Patrick Saul – Sound Archivist

Patrick Saul. Source: British Library

Patrick Saul 1913-1999. Source: British Library

Anthony Patrick Hodgins Saul , the founder of what is now the British Library Sound Archive, was born at 18 East Cliff on 15 October 1913. The son of W. Hodgins Saul, a local dentist, Patrick, as he was to be known, was educated at Dover College. There he was an average student with little interest in sport and military pursuits. Instead, he preferred gramophone records and music broadcasts from European radio stations.

In 1930, when he was 16 years old, Patrick tried to purchase a recording of Lionel Tertis  (1876-1975), violist arrangement of the Violin Sonata by Hungarian Erno Dohnányi (1877-1960). It was no longer available so Patrick contacted the British Museum, only to be told that they did not keep sound recordings. By nature reserved Patrick plucked up the courage to write to the Director of the Museum suggesting that they should have a sound archive. After many more letters and telephone calls, he was granted an interview.

18 East Cliff, where Patrick Saul was born on 15 October 1913

18 East Cliff, where Patrick Saul was born on 15 October 1913

It was Sir George Hill (1868-1967), the Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum (1931–1936), who eventually agreed to see the young man, but when the time came, Patrick panicked! Seeking refuge in a nearby Lyons tearoom it was from there that he spoke to the great man – by telephone! Sir George Hill probably told Patrick that since 1906 the Museum had held matrix sound recordings. These included the voices of royalty, statesmen and politicians, clerics, military men, the explorer Sir Ernest Shackelton (1874-1932), and actors like Sir Herbert Beerhbom Tree (1852-1917) and Lewis Waller (1860-1915). He also probably told Patrick that since 1920 the British Library held a collection of shellac discs.

Although the Museum did not have a special department, it was evident that the Director was satisfied with the situation. Patrick suggested that Sir George should set up such a department. To this, the Director countered by saying that the young man should comeback when he was older having gained experience!

On leaving Dover College, Patrick became a bank clerk and when World War II (1939-1945) broke out, he registered as a conscientious objector. Nonetheless, Patrick was quick to realise that the Prime Minister (1940-1945), Winston Churchill (1864-1965), speeches would be of historic interest and correctly guessed that only the BBC would keep recordings. Following the War, in 1945, Patrick took a degree in Psychology at University College London and met Frank Howes (1891-1974), the Times music critic. He told Frank of his secret ambition and he encouraged Patrick to try again.

Patrick spent the next ten years writing letters, knocking on doors and cajoling. Eventually, the Charles Henry Foyle (d1948) Quaker Trust of Birmingham gave £2,000 to convert premises for Patrick’s project. That was in1955 and it galvanised the British Museum to lease 29 Russell Square, London, from the Ministry of Works.  Supported by the Arts Council, and starting with 15,000 records from the Central Music Library, the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) opened its doors with Patrick in charge!

EMI and Decca recording companies agreed to provide copies of their new recordings. The BBC agreed to make available such recorded broadcasts as they deemed desirable. Further, to save on costs, the Customs and Excise agreed to exempt the Institute from import duties and purchase tax!

At the time, most recordings were the standard shellac 78-rpm 10-inch disc or 12-inch LP. However, in 1948 Columbia records had introduced 33 1/3-rpm and a year later RCA Victor, the 45rpm disc. Nevertheless, it was not until the mid-1950s vinyl was introduced. In March 1960 the last new 78-rpm singles on shellac were released in the UK and production ceased in 1961.

Patrick responded by appealing to the public for their old records saying that the BIRS rejected nothing. This had the two-fold effect with, on the one hand, the record buying public happily deposited their shellac recordings with BIRS. On the other, certain quarters of the Establishment were horrified that the British Library was becoming a depository for ‘trash!’

Patrick, however, insisted that the Institute should be all encompassing with no artistic boundaries. This ensured that not only music recordings of all types were kept but also the spoken word, drama and literature, wild life sounds and so on. Indeed, he said that his own favourite recording was the mating call of the haddock!

With the support of musicians including the conductor Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983), the pianist Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) and violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), in 1960 Patrick made a successful bid to the Treasury for grant-in-aid. This BIRS receive until 1983.  The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (1951-1962) at the time, Edward Boyle (1923-1981), said of Patrick that he was a man of, ‘quite exceptional modesty and humility on the one side and ruthless determination on the other.’ In 1966, the Institute moved to larger premises in Exhibition Road, South Kensington.

National Sound Archives 29 Exhibition Road, London. Source: British Library

National Sound Archives 29 Exhibition Road, London. Source: British Library

1971, was a special year for Patrick for not only was he awarded the OBE but also married Diana Hull. However, shortage of space at Exhibition Road was becoming acute but larger premises became available. However, due to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1970-1974), Anthony Barber’s (1920-2005), economy cuts of January 1974, money was not available.

Patrick retired in 1978 but remained a BIRS consultant for a further five years. Throughout he remained determined to improve the UK’s national sound archives. On 31 March 1983, he was present at the signing of the contracts between BIRS and the British Library. The renamed the National Sound Archive came into effect the following day, with some 400,000 discs and 20,000 hours of tape recording in its collection. It was hoped that new premise would speedily be found.

Eventually, in 1997, the British Library Sound Archive (BRSA), opened in the British Library’s new building at St Pancras, London. Two years later, on 9 May 1999, Patrick died. It was recognised that it was his determination that the BRSA, one of the world’s largest sound archive, was Patrick’s legacy to the nation. These days access is available free on the Internet.


  • Dover Mercury: 27 January 2011
  • Further Information: British Library Sound Archive

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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