A Strange British Pathé




Written by Wes Williams

This is the strange story of how recordings made about 1906 for a cylinder record company turned up on a flat disc manufacture about 1920 with sound fidelity better than I ever would have expected. One side of the disc contains a recording that does not appear to have been issued on cylinder, so is a ‘lost’ recording rediscovered.

Apart from 78s, my other main interest is concertinas and I have a site (concertinas.org.uk) which contains information about the instrument and audio recordings of some of its players. The ‘King’ of the concertina from the start of recording until his death in 1929 was Alexander Prince (real name Alexander Sutherland) and one of my projects was to produce a reasonably comprehensive discography of the recordings he made. (See Link 1 below)

From 1912 until his death, he was exclusively contracted to Columbia, and made many recordings that were released on Columbia’s budget Regal label. So I only had to research from about 1900 until 1912. Many of his early flat disc recordings were made for The Gramophone Company (later HMV) which were easily found in the British Library on-line catalogues, and I was able to determine that he had made cylinders for Edison, Edison-Bell, and Sterling labels amongst others. I managed to locate an interview with Prince from 1906 (See Link 2 below) which mentioned his connections with the Russell Hunting Company (maker of the Sterling cylinders), and also got hold of a book about Sterling published in 1975 with contributions by Sydney Carter, Frank Andrews and Len Watts, all well known for discography work. Twenty two of Prince’s Sterling recordings were issued between April 1906 and April 1908, but seven new titles were issued in February 1909, when the company briefly came out of receivership.

The Sterling book produced a surprise – some of the Sterling cylinder recordings (perhaps up to 160 of various artists) had been released by the French company Pathé as 8inch flat disks in September 1908, at a time when Sterling was in receivership. The two main recording industry personalities of the Sterling company and its various owner and related companies were Louis Sterling (soon to be Head of Columbia) and Russell Hunting. The book suggested that Hunting had somehow made the Sterling master cylinders available to Pathé, and noted that Hunting went on to become Chief of Recording for Pathé within a year and that contemporary accounts credited the Pathé titles to Hunting’s efforts. Pathé later produced these discs in different sizes.

The release of these titles by Pathé caused quite a stir. Famous artists of the time, including Peter Dawson, John McCormack, Walter Hyde, and Eleanor Jones-Hudson all had letters published that denied that they had ever recorded for Pathé, and Prince himself wrote to The Phono Trader and Recorder stating that he had only made disc records for The Gramophone Company and its Zonophone budget label. But as proper copyright laws had yet to be established, no further actions could be taken.

Early Pathé discs are totally unlike most others – they start in the centre and play to the outside, and the groove information is cut vertically (hill and dale) as opposed to the horizontal cut (side to side) of most others. This vertical cut made them playable only with special sound box heads on the wind-up gramophones of the time. Pathé masters are also different – they were made on large diameter cylinders, and then transferred to discs or cylinders using a mechanical pantograph mechanism.

About six weeks ago I noticed a Prince recording on Pathé for auction on eBay. I had seen the odd one or two before, but I hadn’t succeeded in winning them. But this time I was the only bidder, and I got it for £4.99 (US$ 7.50; EU 5.50) ! The Christmas season meant that the disc was filed away until this week, when I started to transcribe it.

The first thing I noticed from the label was that this Pathé was made in England, not France. It wasn’t 10 inch diameter, but 10.5 (26.5cm).

I put it on the turntable, and put on my dust bug. The dust bug skated immediately to the centre! I put on the arm with a 4.0 mil stylus fitted, and it jumped madly back and forth. After a few trials I found that I could get it to play properly by increasing my tracking weight from around 2 grams (the cartridge force is supposed to be 1.75-2.25 grams) to 3.5 grams, and applying maximum anti-skate. The disc played in normal fashion from the outside to inside, but was vertical cut, so still had some early Pathé characteristics. After the usual inverse-RIAA, declick, sum to mono (with one channel inverted), and a bit of EQ, I was astonished to hear two recordings with an amazing fidelity of sound, approaching that of an electrical recording, although with fairly high levels of noise and frequent thumps. How could this have come from a cylinder recording of 1906?

I searched the internet for clues about the record, but found very little. Pathé had made edge start records from 1915, had introduced horizontal cut into the UK about 1922, and had abandoned vertical cut about 1925. I couldn’t find anything about the English Pathé factory. I browsed around my library odds and ends, and found a copy of Talking Machine Review from Autumn 1995 (I only have two of these magazines). By sheer luck, the first article by Arthur Badrock was about Diamond Double Discs, first issued in January 1915. Reading a little further, I discovered that these became Pathé Diamond Discs in May 1916. Prince was one of the artists on the Diamond label. The label was abandoned in January 1919 at number 0428, but in September 1919 the Pathé ‘scroll’ label was introduced in the UK with initial numbers 1001 to 1121 being re-issues of Diamond discs, and manufactured at West Drayton, Middlesex. As my disc is number 1213 it must have been newly cut from a Pathé master about 1920. The mystery was solved.

Of the two sides on this record, both pieces are well known as part of Prince’s repertoire. But the ‘Honest Toil‘ side never seems to have been released by Sterling, so we now have a new ‘lost’ recording of Prince available. You can hear the recording here:

 

As a result, I’m starting to reconsider Prince’s recordings on Edison- Bell. I’d always assumed that the cylinders were different recordings to the disc ones. But could they have been transferred from cylinder to disc in a similar manner to the Pathé method? There are many other Edison-Bell recordings that could follow the same criteria.

Links
1. Alexander Prince Discography at concertinas.org.uk
http://www.concertinas.org.uk/PrinceDiscog.html
2. Alexander Prince 1906 Interview at concertinas.org.uk
http://www.concertinas.org.uk/prince.htm

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