The joy of receiving
Lindsay Want discovers an unlikely music hall with more gifts on display than Santa’s grotto at the Sounds of the Past collection near Lavenham
A history of radio at a special Monks Eleigh museum
SO what’s it to be for Christmas then? A flashy new phone or wireless device to send music streaming in to your world? A bigger flat screen to beam in Big Ben’s New Year chimes and make those happy Hogmanay parties really happen right in your living room? Or maybe you’re minded to ‘go retro’ with a record player? Vintage vinyl may be back in fashion, but when things go round in circles, the whole nostalgia thing can seem a bit warped. One minute we’re rushing impatiently to update our tiny high-tech gismos before they become ‘unsupported’ and ancient history, the next we’re simply hankering after the original quality of ‘the good old days’, crackles and all. But if you’re longing for the true sounds of the past to entertain you once more, head to Monks Eleigh, where Paul Goodchild and his collection of technology tinkerers have more than just old records up their sleeves.
“Let’s have a tune upon the graphophone,” suggests the elegant voice of turn of the 20th century entertainer Billy Williams, as the familiar seasonal sounds of Auld Lang Syne segue seamlessly into the welcoming words of his invitational chorus. It’s an odd sort of greeting to be wafting down a path lined with gravestones, but simply step across the threshold of the old red-brick chapel and everything falls into place. Or at least sort of. First get your head around the rather unexpected glitter-ball hanging from the ceiling, the Wurlitzer juke box and disco decks in the corner by the somewhat psychedelic shimmer curtain. Then there’s the much revered 1934 Hammond organ, brought to life throughout the day by Bryan, which takes pride of place beneath the original bright ‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ banner. Drink all this in and only then do your eyes really re-focus and look up at the shelves reaching towards the heavens, crammed with TVs and transistors, radio-sets, reel-to-reel recording equipment and turnhandle ‘gramophones’.
From His Master’s Voice classics to a groovy red 1950s Sky Baby, from a pristine Monarch record player to the stylish McMichael Twin Supervox or beautiful bakerlite Westminster, all the big names are here. Include the ‘Curiosity Corner’ and the exhibits are countless – and as a ‘reel’ added bonus, there’s even a vintage film show using time-honoured projectors courtesy of Norman in the Sunday school room next door.
A REAL GIFT
Given a home in the redundant United Reform Chapel only in 2014, the Sounds of the Past collection includes over 370 vintage radios and 50 historic televisions (well, that’s how far they’ve got with the catalogue to date), all mainly donated over the decades since local lad and bygones buff, Paul Goodchild, founded the Monks Eleigh Bygones Collectors Club more than a quarter of a century ago.
“If it’s junk, Paul will collect it,” jokes colleague and retired TV engineer, Dave. “Where there’s muck, there’s history, that’s the motto, and we’ll always try not to say no to a relevant new exhibit.” He pauses, then admits: “All of us here love taking things to bits, cleaning things up, repairing where we
can and putting stuff back together again. We can generally get the parts and valves we need to get things into working order, though replacement tubes for some of the televisions can be a problem.” It seems that in this old chapel whatever they are about to receive – from historic TVs to potential radio signals – they are always truly thankful.
WINDOWS ONTO THE WORLD
Rows of wooden boxes, dull brown bakelite radio-sets from the inter-war years of austerity and utilitarian furniture don’t quite capture the imagination like the gleaming brass gramophone bells glinting by the window in the winter sunshine. But be sure to take a closer look and you’ll soon discover all things absurdly bright and beautiful in the fret-work of Sunrises, the geometric shapes of art deco designs, subtle lines of gilding and all sorts of knobs and buttons. Decades before the days of broadband and boundless internet surfing, with the right set up you could simply slide across the globe from Luxembourg to Montecarlo, Oslo or Stuttgart and pick up other cultures at the turn of a dial. Back then, the press of a button literally put you on a different wavelength and in tune with the world. “If you lived in the countryside your wireless was a real lifeline,” explains retired electrican Dan, who now just loves to mend radios as his hobby and travels all the way up from Coggeshall to help with the collection. “Admittedly though, if you were living with gas lamps, an old wood stove and earth closet for comforts, it was all a bit of a palaver. Mains sets were more expensive, but cheaper battery sets had higher running costs. You’d need more than just the set itself of course. There were the batteries, accumulator and an aerial to think about too.” He pauses as the rose-tinted spectacles replace reality once more. “My favourites are the 1930s radios really. They’re lovely little sets - a bit more flimsy, but that’s because they were made to a price.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Hmm, price. Therein lies a tale. These days old appliances like a circular EKCO wireless or Bush TV3 in thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin (‘bakelite’, named after its New York inventor, Leo Baekeland) are well trendy, but attract real premiums. Originally these ‘plastic cabinet’ radios and TVs were sold as the cheaper option over wood. “When TVs were first mass-produced in the fifties everything was franchised and subject to purchase tax,” explains specialist Dave. “It crippled sales though. My favourite solid furniture Ferguson 103T with its fluorescent tube ringing the screen sold for £96 and 12 shillings back in 1954 and £24 of that was pure
tax. Franchising made it impossible to offer discounts, but the Co-op got round that with their dividend scheme. I reckon their Plesseymade TV was called ‘Defiant’ for a reason!”
Past the domed 1949 Pye LV20 (purchased by many to watch the coronation) and alongside the silvery Sony Trinitron (the UK’s first mass-produced colour TV), there’s talk of
‘Admittedly though, if you were living with gas lamps, an old wood stove and earth closet for comforts, it was all a bit of a palaver’
how Sony side-stepped UK legislation limiting the size of TV screens on foreign imports by cannily moving production to Wales, and about the years of TV rentals rather than ownership until the 1980s. And with Pye, Phillips, EKCO and Plessey all having early factories across the East from Lowestoft to Southend and Ilford, it’s certainly a heritage that resonates remarkably close to home and makes the Sounds of the Past collection even more worthy of a visit.
By the TVs displaying testcards near the café corner, one visitor looks particularly lost in thought, gazing down the line of black and white and colour sets. Then suddenly she turns and smiles.
“My family was the first in the village to have a colour TV, you know,” she confides over her cup of tea. “My dad’s 92 now.“She stops and smiles again, pointing proudly at a gentleman in deep conversation with Dave about a mighty tome entitled Setmakers. “He used to work at the Cambridge factory and built our set himself!”
The Sony Trinitron, the first colour TV made in Wales. All images: Lindsay Want
Dan and Dave with their radio favourites
Pye’s famous sunrise radio set
Ferguson 103T with fluorescent ring