Juvenile Papers of Delia Derbyshire

  • Reference
      GB 133 BDD
  • Dates of Creation
      1932-1953 (and 1972)
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      English French Latin
  • Physical Description
      6 series; 185 items
  • Location
      Collection available at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

The collection consists of papers which were generated and accumulated by Delia Derbyshire as a child - both at home and at school. These include school notebooks and papers, drawings, news cuttings, cards and a small number of objects.

Probably the most significant items are the school exercise books dating from 1948-53 which include notes, exercises and assignments in various subject areas. There are numerous mathematics books - shedding light on Derbyshire's early interest in this subject which she went on to study at Cambridge before switching to music, and which also informed and inspired her compositions. Music notebooks are also represented, revealing the composers she was familiar with or interested in at the time; her English exercise books contain original compositions, notes on writers she studied, and essays and assignments which reflect Derbyshire's early views on a range of subjects.

The news cuttings reveal an interest in her local area and a teenage enthusiasm for following news stories about members of the British royal family. There are also one or two pieces relating to music - and one posthumous item relating to Derbyshire's school days. The printed material includes numerous prayer cards, reflecting Derbyshire's Catholic background. The objects include some artefacts of great resonance - among them two Home Guard helmets and three gas masks - including one in a child's size, presumably Derbyshire's own; the bombing of Coventry and her evacuation to Lancashire both had a profound influence on the music she would compose in later life.

Administrative / Biographical History

Delia Ann Derbyshire was born in Coventry in 1937, the daughter of Edward (a sheet metal worker in a car factory) and Mary Amelia Derbyshire. Only a few years later, Coventry became a major target for German bombing raids, and Derbyshire later realised that her love for abstract sounds came in part from the air-raid and 'all clear' sirens she heard as a very young child. During the worst of the blitz, she was evacuated to Preston in Lancashire, where her parents came from; she subsequently recalled the clatter of the mill-workers' clogs on cobbles as another sound that influenced her.

She attended Barr's Hill School for Girls in Coventry, and her academic career at school is well-documented in this collection. She did not study music in any depth at school, although she excelled at the piano in her spare time, taking part in competitions and reaching performer level (music is described as her "favourite hobby" in one of her school exercise books). She obtained a place at Girton College, Cambridge, to read mathematics, and although she later switched to a music degree, her fascination for maths and its relationship with music shaped much of her work as a composer.

After university, she hoped to pursue her interest in sound, music and acoustics, but on applying for a job at Decca Records she was told that they did not employ women in the recording studio. However, in 1962 she managed to obtain a post as trainee studio manager at the BBC, and was soon seconded to work at the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, which had been set up to provide theme and incidental music and sound for BBC radio and television programmes. The following year, she produced her electronic 'realisation' of Ron Grainer's theme tune for the hugely popular BBC series Doctor Who - which is still one of the most famous and instantly recognizable television themes.

Derbyshire continued to produce innovative work in what was initially a largely analogue environment, involving labour-intensive tape splicing and speed adjustment, as well as making use of oscillators and 'found' sounds (she famously used a tatty lampshade which she thought provided a beautiful ringing tone). She moved on to work with synthesizers, although she disliked the increasing trend of using synthesizers to mimic traditional instrumental sounds. The Workshop's TV output soon overtook its work for radio, and Derbyshire provided music for drama, science, arts and educational programmes, establishing herself as one of the pioneering figures in British electronic music.

Outside of the Radiophonic Workshop, she worked on various projects, creating music for theatre, film, festivals and 'happenings'. She collaborated with numerous well-known figures, including the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Peter Maxwell Davies. She worked with Peter Zinovieff (founder of the EMS synthesizer company) to establish Unit Delta Plus - an organisation to create and promote electronic music; as part of this initiative she also worked with Paul McCartney and George Harrison on a piece called The carnival of light performed at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in 1966, and created a film soundtrack for Yoko Ono. She also worked with or influenced other musicians and bands such as Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and - perhaps surprisingly - Anthony Newley.

Derbyshire decided to leave the BBC in 1973; by this time she felt disillusioned with the corporation's increasing antipathy to the kind of unusual, abstract music she wished to make, and was unwilling to compromise her integrity. She moved to Cumbria, working in a range of jobs; for a time she was a French-bilingual radio operator for British Gas on a major pipeline laying project. She subsequently worked with the abstract artist Li Yuan Chia - one of the most important Chinese artists of the twentieth century - and went to live at his LYC Museum near Hadrian's Wall. It was an environment in which everyone was encouraged to participate in a wide range of arts, and Derbyshire worked alongside Li Yuan-chia in running the gallery and printing press, exhibiting the work of artists and poets, and organising events and readings.

After a long time away, Derbyshire returned to music and composition in the late 1990s; this period saw renewed interest in her work, and many younger musicians making electronic dance and ambient music (such as Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers) cited Derbyshire as an important influence. She collaborated with Sonic Boom (Peter Kember, formerly of Spacemen 3) on two albums released under the name Experimental Audio Research: Vibrations (2000) and Continuum (2001).

Derbyshire married David Hunter in 1974; the couple subsequently separated and from 1980 (around which time she moved to Northampton) her partner was Clive Blackburn. She died on 3 July 2001.


There was no obvious original order to the material, although some of the papers were bundled together and these bundles have been retained. The collection has been organised into series based on format, as follows:

  • BDD/1 School notebooks
  • BDD/2 School papers
  • BDD/3 Drawings
  • BDD/4 News cuttings
  • BDD/5 Cards and other printed material
  • BDD/6 Objects

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader, although a small number of items are closed for conservation reasons.

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The John Rylands University Library (JRUL) holds the right to process personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the JRUL to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the JRUL has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Acquisition Information

The papers were sold to the Library by the current owner of the house in Coventry where Derbyshire lived as a child.

Separated Material

The John Rylands Library also holds the Papers of Delia Derbyshire relating to her career as a musician and composer, as a separate collection (GB 133 DDA), as well as a collection of 267 audio tape recordings of Derbyshire's music, principally on 10.5" reels dating mainly from the 1960s and 1970s. The original tapes are closed for conservation reasons. All but one of the tapes have been digitised, and can be listened to on a stand-alone listening device within the John Rylands Library.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Most of the items in the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The papers were generated and accumulated by Delia Derbyshire as a child and subsequently preserved by her mother at the house in Coventry where Derbyshire grew up.

Related Material

The John Rylands Library also holds additional material relating to Derbyshire, donated by Brian Hodgson, Madelon Hooykaas, Jo Hutton and Elisabeth Kozmian.

Other related collections at the Library include the papers of the Chinese artist Li Yuan-chia and the LYC Museum (where Derbyshire lived in the 1970s), and the papers of the Benedictine monk, theologian and concrete poet dom sylvester houédard.

Papers relating to the BBC and BBC Radiophonic Workshop are held at the BBC Written Archives Centre in Reading.

Audiovisual BBC recordings are held in various locations. The British Library holds the BBC Sound Archive, which contains audio recordings relating to the period in which Derbyshire was active at the BBC. The BBC also maintains a Television Archive.


H. J. Spencer, 'Derbyshire, Delia Ann (1937-2001), composer', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004-11).

Delia Derbyshire.org website, accessed 15 June 2011.