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Can The Sound Of A Guildford Accent Be Heard Loud And Clear?

Published on: 4 Nov, 2013
Updated on: 4 Nov, 2013

By David Rose

Is there such a thing as a Guildford accent? Or was there one in the past, even a Surrey dialect, that has now been lost?

The thought has come to mind from an email I recently received, sent to me for my interest in local history from reader John Lomas. He writes: “Have you ever done any work on a local dialect/accent around Guildford? I would have said that there was nothing noticeable and have certainly found that I tend to pick up other accents when in different areas.

“Yet when I moved to Lancashire in 1981, after living for 14 years in the Bristol area, I met someone who told me she thought I came from Guildford. Apparently she had recently moved back to Lancashire after being in the Guildford area for a few years.”

A group of Guildford people pictured more than 50 years ago. Has the local accent changed over the years?

A group of Guildford people pictured more than 50 years ago. Has the local accent changed over the years?

Interesting. Let’s take me as an example. I was born in Guildford in 1959 and have lived here all my life. My parents spent all their life in Guildford. My grandmother on my dad’s side came from a Guildford family going back to at least the early 19th century in the town, although my dad’s dad was from Kent. On my mum’s side, her mum was raised in Godalming, but her dad came to Guildford from the Midlands in the early 1900s.

I have always considered I have some kind of ‘local accent’, although I assume it to be something resembling a south London accent. And that’s what I have always believed was the way my parents spoke. Is that what is sometimes called ‘Estuary English’ meaning a sound from across the South East, north and south of the Thames Estuary?

Coming from a working-class background, state schools and the like, and not having been university educated, I have also assumed I speak with with an accent associated with that background.

However, I am aware of a different local accent that is spoken by people who have also lived all their lives in Guildford, but from, shall we say, more of a middle-class background.

Having a trawl of the internet on what makes a ‘Surrey accent’ I have found some interesting comments…

These seem to equate a regional accent around here as being linked to the term ‘modified received pronunciation.’

Here’s one explanation: “Many will have ‘London’ accents, Surrey being very near London. However, people from many parts of England now live in Surrey, and it would be very difficult to spot a ‘typical’ Surrey accent, because there isn’t one!  Of course, anyone born and bred in Surrey, and whose parents and grandparents have always lived in Surrey, and who went to school in Surrey, who work in Surrey and whose friends are all from Surrey, would doubtless have a ‘Surrey’ accent. However, it would not be totally dissimilar from the general accent of most people who live in the South East of England. In fact, it would probably be totally indistinguishable from them, even by other ‘South East Englanders’ living 100 miles away on the east coast of South East England.”

Would you agree with that? I think so. But there are some interesting sound clips that can be found on the internet of people’s voices from this part of Surrey. I have found nothing specifically from Guildford , but have a listen to these, all from Surrey. You may like to increase the volume on your computer when you listen, and the first voice you will hear for each one is the interviewer.

Click here for a recording from  the British Library’s sound archive. It features retired woodman Alf Norman from East Clandon, recorded in 1959. A classic Surrey country accent?

Click here for another recording from the British Library’s sound archive. It features Jenny Gower from Bookham recorded in 1990. A typical middle-class Surrey accent?

This is Clive Simpson from Dorking, recorded in 1981. Another clip from the British Library’s sound archive. I am sure you can hear this type of voice in many parts of Surrey.

Children at Sandfield School in the 1900s – did they speak with a Guildford accent?

Children at Sandfield School in the 1900s – did they speak with a Guildford accent?

If we have indeed lost what was once a distinctive ‘Guildford accent’, the former curator of Guildford Museum, Matthew Alexander, gave me some useful pointers. He basically said it is easy to assume that in times gone by people spoke with a kind of country accent that now is often referred to as ‘Mumerset’ – that is a yokel accent, often now adopted by actors and based on a sound spoken by people from counties such as Somerset, Dorset and so on.

Matthew said that back in the 1970s he spoke to James Gwinn, who had a bakery in Chapel Street. He spoke with a very pronounced local accent. In talking about his work Mr Gwinn referred to mixing the “dough in the trow”, and not “dough in the trough”, that he was using.

