Caribbean Takeaway Takeover Interviews Online

On this World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, our Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux shares news of a new collection of moving stories that have recently been added to the archive.

What does ‘home’ mean?  What does it mean to be ‘British’?  What does it mean to be Black in Britain?  What can we learn from our elders?  And what does all of this have to do with a Caribbean restaurant in Colchester?

We are delighted to announce that we have received, catalogued, and published the interviews created by Evewright Arts Foundation for their Caribbean Takeaway Takeover exhibition.  From 2017 to 2018, artist Everton Wright (EVEWRIGHT), staff, and volunteers of his art foundation recorded oral history interviews with 10 elders who moved to the UK from the Caribbean in the 1940s to 1960s.

Last summer, on the on the weekend of the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush to Tilbury, Evewright ‘took over’ the S&S Caribbean Café in St Johns Street, Colchester, redecorating the walls and tables with pictures and documents relating to these elders’ lives.  Ten-minute segments from their interviews played on a loop in the café, making the exhibition fully immersive.  A number of community events encouraged engagement with the exhibition, and thereby with the incredible stories of these elders.

Picture of the redecorated Caribbean Cafe in Colchester

Detail of art installation at S&S Caribbean Café, 2018 (c) Evewright

The elders generously granted us permission to make their interviews freely available through our catalogue.  Search for ‘EVEWRIGHT’ on Essex Archives Online, or type ‘SA 69’ in the ‘Document reference’ box to find all ten interviews.

One of the most exciting interviews is that with Alford Gardner. Now aged 92, he is one of the few remaining passengers who travelled on the SS Empire Windrush, the first ship to bring West Indians to settle in post-war Britain. His vivid description of life on board the ship gives an impression of a fun communal experience. His optimism for the future took time to realise, as he faced initial opposition when he tried to settle in Leeds. He was treated very differently in 1948 than when he had previously spent time there as part of the Royal Air Force.

Black and white picture of the Empire Windrush on water

HMS EMPIRE WINDRUSH (FL 9448) Underway Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205120767

Alford Gardner describes the struggle to find accommodation in Leeds in 1948 (SA 69/1/3/1).

As a collection, the interviews reveal a number of similarities in the elders’ experiences, but also some significant differences – factors that determined whether their move was overall a positive step, or a negative one which they came to regret.

As we might expect, many commented on adjusting to cold, wet England, and coming to appreciate the heating that required houses to have chimneys, which in the Caribbean only appeared on factories or bakeries.

Nell Green‘s first impression of the houses in England (SA 69/1/4/1).

Some recalled their first taste of fish and chips – but others were glad that they could access London markets to purchase the tastes of home, such as yams, tanier, dasheen, or plantain.

Carlton Darrell on fish and chips and the weather (SA 69/1/2/1).

In the 1940s to 1960s, British people might have felt like they were being overwhelmed by new arrivals from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries, an impression heightened by unfair media portrayals and some politicians stoking fear.  However, to the West Indians moving to Britain, black faces were all too scarce.  Many interviewees described finding and socialising with other West Indians, particularly in London.  Some women became adoptive mothers, inviting young people into their homes and cooking meals for them, helping them adjust to life in this strange, cold country.  Was this because it was difficult to make friends with English people?  Or was it because we naturally gravitate towards those who share our heritage, with whom we can feel ‘at home’ and recapture something of the country that we left behind?

Carol Sydney‘s social life as a young trainee nurse (SA 69/1/5/1)

Experiences depended, partly, on the financial position and status of the individuals before they moved.  Life was easier for those who had money to spend on decent accommodation.  Life was also easier if you already had family in England to support you, or if you found a job that you enjoyed and where you were treated with respect.  In contrast, it was most difficult for the earliest migrants, the Black people trying to settle in the 1950s amidst Teddy Boy attacks and ‘No cats, no dogs, no Blacks’ signs.  It became a little easier for those who arrived in the 1960s and beyond.  Many Black people began purchasing their rented homes using a traditional saving scheme called Susu or Pardnor. This enabled them to become landlords to other Black people seeking rooms to rent.

Don Sydney explains the Susu saving scheme that allowed West Indians to support each other in saving up for accommodation and furnishings (SA 69/1/6/1).

