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Plundering Historical Documents for Ideas

October 5, 2010

Recently I needed to come up with ideas for background sounds that would have been heard in a Victorian country house.  Basically this consisted of trying to discover what the inhabitants of the house (i.e. the owners and servants) might talk about (providing ideas for crowd ADR) and do (providing ideas for the FX tracklay).

My starting point was Wikipedia entries for some of the servants’ titles: valet, footman, etc. in order to get an idea of what their duties might have entailed.  However, within the footman entry I discovered that “one 19th century footman, William Tayler, kept a diary which has been published”, and so I tracked a copy down hoping it would provide some inspiration.

If your looking for a real page-turner jam-packed with high drama – this ain’t it, but for detailed descriptions of life as a servant in Victorian times it is quite a treasure trove of information.  For example, on January 1st, 1837, William…..

…..and on May 18th:

In this way, one can start to get an idea of the kind of sounds one might have heard within such a property during this period.  I guess a lot of these sounds are ‘foley’ but there’s also plenty of information within the book that gives ideas for background crowd ADR which is always handy when dealing with a film based in a country or time that is not our own.  For example, there are words or phrases that may have been used in relation to horses and carriages:

……or for general murmur or background chat at parties:

(all quotes taken from “Diary of William Tayler:  Footman, 1837” – ed. Dorothy Wise)

Another book I stumbled across was “Useful Toil:  Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s”, edited by John Burnett, which provides first-hand accounts of a wide variety of trades, ranging from coal-miner to butler to cabinet-maker.  As well as these accounts being useful in their own right for the kind of ‘sonic research’ I’m describing, the book also has a terrific bibliography with leads to many other equally intriguing memoirs, of which the following are just a few:

“Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay” – George Ewart Evans (Faber, 1965)

“The Autobiography of a Beggar Boy” – James Dawson Burn (1855)

“Brother to the Ox:  The Autobiography of a Farm Labourer” – Fred Kitchen (J.M. Dent, 1940)

“Children of the Dead End:  The Autobiography of a Navvy” – Patrick MacGill (1914)

With my curiosity regarding this subject well and truly piqued, I do intend to read some of these books simply for pleasure but, in any case, with the current popularity of period dramas showing no signs of letting up, it’s good to know that there are first-hand accounts out there in the ether that can provide us with accurate minutae of different walks of life which we can hopefully translate into richer and more authentic soundscapes.

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