Collection overview

The John Layard 1914–1915 Atchin, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C177) is a set of 32 brown wax cylinders that were recorded on the island of Atchin off the north coast of Malakula (Malekula) in Vanuatu between September 1914 and October 1915. The recordist was John Willoughby Layard (1891-1974), a British anthropologist. The cylinders have British Library shelfmarks C177/267 to C177/298; they came from the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1985.

Layard travelled to Vanuatu in 1914 with his mentor William Halse Rivers Rivers (1864-1922), the Cambridge ethnologist.

Research by Vicky Barnecutt, British Library.


Rivers and Layard attended the international meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Australia in 1914 (Herle 2009:243), and when Layard’s plans to travel to New Guinea with Alfred Cort Haddon fell through, Rivers invited Layard to accompany him to the New Hebrides, as Vanuatu was then known (Geismar 2005:191).

Rivers and Layard travelled from Australia to Port Vila, the capital of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides. They met Merton King, the British Resident Commissioner, who recommended that they visit Atchin, an island off the coast of Malakula, to record local culture in its “purest state” (Langham 1977:237). Layard and Rivers were attracted to the Small Islands of Malakula because of reports by Speiser and others of a megalithic culture there (Speiser 1913:32, 91); standing stones, both large and small, were a fundamental part of ritual life. Rivers was interested in diffusion, the spread of a culture’s practices, beliefs, and artefacts, and felt that Atchin would be a productive field site (Geismar 2005:192).

In the early 20th century, the Small Islands were distinguished from each other by language and the distinctive variations of Maki, “a lifelong series of male status-acquisition ceremonies involving the display and sacrifice of sacred tusker pigs, and the raising of monumental stones and ancestor figures” (Herle 2009:243). The pigs were sacrificed on stone tables, and the monumental stone dolmens were erected, along with figurative carvings, at sacred dancing grounds (Geismar 2005:191).

Rivers and Layard arrived on Atchin on 28 September 1914. Rivers left on a passing boat around ten days later to conduct his own survey work in the archipelago. Layard was initially upset and annoyed at Rivers’ hasty departure, but he stayed on Atchin until 23 December 1914, and returned to the area from 28 April to 9 October 1915. During this second period, he spent most of his time on Atchin but also spent three weeks on the neighbouring island of Vao and visited other nearby islands, the mainland opposite, and the island of Ambae (Geismar and Herle 2009:31). He later considered this period on Malakula as one of happiest of his life (Geismar 2005:193).

Chronology of Layard’s time in the New Hebrides (from Giesmar and Herle 2009:31)

28 Sept 1914
Arrived at Atchin with Rivers on the Euphrysone
c.8-10 Oct 1914
Rivers departed to visit Rev William Bowie on Tangoa and to travel the archipelago
23 Dec 1914
The Euphrosyne arrived at Atchin to collect Layard for Christmas in Port Vila
29 Dec 1914
Left Port Vila with Rivers on SS Makambo bound for Norfolk Island
14 Jan 1915
Arrived Norfolk Island
28 April 1915
Arrived back at Atchin during the ritual period before incision
7 May 1915
Spent night at mainland at Uturan
18 May 1915
Travelled to Wala and then on to South West Bay
15 June 1915
Returned to Atchin
12 July 1915
Travelled to Vao
19 July 1915
Returned to Atchin
3 August 1915
To Pinalum, on mainland, for Naleng Nato ceremony
15-24 Aug 1915
Travelled with Atchin islanders to Oba (Ambae)
9 Sept 1915
Travelled to Vao
23 Sept 1915
Returned to Atchin
8 Oct 1915
Left Atchin
11 Dec 1915
Arrived in London

Song and dance

In a lecture on ‘Song and Dance in Malekula’, Layard noted that “the artistic genius” of the people of the Small Islands and coastal Malekula “expresses itself primarily in drama, music, and formal dancing”, art-forms which “chiefly serve… the great megalithic religious cycle called the Maki together with the Mortuary Rites for those who have attained high Maki rank, and on the other hand Initiation” (Layard 1944:121). Singing permeated all aspects of life, but the “classical music” of the islands was “bound up with dancing and the highly specialized technique of orchestral performances on the slit-gongs” (Layard 1944:121). These song-and-dance cycles, with their own complicated gong-rhythms, accompanied all major ritual activities, and each song lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. He mentioned that new songs were constantly being invented, and that “all ritual songs are copyrighted in the sense that they may not be sung by others without due payment” (Layard 1944:122).

Layard noted various kinds of dances, from processional to circular, performed both in public and in secret. The only dance that he mentioned by name in his article was the “most formal of all” dances, the Na-leng (Layard 1944:122). These were set pieces, rehearsed for weeks beforehand, and danced by bands of men.  The British Library Layard collection has one example of a na-leng song on C177/275.