Yet, sadly, racist treatment was a shared experience right through the time period covered in the interviews, reported to some extent by each elder.

Carlton Darrell was dismissive of these examples of prejudice against him (SA 69/1/2/1). Is this because he felt it was inevitable, or because he considered himself fortunate compared to others?

Did Britain ever become ‘home’?  Yes and no.  Some indicated that they still missed their ‘home country’ and wished they could return.  Others alluded to a feeling that they were not ‘foreigners’ anymore, but neither were they fully British – even though, coming from Commonwealth countries, they were British subjects before they even set foot on England’s shores.

Carol Sydney reflects on what it means to be ‘British’ (SA 69/1/5/1).

Overall, most of the interviewees were pleased with how their lives had turned out.  Does this reflect the type of person they were?  That they took the initiative to move to England, the so-called ‘Promised Land’, in search of self-improvement and a better life?  Even if they did not believe the ‘streets paved with gold’ promise, many mentioned that Britain did hold a promise of better education, better jobs, and better salaries.  Did this proactive attitude make them more resilient, more likely to be happier with what they have accomplished?

Alton Watkins looks back with satisfaction on his life and his accomplishments (SA 69/1/8/1).

They certainly contributed to British society.  In their work as nurses, teachers, and midwives, they helped produce the next generation of Britain’s workers.  They paid taxes.  They contributed to the economy.  In retirement, they are volunteering in schools, sports clubs, and libraries.

However, even now, there is more that these elders can contribute.  Most of the interviewees acknowledged a persistence of racist attitudes in Britain, some indicating that it is growing worse.  Perhaps the interviews, and the exhibition that was held in the summer, will help in the battle to humanise migrants and demonstrate all that they have overcome in their lives.

In this year of the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush ship arriving in Tilbury; the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the National Health Service that partly prompted recruitment calls across the Commonwealth; this year of the Windrush scandal, we are grateful to Evewright Arts Foundation for capturing these individual stories that add meaning to national headlines.

And on today, the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, we are proud to play a part in preserving these ‘Moving Stories’ for the future, and in sharing them with you.

Read more about the Caribbean Takeover Takeaway or find out more about the Evewright Arts Foundation.

All of the interviews can be heard on our SoundCloud channel, or through our online catalogue – search for ‘Evewright’.

‘It seemed to us it was going to go on forever’: reflections on the First World War

As the centenary of the end of the First World War approaches, we are delving into our collection looking at some of the fascinating wartime records we look after. Join us on Saturday 10th November 2018 to mark 100 years since the Armistice at ‘Is this really the last night?’ Remembering the end of the First World War.


In 1992 Dilys Evans’s year four class in Hockley was learning about the First World War. When Dilys mentioned this to her neighbour, a veteran of the First World War, he immediately offered to come and speak to her class about his experiences. Fortunately for us, she recorded this meeting of generations and later deposited the tape at ERO (catalogued as SA 24/1011/1).

The veteran in question was Alf Webb, who at the time was aged 95. He volunteered for the army in 1914 aged 17, only realising the horror he had let himself in for when he arrived in France.

The whole recording is about 45 minutes long, and in it the children ask Alf questions about his wartime experiences. Alf talks about his recollections of both the mundane detail and the harsh reality of war, in a matter-of-fact and unflinching way (perhaps surprising given the audience). He talks about mud and lice, tactics and trenches, the death of friends and colleagues, and his own attitude to the war, which was to ‘try and survive and get out of this’.

Extracts of the recording are available on our SoundCloud channel (you can listen by clicking the player above), and we will shortly be publishing the whole recording online. In the meantime, you will be able to hear it at our event marking 100 years since the Armistice, ‘Is this really the last night’? Remembering the end of the First World War, on Saturday 10th November.

Alf Webb was born in Hackney in 1897. His parents were Christopher, a boot finisher, and Mary. Alf had an older sister, Rosetta, and a younger brother, Alexander, who also served in the army towards the end of the war.

Alf began his military service in the cavalry, but ended up in the Machine Gun Corps. He answers the children’s questions frankly, and clearly wanted to convey the horrors of war to them.

