Coromandel Yodellers and the Royal Navy – New Digitisations from the Mobile Unit Project

By Sarah Johnston, Camilla Wheeler and Alex Porter (Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision)

One of Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision’s current projects is digitising and fully describing the nearly 1,000 acetate records in the New Zealand Broadcasting Service Mobile Unit Collection. These were recorded between 1945 and 1949 all over New Zealand. The project will take the best part of the next year, with the work being carried out by audio conservator Alex Porterand cataloguer Camilla Wheeler. You can hear Sarah talking to RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan about the project here or listen to the recordings in full below.

The Mobile Unit collection is an eclectic assortment of music and oral history style recordings, made by the forerunner to RNZ, the NZ Broadcasting Service immediately after World War II.

The collection was recognised last year as being a significant national treasure of documentary heritage and entered into UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.

Brian Cosnett (technician), Leo Fowler (producer), Geoff Haggett (commentator) and Dick Miller (technician) pose with the faithful “Gertie,” the Mobile Unit recording truck, in 1947 or 1948 (Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision collection).
Brian Cosnett (technician), Leo Fowler (producer), Geoff Haggett (commentator) and Dick Miller (technician) pose with the faithful “Gertie,” the Mobile Unit recording truck, in 1947 or 1948 (Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision collection).

The unit was a mobile recording truck (affectionately known as “Gertie”) kitted out with disc cutting equipment and microphones on very long cables. It toured the country recording people who would normally have never been able to get near a radio station studio, which in the 1940s were still largely limited to the main centres.

The purpose initially was for the truck and its crew to go out and record musical talent from the provinces, that could then be used in broadcast programmes for the radio – sort of an early New Zealand’s Got Talent. However, the scope of their mission broadened when the broadcasters realised the wealth of oral histories the old people of the towns they visited could contribute, and so we have a lot of wonderful recorded memories in the collection, reaching back to the 1870s and earlier.

In 1948 the unit was in Coromandel township and recorded three tracks in Māori and English sung by a local group, the Brown Sisters.  Here are Tangiura and Te Waimarie Brown singing a country number by Tex Morton, “Outlaw Rocky Ned,” as well as two waiata Māori, “Tōia mai” and “Koutou katoa rā.”

Songs performed by The Brown Sisters (Mobile Unit, Coromandel, 1948)

At the end of last year, the eclectic nature of the Mobile Unit recordings was made very apparent as Alex and Cam completed work on a large number of discs recorded around Wellington in November and December 1945, when the Royal Navy aircraft carrier and two British destroyers visited New Zealand.

British aircraft carrier Indefatigable, Wellington Harbour. Raine, William Hall, 1892-1955. Ref: 1/4-020662-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23204493
British aircraft carrier Indefatigable, Wellington Harbour. Raine, William Hall, 1892-1955. Ref: 1/4-020662-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23204493

Broadcasters were possibly testing out the new Mobile Unit truck and its equipment, as there are many hours of recordings made onboard the ship, describing equipment and manoeuvres (you hear planes taking off and landing) and interviews with officers and sailors about their roles on board.  More unusual are recordings which reflect something of life in Wellington in 1945.  Here is an interview with a Mrs Innes, who was running the Home Hospitality Bureau, which had to find local billets for the ship’s crew. (We think the phone conversations were probably staged for the recording, but it is still fascinating listening.)

HMS Indefatigable [Visit to Wellington] – Part 5 (Mobile Unit, 1945) 

The HMS Indefatigable series also includes a lot of very informal recordings made at social events laid on for the 1,500 British sea men. You get a real feel for the mood of the capital in these. They were recorded at parties and receptions at the Town Hall, at Ngāti Pōneke, the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club and the Kilbirnie Nurse’s Home. On some there is obviously a lot of “socializing” going on with some fairly raucous singing, a lot of female giggling and British sailors telling tall tales. Here’s the disc recorded at a party at the Kilbirnie Nurse’s Home in December 1945.

HMS Indefatigable [Visit to Wellington] ­ Part 22 (Mobile Unit, 1945) 

Kilbirnie Nurse's Home, Wellington. (Demolished in 1958) Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/0820-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22904896
Kilbirnie Nurse’s Home, Wellington. (Demolished in 1958) Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/0820-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22904896

We will blog with more highlights of the Mobile Unit collection as Alex and Cam’s work continues this year.