Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale

Beatrice Harrison’s Nightingale broadcasts

Beatrice Harrison was the leading British cellist of her generation and a favourite of composers such as Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius. Born in 1892 in Roorkee, north-west India, to a musical family, she gave first performances of several important twentieth century classical works, and made many recordings. In 1920, she made the first recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with the composer himself conducting. Although this work became the one with which she was most closely identified, she was best known for her famous Nightingale broadcasts over the BBC.

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of Beatrice Harrison playing the cello in her garden seated next to a dog and surrounded by pet birds in cages

Beatrice Harrison in the garden at Foyle Riding

Harrison often practised pieces in the garden of her family’s sixteenth century house, Foyle Riding, located near Oxted, Surrey. While practising late at night, she discovered that nightingales nesting nearby would often sing in response to her cello, in a pattern resembling a ‘duet’. In 1924, after making her debut cello performance from the BBC studio she persuaded John Reith, the BBC’s general manager, to arrange a live outside broadcast with the nightingale:

…I telephoned Sir John Reith at the BBC, who seemed very dubious at first.  Meanwhile the song of the nightingale was at its height at Foyle Riding and I knew that it must be now or never as from now on he would sing later and later at night and in two weeks he would be gone. (Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 131)
With Reith convinced, the BBC’s Assistant Chief Engineer (Research), Captain Arthur Gilbert Dixon West, and an assistant were called in to set up the equipment the day before. The only equipment used in the first broadcast was a single Marconi-Sykes magnetophone, a large portable ‘A’ amplifier, a few batteries, and a drum of cable (West, 1924).

Figure 6

Black and white photograph of equipment used by the BBC engineers in 1924 as installed at Foyle Riding showing a prototype version of the BBC A amplifier with a bank of accumulators below

The BBC’s prototype ‘A’ microphone amplifier installed in one of the small thatched summer-houses in the Harrisons’ garden, in preparation for the 19 May 1924 broadcast

‘Underneath the tree was placed a magneto-phone, with a dozen or more accumulators for providing the power necessary to transform the notes of the bird into electric current’ (‘Nightingale on the Wireless’, 1924). In the little summer-house with its thatched roof, was its amplifier, a tangle of wires, a few odd switches and batteries (West, 1924). The weak electrical signal the magnetophone generated required this large ‘Type A’ amplifier, which Round recommended be located within 100 feet or less of the magnetophone (Round, 1924, p 263). When the time was right, the amplified signal would be sent through Foyle Riding’s private telephone line to be broadcast from the central BBC station in London, 2LO. The announcer was Rex Palmer, ‘Uncle Rex’, a science graduate and Flying Officer during the Great War. He was the first London Station Director and became one of the great veterans of early broadcasting (Briggs, 1961, p 211).

Figure 7

Black and white photograph of BBC engineers preparing the Marconi Sykes microphone for a broadcast in 1925

BBC engineers prepare a Marconi-Sykes magnetophone for a broadcast, May 1925, (A G D West at top right with his two assistants in the foreground).  The man in the flat cap pointing is the Harrisons’ head gardener, who, according to Harrison, ‘had the bandiest legs I had ever seen, and used the most appalling language I had ever heard’

Ms Harrison recalled, ‘It was something to see all the paraphernalia of the BBC in our garden. It was a great risk of course, as in those days no wild bird had ever been broadcast in its natural state’ (Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 131). It would represent the first ever broadcast live to radio from a natural location. The new microphone was so sensitive that it picked up sounds which were at first a mystery to the engineers. Eventually the sounds were discovered to be coming from things like buzzing insects, squirrels, and rabbits nibbling at the wires (West, 1972, p 21; Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 132).