One of the questions put to Alf by the children was ‘Did you think the war was going to be exciting?’. He replied:

‘I did when I first joined, I thought it would be wonderful. I’d be in the cavalry you see with spurs on and riding breeches and a posh bandolier out there, I didn’t realise we was going to get blown to bits. But, when you’re young, you see there hadn’t been a war before, only the Boer War which was all open country, and so we had nothing to go on, and to a young person, I mean I was 17, I was 18 by the time I’d gone over the top, it seemed a very exciting thing, but my God, you soon alter your opinion.’

He tells the children several times how fearful he felt being at the front:

‘When you hear people saying they’ve got no fear I don’t believe them because the first time I ever went in the trenches I was frightened out of me life. There had been a bombardment and there were so many dead bodies and things lying about I was sick I was scared, and the Sergeant said to me ‘all right boy, in a few months you’ll be used to it’ and after about 3 months you are.’

British machine gun crew (Imperial War Museums)

Describing one occasion when he was firing a machine gun, he told them that in half an hour he had three different men come up to work the gun with him and each get killed in turn:

‘all you do is to push them out the way and another one comes up and takes their place. In some ways it doesn’t seem much because all you see is them fall down, fall over, but it’s very very nasty when you see the chap next to you is feeding these in and a shell or something or a burst hits him in the face and you look round and you see your mate there with no face. And there’s blood all over you. It’s not very nice, you don’t enjoy it.’

When asked by one of the class ‘How many Germans do you think you shot?’, he replied: ‘I’d have to say thousands, because with a machine gun going at 600 shots a minute … you could just see them dropping.’ Another child asked ‘How many times did you make a friend and then have to watch them die?’. Alf’s answer was: ‘Oh dozens of times. It happens all the time. There’s no way out of it.’

On the subject of how long he felt at the time the war would last, Alf told the class:

‘Well it seemed to us it was going to go on forever. There seemed to be no end to it because when things were static right from 1915 on advances used to be a matter of just a few yards and that sort of thing.’

The war did, of course, finally come to an end, and one of the children asked Alf how he felt at that time:

‘Highly elated. Actually, I’ll go onto that now. We were pushing the Germans back in 1918. After they broke through, we stopped them and then we were pushing them back. And I happened to get to a place called Verviers in north Belgium, and Spa, where the Armistice was signed was a few kilometres away up in the mountains so we was actually the first to know that an Armistice had been proclaimed. And in Verviers where we were, the villagers there opened their estaminets, like our pubs or anything, and everything was open for everybody. The troops were lighting and other people there were lighting tar barrels so we could have light, and well, there was general rejoicing, although we knew that we were still in trouble as you might say, there was no more fighting to be done. But Spa itself was a beautiful part of Belgium, it’s very hilly there. In fact they hadn’t had much trouble there before and they’d still got trams running. But the trouble was they’d got so little power that if you got on one of these trams … to go uphill you all got out and pushed it up the hill.’

The children were also interested in Alf’s love life, asking if he had a girlfriend during the war. ‘Yes,’ he replied; ‘And I’m still married to her!’ Further detail followed:

‘Actually, before the war, I was with a lot of other youngsters, we used to belong to the boys club, and there was one lot of girls that was four sisters, and the one that I married was one of them, I’d been out with all of them! We used to enjoy life, we was all friends together… We still corresponded afterwards and eventually when I came home we got married. That was in 1924 we got married, and she’s still alive today thank goodness.’

The children clearly had an understanding of the effect wartime experiences had on the mental health of many of the people who experienced it, and one child asked Alf ‘Did you dream about the war?’. He answered:

‘For the first twelve months after I was demobilised, I was quite OK. And then I used to wake up in the night and I could see all of it over again, I could see my friends being killed and dying. It was so bad that I couldn’t even go to work. I saw our local doctor, old Dr Anderson, he said ‘Look, I’ll tell you the best thing to do, you don’t want medicines, you don’t want anything like that, get away to a quiet place in the country, anywhere, where you can go out into the open air. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired. Don’t try and not think about anything, just try and enjoy it’. And that’s what I did. Actually, it might seem strange to you, but we was in London, and I went down to Battlesbridge, which is not far from here. My mother and father knew an elderly couple who were retired and bought some cottages down there, and I went down there and stopped there for three weeks. I used to get up in the morning, and there was big fields between there and the river Crouch, and I used to walk all round those,  go in the Crouch swimming and that sort of thing, and at the end of three weeks, it was all gone. I don’t know if I was lucky or what it was, but that’s how it went. For the first twelve months out I didn’t feel, everything didn’t matter, and then as I say I got this reaction. And I couldn’t sleep and I used to wake up seeing it all over again, trying to push somebody away because they were dead so somebody else could take their place. Horrible feeling.’