Now on the subject of dialect which I guess is something different from accent. The noted garden designer Gertrude Jekell, who lived in Godalming, noted in her 1904 book Old West Surrey a number of words and phrases spoken at that time in these parts. For example: “‘Stand on a cheer, Gooerge, ye’ll have more might,’ said an old father, when his son was trying to pull a nail out of a beam at arm’s length. ‘Might’ in this sense is nearly lost to us; the only hold we seem to keep of it, except in the adjective and adverb forms, is in the idioms, ‘with all his might’. I hear the carpenter say of the new gate-post, ‘Rare (rear) it up,’ and of the tree trunk ‘saw it asunder,’ whereas I suppose we should say ‘Stand it up on end,’ or ‘Stand it upright,’ and ‘Saw it in two,’ or ‘Saw it across,’ surely all weaker and more cumbersome ways of saying the same thing.”

In fact, you don’t have to travel far from Surrey to hear other regional accents. Once into Hampshire and in the Alton area, you can hear quite different sounds! The same goes with entering parts of London. I reckon I can tell the difference between a north and a south London accent.

And this takes me back to what John Lomas wrote about – it is easier to distinguish regional accents once you are away from the area in which you live and spend the best part of your time. For example, I know the north-east of England well and can easily tell the difference between say a County Durham, Newcastle and north Northumbrian accents.

Perhaps the sound of our Guildford people's voices has changed as the town has grown during the past 100 years with so many people coming here to live from other parts. the photo shows Onslow Village in the 1920s.

Perhaps the sound of the voices of Guildford’s residents has changed as the town has grown during the past 100 years with so many people coming here to live from other parts. The photo shows Onslow Village in the 1920s.

Are you still up to speed on all this? One final thing, singing voices can lend themselves to a regional accent. I’m talking rock and pop music here. But as that style of music draws on influences from both the UK and the USA, there has been for some years a ‘mid-Atlantic’ vocal sound. I suppose an example is Londoner (well Kent actually) Mick Jagger blending his accent with the sound of black American bluesmen.

But there are two rock musicians, both from Surrey, whose musical styles are distinctly different, but, to me, their vocal accents sound much the same. They are the famous guitarist Eric Clapton, who was born in Ripley, and guitarist and songwriter Paul Weller who was born in Woking. If you know their music, have a listen and see what you think.

If you have any examples of what makes up a local Guildford accent, do leave a reply in the box below. Perhaps you can name someone who you think has the typical local accent.

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Responses to Can The Sound Of A Guildford Accent Be Heard Loud And Clear?

  1. Michelle Athiniotis Reply

    November 12, 2013 at 11:05 am

    One of my favourite actors from the 1930’s and 1940’s Ronald Colman (Random Harvest, Talk Of The Town) was born in Surrey and had a very distinct accent.

    I’ve always thought that this is what it sounded like. What do you think?

    • Martin Giles Reply

      November 12, 2013 at 3:17 pm

      Are you really writing from Australia? Anywhere near one of the Guildford’s in Australia by any chance?

      What made you read the Guildford dragon NEWS? You are very welcome, of course.

  2. John Lomas Reply

    November 13, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    When I said I pick up other accents, I meant that I tend to drop into a voice that is similar to the local one where ever I am, which is why I felt there couldn’t be a distinctive Guildford/Surrey sound.

    I do also recognise different accents fairly easily, as my comment was interpreted.

  3. Dave Peters Reply

    December 20, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    There is certainly a distinct Surrey pronunciation of the word jewellery.

    • Martin Giles Reply

      December 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm

      Really? Please do tell us what it is. Can you spell it out phonetically? Ed

  4. Alastair Mattinson Reply

    January 4, 2015 at 8:04 am

    I was brought up in Coulsdon, Surrey, and Purley too.

    I was taught to say ‘Coolsdon’ in a very polite way rather than the ‘ugly’ Estuary London pronunciation.

    However, I have the sneaking feeling that it was also the last moments of a dying Surrey accent when the place was pronounced ‘Colesdon’ (which is more logical), so a moment when three pronunciations vied for dominance and RP won.

    I now call my birth place Colesdon.

    When at Nottingham uni in the mid to late 1980s I came across an article, I believe by the University of Leeds, that had been exploring Surrey and South East dialect words and accents.

  5. Juliet Hale Reply

    March 11, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Woking girl here.

    Anyone know the origin of the word “lum” or “lumb” for the mammary glands?

    It was used in my school – George Abbot, in Guildford – in 1961-5 by a girl from the Shalford area.

    I can’t find it but I haven’t checked the latest edition of Partridge’s slang dictionary. Perhaps it was a Hampshire word?

