Florence Nightingale

The Cylinder Recording

Rob Perks and Will Prentice wrote the following for Playback No. 33, the bulletin of the British Library Sound Archive.

In May 1890 a minor public scandal erupted when it was discovered that many veterans of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War were destitute. The Secretary for War stated in Parliament that he could not offer assistance, and in response the St. James's Gazette set up the Light Brigade Relief Fund. We are indebted to the work of Bennett Maxwell, an expert in cylinder recordings, for some of the details in the story that follows.

We are so used to charity records today that the idea of producing recordings to raise money for good causes has become commonplace, but at that time - so soon after Thomas A. Edison's invention of the first sound recording machine in 1877 - it must have seemed an extraordinary innovation. Colonel Gouraud, Edison's representative in Britain, arranged to make three wax cylinder recordings to support the fund: Martin Lanfried,* trumpeter and veteran, sounding the charge as heard at Balaclava; Alfred Lord Tennyson, reading his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade; and Florence Nightingale, celebrated for her nursing achievements in the Crimean War, delivering a message to the veterans, recorded on 30 July 1890 at her home at 10 South Street, Park Lane, London.

We also know that Florence Nightingale presented Colonel Gouraud with a print of The Return, Lady Butler's painting of the aftermath of the Charge, with the intention that it be sold to raise money. The print and the letter to Colonel Gouraud are now held in the regimental Museum of the 17th/21st Lancers at Belvoir Castle.

The cylinder was still being exhibited 15 years later. In April 1905 Talking Machine News reported that 'One of the most interesting cylinders in Mr Johnstone's collection is that bearing a short sentence by Florence Nightingale. The occasion was an exhibition promoted at Edison House to help the survivors of Balaclava. The date is July 30th 1890. Very clearly the gallant little lady speaks: 'God bless my gallant [sic] comrades of Balaclava, and bring them safe to shore,' and then, after a pause, 'Florence Nightingale'.'

Meanwhile, Colonel Gouraud's Edison Phonograph Company, set up in 1888, became the Edison Bell Phonograph Corporation, and later the Edison Bell Consolidated Phonograph Co. In 1897, Edisonia Ltd. was formed, inheriting the business of the latter. In 1909, J. E. Hough purchased the assets of Edisonia Ltd., forming J. E. Hough Ltd., a company that went public in 1926 as Edison Bell Ltd.

In a letter to The Sound Wave on 21 June 1910, Hough confirmed that the cylinders previously held by C.R. Johnstone, including that of Florence Nightingale, were now in his possession: 'I am in possession of vocal records delivered in 1890, which might be considered priceless if they could be put to public use, for instance three by Alfred, Lord Tennyson ... and Mr Gladstone ... Florence Nightingale, Prince Napoleon, H M Stanley, Phineas T Barnum, but these records are merely venerated relics, and so far as any public use is made of them they might as well be buried in oblivion.' Mr Hough would surely be delighted if he knew how treasured these very same recordings are today!

As the cylinder market declined, Edison Bell Ltd. was driven to bankruptcy and was subsequently bought out by Howard Flynn, who reformed the company under the name Edison Bell (1933) Ltd. On 24 March 1934 Flynn took part in a BBC radio programme, In Town Tonight (only a transcript of the programme has survived) in which he recalled that:

'We were looking over old matrices in the archives of the present Edison Bell Company last year when we came across an old mahogany box, securely fastened and labelled "Old Wax Cylinder Masters 1888-1890". We opened it and found inside a number of old wax cylinders ...The cylinders bore traces of fungus and for some time we were afraid to even test them for fear of serious damage. Eventually however, we got out the original old machine on which they had been recorded, carefully overhauled it and its reproducer, and selected one of the waxes. It was labelled "Florence Nightingale 1890". For some seconds we heard nothing but a terrible scraping sound and then suddenly we listened awestruck to this great lady, long dead, speaking clearly but faintly, and what I heard thrilled me from head to toe.'
In the radio broadcast Flynn announced the imminent release of a new record to be called Florence Nightingale: An Episode of the Crimean War, with royalties going to the Red Cross and hospital charities 'so much beloved by this great lady'. A letter from Decca to Flynn dated 11 June 1935 confirms that they were ready to produce copies of the record at 4/6d per dozen for the first 160,000 ('cash with order') and a series of discs was planned as 'British Celebrities'. Apparently sales of this, the first in the series, were 'almost negligible', and no others are known to have been issued. The firm went into liquidation in 1938, after selling the goodwill and stock of the business to Decca in 1937.

In 1935, Flynn presented the original cylinder to the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, from where it was subsequently passed on to the Wellcome Trust Library. An unsigned carbon of a letter from Flynn to Sir Henry Wellcome dated 17 May 1935 survives, presenting 'the original Master record of the voice of the great English lady, Miss Florence Nightingale ...This tiny wax cylinder ...has made possible the permanent preservation of her words. Into the care of you, Sir Henry, who knew her so well, we give this record of her voice, to rest for all time in your Museum.'

And there it did indeed rest, until March 2004, when Dr Michael Clark of the Wellcome Trust brought to the British Library a brown wax cylinder, held in a small wooden and glass case with a plaque identifying it as the voice of Florence Nightingale. New transcriptions have been made by Sound Archive technical staff of the two recordings on the cylinder, both of the same speech, and for the first time the complete contents of the cylinder can be heard on the Sound Archive's new 2CD set of historic speech recordings, Voices of History, published in November last year [2004].

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

* The Vincent Voice Library records the bugler's name as "Kenneth Landfrey."

Nursing historian Adelaide Nutting recorded an introduction to a re-release of Florence Nightingale's cylinder recording. Learn more.

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