Alf had a powerful message for the children in the class that day:

‘Anybody that tries to glorify war [is] stark raving mad. There should not be wars, there should always be a compromise… Nobody wins, you all lose… It’s all wrong.’

Alf and his pre-war sweetheart, Violet, moved to Hockley in later life. Violet died there in 1991 aged 93. Alf lived until 1997, reaching the age of 99.


Hear from Alf for yourself at our Armistice event on Saturday 10th November 2018, ‘Is this really the last night’? Remembering the end of the First World War. Find full details and booking information here.

Also on 10th November, we will be at Chelmsford Library in the morning running a drawing activity for children based on Gerald’s sketches – find the details here.

First World War stories from ERO’s collections will also be featuring in a remembrance concert at Chelmsford Cathedral in the evening of 10th November – find the details here.


 

You Are Hear Listening Bench Tour Draws to a Close

Our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on the listening bench tour that has been running for the last two years.

On Monday we moved one of the touring You Are Hear listening benches. For the last three months, it has been sitting outside the Guildhall in Finchingfield, a beautiful building lovingly restored and used as a hub for the community. It hosts the library, museum, and a number of classes and activities.

Touring listening bench when it was situated outside the Guildhall, Finchingfield

I selected audio for the bench that showcased aspects of the village history, such as information about straw plaiting, once a significant local industry. I also included clips of memories from village residents, taken from interviews recorded by the Guildhall and recently deposited with the Essex Sound and Video Archive (Acc. SA837).

Roger Guppy sharing memories of growing up in Finchingfield, from an oral history interview recorded by the Guildhall. Used with kind permission from the Guildhall.

I hope these insights into the past helped visitors more fully appreciate the rich heritage of the village, and of the Guildhall in particular.

Neil Banks at Stansted Airport being interviewed for BBC Look East in 2016

We have now delivered the bench to its final resting place, outside the METAL arts centre in Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea (more information below). The tour has drawn to a close. In two years, this bench has visited eight locations, ranging from open spaces to shopping centres to Stansted Airport. There, it had its fifteen minutes of fame, when it was briefly featured on BBC Look East.

It has travelled more than 250 miles. The buttons have been pressed over 30,000 times. Around 150 children completed a quiz about the recordings while it was at Belfairs Woodland Centre. We have shared music, poetry, and memories from Essex people about Essex places. Recordings about the location, recordings to reflect the season, or recordings just because I like them and want to show them off.

The statistics show that we have accomplished one of our aims: thousands more people have listened to an Essex Sound and Video Archive recording than would have without the bench. But since we ‘drop and go’, leaving people to discover the bench, it is hard to measure any deeper impact.

I would like to think that the bench has made listeners look again at familiar sights. Did hearing a piece by Thomas Tallis while sitting within sight of where he was once an organist make people value the significance of Waltham Abbey Gardens?

The Walk Fair Singers and The Thameside Waits sing Thomas Tallis’ ‘O Nata Lux’ at New Hall, Boreham in 1993 (SA 1/1287/1, used by kind permission of BBC Essex).

Did the programme about the opening of Stansted Airport’s second runway show how far this busy gateway to Essex has come since its humble beginnings? Did listening to an account of travelling salesmen delivering clothes make shoppers think again about their experience at Lakeside Shopping Centre?

I would also like to think that the bench has taught listeners something new: whether they are visitors to the area or have lived nearby all their lives.  For instance, did you know that over 30 species of butterfly have been spotted at Belfairs Woodland Centre, including some of the rarest in the country?  Or that Raphael Park has been a public park for over 100 years, with origins as part of a private estate dating back to Saxon times?

