katharine’s at 9.30am on Sunday 30 September 1951.

In those days, domestic recording equipment was unknown, so a commercial contractor had to be engaged when people wanted a permanent recording of anything to be made. Hence, the service was recorded, as it was broadcast, by a company called Drury’s with addresses in Rochdale and Heywood. I have established from an historian of BBC Radio, Roger Wilmut3, that Drury’s would have used nothing more sophisticated than the BBC medium wave signal as their source, which in the 1950’s was of much better quality than it is today.

Shaw Sounds returned the records and two master CDs to me in less than a week. It is clear that Drury’s used two recording machines alternately, so as not to miss any of the broadcast, and that one of them functioned audibly better than the other. The completed transfer is thus a little variable, but the whole service is clearly intelligible.

We played the master CD in full in church during the afternoon of Sunday 22 October. I was pleased to be able to speak to Frank Speak himself, who revealed that the narrator, whose interjections punctuate the service at intervals to assist the listener, was himself a clergyman and was known to the Vicar, the Reverend Austin Thorburn, through their membership of the Royal School of Church Music. Frank recalls that the narrator sat on a chair throughout the service, located at the head of the nave and to the left of where the altar now stands.

66 years separate us from this harvest festival service. In his sermon, Mr. Thorburn speaks of “gating a loom” as “an everyday task”. He addresses his congregation, noting that “Some of you are cotton-slubbers, weavers, builders of railway locomotives…”.   Well, no longer. However I, and I hope all of us, can rejoice that we share with the people of Blackrod whom we can hear in the recording an unbroken tradition of worship in this place which dates back to 1335.


– www.shawsounds.net

– rfwilmut.net/broadcast/history.html

– genome.ch.bbc.co.uk

Peter M. Wynne, November 2017