In August 1937, a reporter on Sheffield’s Daily Independent asked the city’s blind residents about the books they were reading. Enquiring at the Council’s Workshops for the Blind on Sharrow Lane, the reporter wrote that they liked ‘thrillers and Western novels’ and, in particular, books by Agatha Christie, Zane Grey and Edgar Wallace. The article continued:
Just recently they have ‘read’ two of George Bernard Shaw’s books, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’.
‘The Black Tulip,’ by Dumas, ‘I Was a Spy’ from which the film was made[i], ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and ‘Revolt in the Desert’ written by the late Aircraftsman Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) are only a few of the books they have ‘read’ and greatly enjoyed.
At the moment they are reading one of Zane Grey’s novels, ‘Riders of the Purple Sage.
Notice how the reporter used quotation marks around the word ‘read’ in the first sentence of the extract. That’s because the books being read by the blind people were talking books:
A novel library book service is at present in operation in Sheffield – the books being ‘talking’ ones consisting of from 10 to 15 single-sided gramophone records …
Talking books and the technology behind them were recent innovations in the 1930s, a time when there were, according to the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, around 68,000 registered blind people in England and Wales. The idea had come from a First World War soldier, Captain Ian Fraser (1897-1974). He was blinded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and learned Braille at St Dunstan’s, the charity set up in 1915 to support visually-impaired ex-servicemen. Fraser, who went on to serve as St Dunstan’s chairman for over 50 years, realised that recording books would enable people to read books through listening. It took St Dunstan’s years of experimentation, in partnership with the then National Institute for the Blind, but by 1935 talking books were becoming available.
The Daily Independent article was perhaps prompted by a gift of £35,000 that month from the founder of Morris Motors, Lord Nuffield (1877-1963), to help develop talking books. Nuffield was a celebrated philanthropist, who gave money to a wide variety of causes. The donation was widely reported around the country, including in the Sheffield Daily Independent on Wednesday 11 August. The follow-up feature at the Sharrow Lane Workshops seems to have been an imaginative move by the newspaper, to provide some local colour.
As the Daily Independent noted, the first talking books were ‘records … of the 12 inch size’, would ‘revolve for 25 minutes’ and contained ‘about six times as much material as the ordinary record’. They required special equipment to play them at reduced speed:
A special machine has to be used, for a gramophone whose speed is about 78 revolutions a minute would render a ‘book’ unintelligible …
In other words, the talking books were among the first LPs, or long-playing records. There was one of the special machines at the Sharrow Lane Workshops:
Most of the records at the workshop in Sheffield are played during the dinner hour and the machine is operated and records changed by the listeners themselves – the titles and numbers being printed on the records in Braille.
Some blind people in Sheffield had their own special gramophones (the RNIB says there were about 1,000 machines across the country by this time) and there was an arrangement for the books to be shared around, to enable as many people as possible to enjoy them.
The first talking books were: Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Gospel According to St. John. As the Daily Independent article shows, plenty of books by popular and well-known authors were recorded and made available, although there were suggestions of censorship, with authors thought ‘unsuitable’ not being recorded.
In recent years, talking books, developed to help people with a disability, have become audiobooks, and are listened to by millions, sighted and visually impaired..
If you would like to know more about talking books, visit Matt Rubery’s blog, Audiobook History.
[i] I Was a Spy (1932) was written by Marthe Cnockaert, a Belgian who spied for the United Kingdom in World War One. This was filmed in 1933, with Madeleine Carroll.