View of the bench sitting by large oak tree

Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

So, have we accomplished one of the bigger aims of the project? Have we made people rethink the sounds that are around them – the changing accents, the sounds of nature blended with human noise? And have we made people think twice about this diverse, much maligned county based on the sounds that they hear?

We hope that we have – but we would love to hear it from you directly. Have you used our touring bench at any of its venues? Did you have a favourite clip? What did you think of it? Please comment below, e-mail us, or complete a short survey about the project to give us your thoughts.

METAL is an arts organisation with a base at Chalkwell Hall, Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea. This provides space for artist residencies, as well as for a variety of classes and workshops. The listening bench will be incorporated into their NetPark project, aiming to improve well-being by engaging with digital arts in an open setting. Find out more on their website.

Our other touring listening bench will remain at Weald Country Park for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile our touring audio-video kiosks are approaching the end of their tours also: it’s your last chance to catch them at the Cater Museum in Billericay or Rayleigh Town Museum.

We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex who sponsored this bench, and to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the main funders behind the You Are Hear project.Friends of Historic Essex logoHLF Logo

 

Views from the You Are Hear listening benches

Have you visited any of our listening benches, installed as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place? Recently Jade Hunter, a PhD student studying Geography at Queen Mary University of London, embarked on a mini tour of some of the benches to learn more about them. She shares her thoughts on her visits in a guest blog post below.

I’m currently studying for a PhD in Geography and I encountered the listening benches when writing an assignment on sound projects. My research interests lie in identity and place, specifically in Essex, so I was really keen to visit and experience benches in different locations.

I planned to visit a number of benches which I thought could demonstrate the breadth of Essex as a large, and diverse county. I work in London, and one of the things I’m always struck by is how far away people think Essex is when they live within the (blurring) city boundaries. Visiting the benches highlighted the relationship which parts of Essex have to the city. Audio at the Raphael Park bench suggests that Essex might act as ‘the lungs of London’, and the soundscapes at the Romford, Hadleigh and Chelmsford benches include birdsong, traffic and the sounds of trains delivering people from the suburbs into the city. Viewed from the bench in Hadleigh Park, Canvey Island rooftops were flanked by a ship sailing to the London Gateway super-port, showing a connectedness not just to London, but further afield.

View looking out over Estuary

View from the listening bench in Hadleigh Country Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

I was interested to hear about the history of the bench locations – listening to villagers of times past speak about specificities of life in Kelvedon, for example.


Frank Hume and Ronald Hayward describe their memories of the Crab and Winkle railway line that ran through Kelvedon, a clip from an oral history interview used on the Kelvedon listening bench (SA 44/1/25/1).

But I was most drawn to benches with audio about experiences which could be more broadly shared, in locations where it is perhaps more likely that people from across and outside the county would visit too. Perched on a hillside, the Hadleigh bench plays radio clips describing picnics and walks across the park. Feeling connected to the speaker and landscape, I shared the views they described of the estuary and Canvey Island below. This overlap creates connections across experiences, across time.

Sometimes, these overlaps can serve to emphasise differences. The first bench I visited was in Chelmsford on a cold morning in February. In a BBC Essex clip from 1992, an optimistic speaker describes the opening of the shopping centre. Sounds of buoyant crowds exploring new shops pin an alternative image over my contemporary view from the bench, the closed shutters of high street restaurants, and wind howling down the shopping streets.

BBC Essex report on the opening of The Meadows shopping centre in Chelmsford, used for the listening bench in Chelmsford (SA 1/1030/1).

Environmental factors pose risks to the benches which they may not face in museums. Some benches suffered a lack of solar-power, and weather can affect engagement in other ways. I visited the benches in the week preceding the arrival of the snow from Siberia, the ‘Beast from the East’ and so Southend Pier was closed, meaning its bench was inaccessible. There is also an enhanced risk of vandalism. The Bowers Gifford bench is located in Westlake Park, behind quiet residential avenues. It sits in silence, solar panel smashed, demonstrating the risk of liberating installations from museums. However, visiting the benches made me reflect on the difference which hosting oral histories outside of the Record Office can have, contributing to an enhanced engagement and alternative interpretation of the sounds and testimonials. The bench in Raphael Park plays a song, ‘’Owd Rat-Tayled Tinker’ in Essex dialect of the 1920s.


