Survey of English Dialects

The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture contains sound recordings from the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS) which was part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983. It includes other dialect-related recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute, most notably for the Survey of English Dialects (SED), the first ever comprehensive, nationwide survey of vernacular speech in England, devised and coordinated by Professor Harold Orton at Leeds.

In the early 1990s the recordings became part of the university’s Brotherton Library and in 2002 were renamed the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture. A grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council enabled a thorough audit of the archive, the creation of an inventory of its holdings and an online catalogue. The sound recordings were donated to the British Library in 2019 for digitisation as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Although conducted primarily to capture the interviewees’ accents and dialects, the collection offers an important record of life primarily in England, Wales and Scotland in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.

Collection cataloguer Andrew Ormsby reports that the recordings capture people’s beliefs and attitudes to culture, music, food, religion and superstition, relationships, marriage and childbirth, and what they thought about work (rural, industrial and domestic), how they coped with illness and how they spent their leisure time.

There are examples of Northumbrian folk music, Irish folk singers in Leeds, cotton mill workers in Lancashire and butchers in Birmingham, carol singing in Sheffield, bell ringing in Cheshire and mummers’ plays in Staffordshire. There are also contributions from farmers and agricultural workers from almost every region in the land, including a live recording from a sheep washing session.

Nearly 900 items comprising a mixture of open-reel tapes, cassettes and lacquer discs have now been digitised with over 300 examples of dialect represented. These recordings will be available through the project website later this year. In fact, a recording from this very collection has recently become the 250,000th sound to be preserved by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. In the recording you can hear Maeve and Dick discussing how to make Pig Lug, a Yorkshire dish similar to a pie or pastry containing currants from the coastal town of Filey. You can listen to it at

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