The Pilkington Recordings

In 1967 and 1968, Mrs Agatha Pilkington, administration manageress at the Zinc Works from 1942 until 1968, made various recordings of the Zinc Works on one of the office tape machines originally intended for dictation purposes (most likely a Grundig Stenorette).  She was concerned about the noise levels experienced by the workers, and mounted a campaign to limit workers' exposure to damaging noise volumes. Despite her efforts, it wasn't until 2005 that the UK adopted the Control of Noise at Work Regulations↗.  

Staff of the Northern Smelting and Chemical Co Ltd, September 1943 - Seaton Snook Zinc Works

Staff at the Zinc Works, 1943.
Agatha Pilkington is circled.

There were 68 recordings in total, of which 19 have survived in various degrees of decay, and while most of them appear to contain nothing more than several minutes of unremarkable background noise, a few have features that may be relevant to unraveling the mystery of Seaton Snook.  

 

Recording 14a is taken from an internal corridor running alongside the zinc casting hall.  Zinc casting is later in the zinc production process than sintering, so whatever order Pilkington made these recordings in, does not seem to have been in the order of production in the plant.  The recording is labelled "14a Casting Hall Corridor (Incident)".

14a Casting Hall Corridor (Incident) - Agatha Pilkington
00:00 / 00:00

An unidentified noise at 00.12 is followed by various unintelligible cries, though some sound close to "Don't touch it! Don't touch it!" and "Put it down! Put it down!" The noise reoccurs at 00.38 The incident is not mentioned elsewhere in any Zinc Works related papers.  

Recording 21b is one of several taken from the courtyard outside of the Zinc Works.  The tape is labelled "21b, Courtyard, 5918c".

21b, Courtyard, 5918c - Agatha Pilkington
00:00 / 00:00

At 00.17, two male voices are heard in conversation, but stop abruptly when they happen upon Pilkington:

"[unaudible]"

'Yes but if he recovers, we're sunk."

"How likely is that?"

"Shh- Agatha!"

Later, another man is heard asking if someone has "seen Eddie".

 

The voices are not identified by Pilkington.  In the bottom of the box containing the various tapes, we found a clipping from the Northern Daily Mail, December 13 1967, referring to a patient 5918c at the West Hartlepool General hospital:    

Northern Daily Mail, December 13 1967 clipping

Click to enlarge

Recording 34 is taken from the corridor outside the sinter plant. The tape is labelled "34, Sinter Plant Corridor". 

34, Sinter Plant Corridor - Agatha Pilkington
00:00 / 00:00

Upon close listening, there is a chromatic ostinato drone throughout the recording, reminiscent of the melodies of I Can Hear a Siren and Waves, which are discussed elsewhere on the site.  This can also be heard in the recording of the Seaton Snook Indoor Market.  A spectrogram highlighting the frequencies concerned  shows this more clearly: 

Zinc Works Sinter Corrido Spectogram.jpg

Click to enlarge

On 20th April 1968, a massive explosion at the zinc works caused catastrophic damage.  A recording of this explosion is the penultimate recording in the collection.  It is not known where in the plant this recording was made, nor how it was recovered. 

49b Accident - Agatha Pilkington
00:00 / 00:00

The unidentified noise at 00.12 in recording 14a (above) can be heard at 00.42 here.

The final recording in the Pilkington collection is labelled "50 Aftermath", in Pilkington's own handwriting, but contains some unusual elements:

  • a voice is heard at 01.50, 05.38, 08.08, and 09.03 saying "In factories like these, about 4000 people are directly affected so far. And it hurts."

  • the same voice occurs at 03.46 and 09.42 saying "There seems to be no anger in the air against anybody.  Just a sort of rueful acceptance that people hvae got to scrape along as best they can."

The voice has been sampled from a 1974 edition of the BBC programme, Nationwide.  This would indicate that the tape was recorded after this date. Pilkington, however, died in a car accident in March 1970, and the creator of the additional sounds remains a mystery.

50 Aftermath - Unknown;; Pilkington
00:00 / 00:00

The incidence of anachronistic sound is also found in None Were Available by the East German recording artist Büttel , and the recording of Hartlepool Indoor Market Hall by Jules Braun. As yet I have not found any reason for this.

After finding these recordings, I took them to Dr R F_______, Processing Operations Manager at a prominent metal processing company.  Due to concerns about industrial espionage, I was not allowed to record the interview or take notes.  I was also made to hand over my smartphone and audio recorder upon entry.  By a stroke of luck, due to my phone not being able to make calls at the time, I had a second “emergency” phone - a small Nokia 105 - which was not noticed by the security guard.  This phone does not have a voice recorder, but I did call my own voicemail from my pocket, from which the following clips are taken. 

The first section (00.00-00.27) is part of her explanation of the zinc refining process.  The second (00.29-00.32) is her reaction to recording 34.  The third (00.34-00.39) is her reaction to recording 49b.  The fourth (00.41-00.48) is her summary after hearing all the recordings.  She also mentioned that several of the recordings seemed to be incorrectly labelled - a recording labelled "Nurse Station", for example, apparently sounded closer to that of a sinter plant than the recording labelled "Sinter Plant Corridor"

Dr F Interview - Peter Falconer
00:00 / 00:00

It should be noted that Dr F___________ became quite agitated after hearing recording 49b, rather combatively questioning the tape's provenance and veracity.  She cut the interview off moments after this final clip and I was escorted from the premises. 

Dennis Knowles Interview

Around the same time as these recordings were made, Agatha conducted an interview with Dennis Knowles, apparently a labourer at the Zinc Works.  It is possible that she interviewed - or planned to interview - several workers at the plant, but this fragment is the only interview to have surfaced so far.  

The interview - with transcription - can be found here.