  6. Chris Young Reply

    November 20, 2018 at 4:40 am

    Interesting article. I was born in Epsom and I would class my accent as more South London than anything. I worked in Guildford for some time and I did notice there was a slight twang in the way they spoke. By the time you got to Farnham the accent is more noticeable, it’s more like Hampshire.

  7. Valerie Thompson Reply

    November 20, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    When we first came to West Horsley in 1970 there were members of the cricket team who had rarely been to Guildford and never to London. Several had a distinct accent, nearer to Somerset than east London. I was also aware of people in the villages to the south of Guildford having a rural accent.

    I was born in Surrey and pronounce jewellery as jewlery, though I have heard jewalry or jewlry.

  8. Chris Young Reply

    December 22, 2019 at 7:28 pm

    I noticed that up to Guildford it’s more London sounding.

    My Great aunt’s husband came from near Farnham, and from there you start to get a Hampshire twang.

  9. Paul Armstrong Reply

    April 10, 2020 at 3:58 pm

    Being nearly four o’clock I was about to have me bait, then befront of I was your site. I don’t want to notation but there was once a distinct Surrey Accent and Dialect. Some may have said it was picksome, but not they bettermost.

    One of its defining features was the double plural. I’m 60 now and people still spoke it when I was younger, not many, lief a few.

  10. Stuart Barnes Reply

    April 11, 2020 at 9:29 am

    My family was evacuated to Guildford from Middlesex in the blitz in about 1940.

    After we had been here for a while my parents were so worried about the fact that we (the children) had apparently picked up Surrey/Guildford accents that they discussed employing a speech therapist! As I recall their comments, they seemed to think that the local accent was similar to cockney but with country tinges.

    I have heard from other people that the accent had some similarity to Somerset accents.

  11. D Harvey-Hepherd Reply

    April 11, 2020 at 7:05 pm

    When I moved to my current home in the 1980s, I had neighbours on both sides who were quite elderly.

    They had all been born in Guildford prior to the First World War.

    To my untrained ear, they had a distinctive, rural accent, best described as similar to West Country.

    Not a trace of any London or urban accent between them.

  12. Tracey Hedges Reply

    October 7, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Apparently my brother and I had Surrey accents when we were young (born in the 70s, bought up in Guildford). My parents say the Surrey accent is mostly lost locally, although they say some of the local farmers in Dunsfold (a rural village to the south of Surrey) still have it.

    There is one word I pronounce that I believe is an original Surrey way of speaking. I do not say “like”. I say it lie-ike, but one syllable, with a West Country twang.

    I notice someone else’s comments about the way they pronounce jewellery. I pronounce it “jewelry”. I don’t know if that is a Surrey accent thing or not. I also say garage as ga-ridge, not gah-raj. Again I don’t know if that is a local accent or not.

  13. Barry Williams Reply

    October 8, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Bring back the Surrey accent and help boost tourism in our area. Local craftsmen and artisans and smocks would help too.

    But seriously, some years ago (mid-1990s) I heard a recording of a Surrey accent in Guildford Museum. I believe the recording was pre WW1 and was much like a Hampshire burr. Does that still exist?

  14. Irene Shettle Reply

    November 9, 2020 at 10:35 pm

    I have only just read this article. I am Guildford born and bred, and spent my first 11 years in the 50s in Guildford, at which point because of my father’s promotion within Surrey Fire Brigade (as it then was), we moved to Dorking. On moving to Brigade accommodation, painters and decorators were called in to undertake necessary work and they both had, what I now know to be, a distinctive Surrey accent. I would say it was most akin to the Sussex accent which can still be encountered (I know and have met several people with it – born and brought up in Sussex). There was a distinct “burr” to it, and I remember being soundly told off by them for pronouncing the name of a local village, Gomshall as Gomm – shull. I was told that was wrong – it should Gumshull. Not a pronunciation I have heard in many years.

    As to what sort of accent I acquired – difficult to say. At primary school on one of the local estates I was berated for “being posh”, but we certainly weren’t, although having heard my accent on recordings, it certainly does not sound like the “old” Surrey accent. Anyway, suffice it to say there certainly was a distinct Surrey accent in the 1950s/early 1960s which is very infrequently heard these days if at all.

    As to the word jewellery – I would normally pronounce it “jool-ree” but on occasion “juwoolry” – said fast. Not sure that that has anything to do with local pronunciation though.

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