The ”Owd Rat Tayled Tinker from ‘Owd Lunnon Town’, sung by J. London in 1906, and used on the touring listening bench while it was at Raphael Park (SA 24/221/1).

Broadcast into the park, it can overlay a range of accents spoken by current park visitors. When I visited, this was most notably a man nearby on his mobile, with an Estuary accent like my own. This accent is associated with Romford and other parts of Essex, and influenced by post-war migration from London, as people moved out into the county.

View of the bench sitting by large oak tree

Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

My experience of Essex has been shaped by growing up in Thurrock on a suburban council estate close to industrial riverside and the greenery of Rainham Marshes. There are spots where you can see the London skyline, and remain within walking distance of the shopping centre, Lakeside. It’s easy for perceptions of a place to be shaped by media representations, or limited to your own experience of a small section of it. Visiting the benches enabled me to understand more about the variety of landscapes and people that make up Essex, and the ways in which these have changed over time and continue to do so. They made me reflect on those spaces that serve as home to smaller communities, and those which are temporarily shared and experienced by people visiting from elsewhere, the market in Romford, the country park in Hadleigh, and the pier in Southend.


Map of all 18 listening benchesCan you get to all the benches? Please note the touring bench that was in Raphael Park has now moved to outside the Finchingfield Guildhall. The touring bench in Hadleigh Park will shortly be moving to Weald Country Park.

Find out more about the benches and their current locations on our Essex Sounds website. Then share your #benchselfie with us and tell us which is your favourite clip!

Oral history in the post-modern age

Our You Are Hear project officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on why oral history continues to have value even in an age of high literacy rates and easy access to public platforms.

I recently had the joy of running an oral history training workshop, for a local heritage society. I always start with some theorising about oral history: why should we do it, what is its value, what need does it meet?

One of the main arguments for taking the time to create oral history recordings has traditionally been that it enables you to add a missing perspective into the historical record. The majority of the records at the Essex Record Office have been created by those in power: government records, church records, estate records of the major landed families in the county. Individuals from the ruled classes might make it into the records, but predominantly in records written about them, rather than by them. Limited literacy, limited access to writing materials, and the process of documents making their way into record offices have generally been given as reasons why the voices of everyday people are hard to find in the archive (though read this interesting challenge of the common assumption that writing paper was expensive). Oral history can change that: any individual can be interviewed about their experiences. It merely takes someone with time and a sound recorder to interview them.

Minnie Johnson’s story of her life in a traveller community is unlikely to have been known were it not for this oral history interview – she explains that she taught herself to read from comic books, but cannot write more than her name. The full interview can be heard on Essex Archives Online or our Soundcloud channel (SA 24/1925/1).

This is all excellent, and the rise of oral history ran alongside the rise of ‘history from below’ from around the 1960s. Using interviews allows historians to look at alternative histories to political and economic studies. Hearing from ‘ordinary’ people allows you to find out about everyday life for social and cultural history. Or it allows you to study political and economic history from a different perspective: how did the 1930s Depression actually affect people’s daily lives? How did Joe Bloggs feel about international relations during and after the Second World War? Without oral history interviews, these and similar questions would be very difficult to answer.

So we happily trot out these examples of why oral history interviews have value for giving a voice to the ‘ruled classes’. But is this as true today? Literacy rates are high (though not high enough). Access to writing material is prevalent. You can go into your local library and use a computer to type up your reminiscences. If you really wanted, you could probably use scrap paper from junk mail received and free pens given out at events to write down your life history without it costing you a penny.

What is more, platforms for making your voice heard are much easier to reach. There are social media channels; online petition sites; and file sharing sites that give you free and easy access to voice your opinions. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 96% of 16-24 year-olds surveyed used social media, and 51% of 55-64 year-olds.

Graph of adult Internet usage from Office for National Statistics

While there are still barriers to technology, it is much easier to find the views of everyday people. So does oral history matter now, when people can make their way into the historical record of their own volition?

Laying aside the (very large!) problem of permanent preservation of online content, I argue that oral history does still, and will continue to, play a very valuable role in filling in gaps in the record.