In his unpublished autobiography, Layard noted:

“One of the most enjoyable things that I did during these early days was to have singing parties almost every evenings in the quarters where I lived, which were a great help also in all sorts of ways, in making friendships and cementing them, in learning the language and in the innumerable openings it gave to study and record the mythical beliefs which the songs were constantly referring to as well as many other themes of native life to which allusions were always cropping up in them” (Layard autobiography, quoted in Geismar and Herle 2009:126)

The recordings focus exclusively on male ritual activity and feature male performers. As Layard himself noted, his involvement and interest in the Maki rituals meant he had “practically no contact with women” during his time on Atchin (Layard 1942: 45, quoted in Geismar and Herle 2009:23).

Layard’s Life after Atchin

On his return to the UK, Layard suffered a series of breakdowns. His poor mental and physical health meant that he was unable to serve in the War or complete his doctoral thesis. He published an article on Malakula’s South West Bay in 1928, and in the 1930s he began to work more systematically on his Malakula fieldnotes, which culminated in the publication of a monograph on the ethnography of Vao, Stone Men of Malekula, in 1942 (Giesmar 2009:209). This was originally planned as the first of a series of monographs intended to examine the diffusion of beliefs and practices associated with the islands’ megalithic cultures that was to include one on Atchin (Herle 2009:257). 

He shared his fieldnotes with the anthropologists Bernard Deacon and Tom Harrisson (Geismar and Herle 2009:37), and contributed to radio programs about life in the New Hebrides from the 1930s to 1950s. He also gave a lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute on ‘Song and Dance in Malekula’ in 1944, during which he played “gramophone records” and “sang a number of native songs”. However, Layard did not publish anything more on his research on Malakula (Layard 1944:122, Geismar and Herle 2009:34); he had turned to psychology and psychoanalysis, eventually making this his professional focus. In the mid-1940s he was treated by Carl Gustav Jung, then studied under him, and eventually worked with him.

In 1967 Layard wrote up some of his material on Atchin slit-drums for the ethnomusicologist Raymond Clausen. In 1973 he met Kirk Huffman, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge studying the Museum’s Malakulan collections. Layard and Huffman met several times before and after Huffman’s first field trip to Vanuatu. This first visit to Vanuatu “made a deep impression upon [Hufffman] and inspired him to give up his academic career and work as a curator and an advocate for indigenous culture” (Geismar and Herle 2009:207). Huffman became Curator of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC) from 1977 to 1989. Huffman took dubbings of the Layard recordings in the Pitt Rivers Museum back to Atchin in 1973, and noted that Chief Along of Ruruar “recalled [Layard] recording songs at the opening of a men’s hut” (Huffman 2009:214). There is more information about these recordings below.

History of the Cylinders

History at the British Library

The cylinders were dubbed to DATs in January 1997 by the British Library sound engineer Peter Copeland.

Related collections

The Pitt Rivers Museum holds six gramophone records of Layard recordings; these are noted as 1940.12.019 – 1940.12.024. The numbers were written on the record labels by Layard. Information in Layard’s fieldnotes indicate that the recordings on the gramophone records are all duplicates of recordings on the British Library wax cylinders. The records hold 26 tracks that were selected from twenty of the cylinders (Layard n.d.:107-108). Layard’s notes on the gramophone records were dated to 30 November 1936 (Layard n.d.:107), which suggests they were made that year.

Some of these recordings were used by Layard in broadcasts on life in the New Hebrides by BBC Radio on 3 June 1936 and 11 October 1938 (Huffman 2009:224).1The 1936 recording, Atchin Life, is noted here:; the 1938 recording, Find me a South Sea Island, is here: Layard referred to these “gramophone plates” in 1942 (1942:314), and he played them during a lecture he gave at the Royal Anthropological Institute on “Song and Dance in Malekula” on 4 April 1944 (Layard 1944:122). Layard also gave a lecture on a BBC radio program in 1953, according to correspondence from Sally Beales at the MAA.2 about the radio broadcast of “The Values of Primitive Society”, 13 March 1953 is found here: Unfortunately, the BBC Radio programs were broadcast live, and were not recorded (Huffman email to Barnecutt 8 July 2021; Paul Wilson, British Library radio curator, email to Barnecutt 8 July 2021). Huffman noted that Layard made thirty-six original cylinder recordings that were copied by EMI, with their HMV logo, onto six single-sided 78rpm records and deposited in the Pitt Rivers Museum (Huffman 2009:212).

