Mysteries of Churchill's record collection

13th April 2011 in Archives Centre, Conservation, Our Collections

Churchill Record Collection - AMEJ_836

Archives are not just about paper, and for me recently, they've been all about records. By records, I mean audio recordings popularly known as "gramophone records", "78s" or even "vinyl".

We have recently catalogued Winston's record collection - literally, those discs he kept in his wooden cabinet at Chartwell, the family home. And they are not just his favourite musical pieces, though these are interesting in themselves, but quite a large collection of "instantaneous recordings" of his own voice.

Briefly, these type of recordings (also known as lacquer discs or "acetates") were used quite extensively through the 30s and 40s and into the early 50s as a means of making instant recordings, eventually superseded by tape recordings.

What is exciting about these is that many are likely to be the only copies ever made or certainly now in existence. They are often copies for or from radio broadcasts, or made during some of his less well known speeches.

This one, for example, seems to have been taken during his speech at Biggin Hill Airfield. Belding & Bennett were a commercial recording company (one of many) who would come out with equipment and blank discs to make recordings for people, on site. We have yet to hear what was said here, as the next stage of this project - digitisation - is yet to come.

One or two of the discs had stumped me in terms of identifying whether they were lacquer (or shellac or vinyl). We were fortunate to have Peter Martland, an expert on historic sound recordings, come and look at some of these. He was intrigued by this one in particular (WCHL 12/24/3).

This is an unusual instantaneous recording in that it is not a lacquer disc but something called an "RCA pre-grooved disk" made of some kind of soft plastic which was literally pre-grooved and the undulations representing the sound recordings were embossed by the recording system so that they were added to the grooves. They were introduced in 1930 and phased out by around 1934, so they are quite rare in themselves. The sound quality is not expected to be good ...

Lacquer discs are notoriously fragile as the lacquer layer (cellulose nitrate) is soft and deteriorates relatively quickly, ultimately fracturing and flaking away from the core which is usually aluminium. It is timely that we are undertaking this project.

We have already started the conservation of these, which mainly involves the cleaning of the discs using deionised water and a surfactant. More on this later! This is an essential task before allowing a stylus into the soft grooves of these precious discs.

Sarah Lewery, Conservator

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