The Sound of the Eminent Victorians

Walter Harris introduces the retired soldier who brought sound recording to Britain.

Gouraud as caricatured by Ape (Carlo Pellegrini) in Vanity Fair, April 1889
Gouraud as caricatured by Ape (Carlo Pellegrini) in Vanity Fair, April 1889

Colonel George Edward Gouraud fought in the US cavalry during the American Civil War and received his country's highest award for valour, the Congressional Medal of Honour. On leaving the Army he joined the Customs service, but when George Pullman, inventor of the sleeping car, invited him to spread the gospel of luxury to the railways of Europe, the colonel enthusiastically accepted and set up shop in Paris in the early 1880s.

Gouraud’s father, a French emigrant to America, had imbued his son with the sense of adventure bestowed by being an inventor. He developed the camera, and founded the first American photographic magazine; his household was a stimulating one to grow up in. As it turned out, no invention was to stimulate Gouraud like the phonograph, for which he became an ardent apostle after meeting its inventor, Thomas Edison, not long after joining Pullman.

Edison had conceived of voice-mail in 1880, the idea of recording epistles and messages on cylinders which, hopefully, could be sent through the mail at the parcel rate, which was cheaper than that for ordinary letters. The recording was done through electrical impulses activated by sound and directed onto a cylinder whose principal constituent was silver paper, a far from robust substance. Not only were the cylinders highly frangible and the voice transmissions smothered by acoustic disturbance, but the postal authorities refused to allow them to be sent at the parcel rate. So Edison decided to concentrate on more profitable and practical inventions, such as developing the light bulb and publicizing his telegraph which was increasingly useful in warfare.

Gouraud met Edison in London at a press conference about the telegraph in 1885, where they discussed its military potential. The conversation moved on to the virtually discarded phonograph, and Gouraud reacted strongly to Edison’s neglect of it. His ambition to market and sell it was ignited. This was a unique means of communication, he insisted, and decided that he would stand at the inventor’s shoulder until he had carried out the necessary development of the phonograph and its cylinders. Gouraud accompanied Edison back to America.

In the Edison laboratories at Menlo Park, New Jersey, Gouraud almost forcibly persuaded Edison to return to the phonograph until he found a solution to its drawbacks and could offer it the future the colonel had started to foresee for it. It took nearly two years before a revised and greatly improved phonograph, with hardier cylinders, made mainly of wax, was ready.

In 1887, Gouraud crossed the Atlantic again with a small cargo of the appliances and a highly ambitious marketing strategy. His intention was to interview a hundred eminent Victorians, hopefully including the Queen herself. Gouraud decided to build an all-electric house, the first in England, not far from the Crystal Palace, in South London. It was well served by the railways and a focal point for concerts by leading orchestras, which could be recorded by the phonograph. He equipped his carriage with electric light, giving wayfarers a frisson as his horses trotted along, their hoofbeats accompanied by a steady and unwavering glow.

The gallant colonel proved adept at moving into Victorian society, his charm matching his persistence. One of his earliest interviewees, whom he put on wax a number of times between 1888 and 1912, was the actor-manager Henry Irving, whose first recording was of a passage from King Henry VIII. Gouraud’s favourite technique was to invite an interviewee to dinner, relax him with a sufficiency of wine, and present him with the recording aperture of the phonograph comfortably within reach of his mouth. Usually the colonel would preface the recording with a message to Edison, such as: ‘Edison, listen to this. It’s Sir Arthur Sullivan.’

Sullivan, in fact, did not feel particularly mellow towards the phonograph; interviewed after the first night of Yeoman of the Guard the composer growled that future generations would be cursed by having to listen to the sort of dreadful rendition of his music conveyed by the appliance.

One of the phonograph’s more bizarre triumphs was when Otto von Bismarck was persuaded to record a cowboy song in English, with seeming relish; the Gouraud acolyte who interviewed him reported that his wife and family were quite scandalized by the Iron Chancellor’s behaviour. Shortly before Christmas, 1888, the Duke of Cambridge became the first member of the royal family to record; not long afterwards, the colonel scored another royal when he bagged the exiled prince Louis Napoleon.

Among politicians, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Peel, had been one of Gouraud’s earliest interviewees; Prime Minister Gladstone gave his first phonograph interview the following year, 1889, in the form of a talk. It is possible that he gave another soon afterwards, congratulating Edison on his invention. (It is equally possible that this particular recording is a fake, and that the speaker was in fact a well-known impersonator called Frank Lindo.) Robert Browning rendered his poem: ‘How They Brought The Good News from Ghent to Aix’ and Sarah Bernhardt declaimed Racine’s Phedre. To be interviewed by Gouraud on the phonograph had become fashionable.

Until a few years ago, in the BBC Sound Archive at Broadcasting House there was a burnished phonograph in mint condition which Gouraud had presented to the explorer H.M. Stanley as a wedding present in 1890, after his return from his encounter with Doctor Livingstone.

Stanley’s mother-in-law Lady Gertrude Tennant made a recording on her son-in-law’s phonograph, her voice breaking with sorrow as she addressed a message to her dying sister. A recording claimed to be of Oscar Wilde in Paris just before his death in 1901 turned out ‘to have characteristics at that time not yet incorporated into the wax’, and the interviewee is thus unknown. Colonel Gouraud never did succeed, so far as we know, in recording the voice of Queen Victoria; Edward, Prince of Wales, did however speak into the phonograph in rather guttural Hanoverian tones.

By the time Sir Ernest Shackleton joined the list of interviewees, to discuss the South Polar Expedition of 1907, the colonel’s ambition to record 400 eminent Victorians was well on the way to accomplishment. He died in 1912.

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