Information in the Pitt Rivers Museum register indicates that these records were accessioned as a loan in December 1940. In the 1950s, one of Layard’s students, the ethnomusicologist Raymond Clausen, studied Layard’s recordings for his thesis, submitted in 1958.4 Information in Clausen’s thesis indicates that he had access to Layard’s wax cylinder recordings in the 1950s that were dubbed by the Pitt Rivers Museum with the help of an engineer called Stanley Kelly (Clausen 1958:2); these were presumably duplicates of the cylinders currently in the British Library collection. Clausen also noted that the phonograph used to make the dubbings was “was the one used originally on Atchin” (1958:1); this machine is now in the MAA. Stanley Kelly is mentioned in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Annual Report for 1957-1958; he helped the museum technician Mr Walters with “the problem of making permanent records of the… soft wax cylinders” (Pitt Rivers Museum Annual Report 1957-8).5 The Pitt Rivers Museum also has a number of boxes of Layard manuscripts and books that they received from Raymond Clausen’s collection (Christopher Morton email to Barnecutt 14 February 2020).

Huffman took Layard’s recordings, from the Pitt Rivers Museum records, back to Atchin in 1973 and returned with commentaries and messages to Layard made by his old friends. These recordings were the basis of four 30 minute programmes in Bislama played on Radio New Hebrides in 1979 shortly after copies were received by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre; Huffman noted that the “effect of the programmes was electrifying” (Huffman 2009:234).

Will Prentice, sound engineer at the British Library, noted that the gramophone records were made as part of the Gramophone Company / EMI’s private disc cutting service (Prentice email to Barnecutt 19 February 2020). One of the discs has CTPX carved in the runout grooves, indicating it is a 12” disc, with a potential recording duration of 4 minutes per side. The handwriting on these discs is the same as the labelling on the cylinders and in Layard’s notes, so it is evident that he was part of the disc-making process.

Around 400 photographs, and corresponding negatives, and 261 artefacts from Layard’s Malakula fieldwork trip are in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Some of the photographs depict the gongs that feature in the recordings,6e.g. and there are a number of musical instruments in the artefact collections, including six sets of bamboo pan pipes and at least six conch shell trumpets.7e.g. and Layard may also have donated some artefacts to Ipswich Museum, but it is not clear that these were from Vanuatu. His field notes and documents were deposited in the Special Collections, Mandeville Library, University of California San Diego (MSS 84) after his death.8

  • Capell, Arthur and John Willoughby Layard. 1980. Materials in Atchin, Malekula: grammar, vocabulary and texts. Pacific Linguistics, Series D, 20. ANU Press.
  • Clausen, Raymond. 1958. A Musicological Study of the Layard Collection of Recorded Malekulan Music in Its Social and Ritual Setting. Thesis (B.Litt), University of Oxford, two volumes.
  • Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2021. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-fourth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International.
  • Geismar, Haidy. 2005. ‘Footsteps on Malakula: a report on a photographic research project’ in Journal of Museum Ethnography 191-207
  • Geismar, Haidy. 2009. ‘Stone Men of Malekula on Malakula: An Ethnography of an Ethnography’ Ethnos, 74:2, 199-228, DOI: 10.1080/00141840902940468
  • Geismar, Haidy and Anita Herle (eds). 2009. Moving Images: John Layard, fieldwork and photography on Malakula since 1914. University of Hawaii Press
  • Herle, Anita. 2009. ‘John Layard long Malakula 1914-1915: The Potency of Field Photography’ in Geismar and Herle (eds) Moving Images: John Layard, fieldwork and photography on Malakula since 1914, University of Hawaii Press pp 241-263
  • Huffman, Kirk. 2009. ‘T’soni, yu save resis (Johnny, you can run fast): Memories of John Layard: Travelling photos, voices, songs, men, pigs and spirits amongst the ‘Sea Peoples’ of Northeast Malakula’, in Geismar and Herle (eds) Moving images: John Layard, fieldwork and photography on Malakula since 1914. University of Hawaii Press pp. 205 – 244
  • Langham, Ian. 1977. ‘Obituary: John Willoughby Layard’, Oceania, Vol. 45, No. 3, pp. 237-239
  • Layard, John Willoughby. n.d. Unpublished Atchin book: “Folk Songs”: Annotated music books, with words and music, hand-written and typed notes, translations. Box 47, folder 8 of the John Willoughby Layard papers (MSS 84) in the Special Collections & Archives of the University of California, San Diego.
  • Layard, John Willoughby. 1928. ‘Degree-Taking Rites in South West Bay, Malekula.’ The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 58:139-223
  • Layard, John Willoughby. 1942. Stone Men of Malekula. London: Chatto and Windus.
  • Layard, John Willoughby. 1944. ‘Song and Dance in Malekula.’ Man, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 44:121-122
  • Pitt Rivers Museum Annual Report 1957-8,
  • Speiser, Felix. 1913. Two Years with the Natives in the Western Pacific. London: Mills and Boon,

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