Figure 8

Black and white photograph of wireless engineers using early recording equipment in preparation for a recording at Foyle Riding

BBC engineers outside the front door of Foyle Riding preparing equipment for the broadcast of a conversation between two nightingales, May 1925.  A G D West is in the foreground with two G.A.1. microphone amplifiers, P P Eckersley at right, and B Honri in the background

Following the successful test by the BBC engineers the day before, the first broadcast was made at midnight on 19 May 1924, interrupting the Savoy Orphean Saturday evening performance to go live to Harrison's back garden to hear her playing with the nightingales. Harrison played Elgar, Dvorak, and Londonderry Air to no response until 15 minutes before the end when the birds finally began to sing. The Daily Sketch reported the next day, ‘with astonishing clearness, the liquid notes of a nightingale singing in the Surrey woods at Oxted were heard by many thousands over the wireless last night’ (‘Nightingale on the Wireless’, 1924). It was later reported that approximately one million people listened while Ms Harrison had played her duet with the nightingale.

Figure 9

Colour photograph of the 2LO BBC main transmitter in use from 1922 to 1925

2LO, BBC London’s main transmitter in service from November 1922 until April 1925, was among those which transmitted the Nightingale broadcasts of 1924. It was designed by H J Round

Between 1922 and 1924 nine ‘main’ stations and ten ‘relay’ stations had been set up in strategically populous centres of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Between them they provided a service which reached nearly 80 per cent of the British population (Scannell and Cardiff, 1991, p 15). A network system was introduced whereby each station could take, via Post Office trunk lines, ‘simultaneous broadcasts’ like that of the nightingale from the London station.

A further idea of how accurate the estimated listenership of one million may have been is provided in Reith’s book, Broadcast over Britain. He writes:

It is difficult, and indeed impossible, to speak with any assurance of the number of people who listen to broadcasting. In our first twenty-one months, that is, till the end of September, 1924, approximately 950,000 licences had been issued, over 50,000 new licences being taken out in September alone. It is natural to assume that there are several people involved in each licence. The difficulty is to know what average figure to take. Taken at five, the audience is already over four million. For any special occasion an infinitely greater number can gather. (Reith, 1924a, p 80)

Historian Asa Briggs has written that ‘Reith’s concern for public service was always coupled with a concern for the right kind of publicity. His book Broadcast over Britain is the best evidence of this’ (Briggs, 1961, p 234). Written at the same time as the first Nightingale broadcasts were being conducted, it was published in late 1924. Reith used these Nightingale broadcasts to ‘shape the idea of public service radio as an instrument of national uplift and enlightenment’ (Guida, 2015).

Having proved so popular with listeners, the Nightingale broadcast was repeated the following week (‘Broadcasting the Nightingale’, 1924), and for the next twelve years the BBC broadcast her nightingale concerts in May. On the front page of the 6 June Radio Times, Reith wrote that the nightingale, ‘…has swept the country...with a wave of something closely akin to emotionalism, and a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life’ (Reith, 1924c, p 437).

In her autobiography, written shortly before her death in 1965, Harrison recalled, ‘The public, I must say, went completely mad over the nightingale, the experiment touched a chord in their love of music, nature and loveliness’ (Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 133).  

In the years to follow, thousands of visitors flocked to Foyle Riding during the nightingale season; the Harrisons entertained musicians and friends, and chartered buses to bring families from the east end of London, giving them tea and beer until midnight. The broadcasts gave her a good deal of publicity, both nationally and internationally, and the nightingale was depicted on her concert posters and embroidered on her concert dresses. It was reported that she had received over 50,000 fan letters (Briggs, 1961, p 262).

Many of the letters were just addressed to ‘The Lady of the Nightingales, England’ or ‘The Garden of the Nightingales, England’, ‘…one old gentleman from New Zealand said that he had left the old country when he was a boy and to hear the song of the nightingale once again, out on a New Zealand Farm, was a prayer answered’ (Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 133).

A few years later, recordings of Beatrice Harrison with the nightingales were made by HMV [‘His Master’s Voice’, also known as ‘the Gramophone Company’]. These were made available on the standard 10-inch shellac gramophone discs, and proved extremely popular. The first of these recordings was made in a session on 3 May 1927, which included the Northern Irish folk song, Londonderry Air (Danny Boy).

Video 2

Black and white photograph of Beatrice Harrison playing the cello in her garden seated next to a dog and surrounded by pet birds in cages

Beatrice Harrison playing her cello in her garden with the nightingales

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/004