The lost voice of Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Could a recording exist of Charles Spurgeon's voice? Sara Willcocks believes it could - and explains why
Charles Spurgeon put into print more English words than any preacher in history. By the end of the 19th century, ten million Victorians had heard him preach the gospel. Historians far and wide continue to uncover more Spurgeon gold, helping to shape a 20/20 view of the man behind the pulpit. There’s one thing missing, however; the holy grail of all possible Spurgeon memorabilia and artefacts: an audio of his baritone voice. A voice that, reportedly, could be heard from over a half a mile away.
Indeed, Thomas Spurgeon himself believed there was no such recording of his father’s voice. He said exactly that when reciting Spurgeon’s last ever printed sermon via an Edison-Bell phonograph in 1905.
Personally, I’m not convinced; and recent research and discoveries give us hope:
Early last year, a local history group – The Norwood Society – invited a specialist in the history of sound, Howard Hope, to give a talk on the Colonel and his ‘Electric House’. It’s thanks to this, and an article the society published, that we were able to find the name of the ‘recording studio’ we knew to be near to Spurgeon’s home.
As it transpires, Spurgeon, the most famous preacher and orator in the world, was the neighbour to Colonel Gouraud: the man who, in 1888, brought recorded sound to England. The two men lived side by side in the prestigious Beulah Hill in Upper Norwood until Spurgeon's death in 1892.
The Frenchman, who was awarded the American Civil War Medal of Honor, was an associate of Thomas Edison and moved with his family to London in 1873 to act as Edison's agent in Europe. His home, which was just across from Spurgeon’s, became known as "Little Menlo" and was often dubbed the ‘Electric House’ due to the Colonel being an enthusiast of new electric inventions, and the many gadgets he had installed at Beulah Hill.
Four years before Spurgeon’s death, Edison sent his phonograph to Gouraud. And on 14 August 1888, he ensured its debut to London via a press conference, with a cornet recording of Arthur Sullivan’s ‘the Lost Chord’ (The Lost Chord - one of the first music recordings ever made). The phonograph was introduced to members of society at "Little Menlo" shortly. It was during this period, and most notably in Spurgeon’s life time, that George Gourard made several recordings of contemporaries, including:
So what about Spurgeon? It’s long been the view, supported by Thomas’s claims, that no such audio exists. What an oversight that would be for a man who lived mere footsteps from the most influential Christian preacher of the day. It defies belief then that the two men didn’t at the very least exchange more than just a few neighbourly pleasantries. Well, thanks to another Internet search, we know that they did.
A little known publication called The Hillandale News, the official journal of The City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society, revealed more than I’d imagined possible when starting this quest. The 1971 article refers to a recording of Spurgeon’s voice in the entrance way of the Colonel’s home:
“The low hall is full of old oak and painted glass. Colonel Gouraud explains to you that one of the objects of his autumnal tours is the collection of antique English furniture, but Japanese bamboo and bead screens hang in the windows, while a couple of telephones keep “Little Menlo” in constant communication with the City (of London) and Croydon, and the miniature American flag stuck in the phonograph near the door tells your host that a visitor has called during his absence and left a message. He touches a spring, and from a funnel-like tube the familiar voice of Mr. Spurgeon expresses regret at finding Colonel Gouraud out, and promises to call on the following afternoon.”
It's this extract that gives us the greatest amount of hope. For, somewhere amongst the Colonel’s belongings, was most certainly once a recording device that hides a brief moment of history and the voice of the greatest preacher of the 19th century.
Extensive archives from “Little Menlo” exist to this day; much of which is already in the public domain (including on YouTube). There’s also the full catalogue of sounds that were sent back to Thomas Edison and remain to this day in the Edison Archives.
You’d think that if a recording of Spurgeon really did exist then we’d already know about it. And that may be true, but our hopes aren’t yet dashed. There are still two unpublished and undisclosed lists that catalogue items of Colonel Gouraud’s collection; as well as wax recordings that are stored at the expansive archives of the BBC in London. A visit last summer to listen to these unfortunately proved fruitless, with many of the vulnerable wax recordings from the 19th century no longer able to be deciphered. Although once etched on to the wax they could not be recorded over, the very nature of the material makes them vulnerable and they do not age well.
130 years after Colonel Gouraud brought recorded sound to England, the hunt for Spurgeon’s voice continues. And it’s taken us back to the top of Beulah Hill and those two famous neighbours. All the evidence suggests there is a strong chance that Spurgeon crossed the street to leave a final piece of treasure for the future to find. Treasure that could be gathering dust in the archives or attics of wax recording collectors and enthusiasts either at home or abroad and most very likely somewhere in the United States.
While the search for Spurgeon’s voice continues, the Hillandale News article suggests the clue may well have ended up in an auction house with the rest of Little Menlo. Might someone have purchased the recording machine with the miniature American flag?
We’re yet to find out and it maybe that it was long ago discarded. If this is true, then we may need to accept that the lost voice of Charles Haddon Spurgeon will remain just that: lost and consigned to the ‘archives of time’ forevermore (Hebrews 11: 4).
Sara Willcocks, former Head of Communications & Marketing for Spurgeons Children's Charity. She can be contacted on SaraWillcocks@outlook.com
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