Facebook posts and Tweets tend to be written in immediate response to an event. They represent a person’s immediate reactions. They can be mundane, amusing, fiery, or heartbreaking, but what is written today may not be true tomorrow. They are instantly written, and often instantly forgotten.

Oral history recordings are generally collected from people towards the latter stages of their lives. Some argue that this limits their usefulness: you are relying on the supposed frailty of human memory, and on the interviewee reliving events from their current perspective, looking back in hindsight. But this is one of the characteristics that gives the oral history interview its inherent value. From a distance, the interviewee can reflect on events they experienced, what emotions they prompted, and how they reacted. This will give a more balanced insight into which events and experiences were most significant in shaping the individual, and therefore shaping the culture and society in which each lived.

Mrs Summers reflects on how she felt about moving to Harlow in 1952, from the perspective of 34 years of hindsight. The full interview, recorded by Dr Judy Attfield, can be heard on Soundcloud or Essex Archives Online (SA 22/1364/1).

In fifty years’ time, if you amassed all social media posts I have written in 2017, this would give you one impression of who I was and what happened to me. Interviewing me alongside this data will help to give a fuller picture. Firstly, you can ask me to explain further details. For example, when I posted a picture of a meal I was about to eat, you can ask how representative this meal was of what I ate on a regular basis. As mundane as social media posts can be, oral history interviews will still have value in probing the details of everyday life and culture.

Secondly, you can ask me about the events that prompted my posts, and, I hope, you will get a different, more considered insight on what was happening. How will I feel in fifty years about my experiences in 2017? Photograph of subject being interviewed with recorder

Thirdly, there will always be matters that we do not share publicly at the time, but which we are happy to discuss further down the line. Oral history interviews will perhaps highlight the most life-changing events that are otherwise absent from contemporary autobiographical records.

Access to the historical record might be widening, but there is still a place for an oral history interview, where the interviewer can prompt those reflective questions from an outside perspective. Long may it continue.

Hear more of Sarah-Joy’s musings on oral history in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex History Group talk in May. Keep an eye on our events page to book, or subscribe to receive notifications about upcoming History Group talks.

If you want to embark on your own oral history interviewing project, the Essex Sound and Video Archive can provide training to help you get started. Please contact us for more information.

Christmas in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Rightly or wrongly, Christmas is a unique time of the year, imbued with centuries of traditions, celebrated on a mass level across the country – even the world – but also on an individual level. Each person picks and chooses his/her own customs to create traditions that become more sacred with each passing year that they are observed, passed down through generations and adapted as families intertwine.

It has been fun to spend the last few days putting together seasonal recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, as our first ever online audio advent calendar. It provides a chance for you to get a glimpse into the variety of unique recordings in our collection, one day at a time.

What does the selection tell us, without giving away too much about future recordings?

First, it demonstrates the tremendous variety in the Archive. We have plenty of local radio broadcasts – primarily from BBC Essex, but also recordings for specialist broadcasters such as hospital radio, and talking newspaper magazines. These are an excellent source for finding specific information, local responses to significant national events, such as the 1953 floods, or the 1987 hurricane. They also provide snapshots of the county at moments in time, through BBC Essex’s ‘A-Z of Essex Villages’ or ‘Pub of the Week’ series.

We have music, from captivating professional recordings to charmingly amateur ones. Sacred music, carols, folk songs, and fun songs. Music inspired by Essex, and music written on distant shores but performed in Essex. We hope there is something to meet everyone’s taste in our advent collection.


One example of the festive music in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, from Day 5 of our advent calendar (SA 10/1/1/19/1).

We have public talks and information broadcasts, revealing the history of traditional customs, or useful information on how to get through winter.

A large proportion of our recordings are oral history interviews with Essex people. So, secondly, the recordings emphasise the fact that Christmas is a special time of year, by the frequency with which it is mentioned in interviews. Even if the interviewee only speaks for a minute or two, the fact that the interviewer thought to ask about the festive holidays demonstrates its importance.

The ways in which people talk about Christmas when they are asked, particularly memories of childhood celebrations, also demonstrate the holiday’s significance. The sense of wonder and delight at this time of year comes back in the voice of the speaker as they recall these memories, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years later.

But this sense of delight raises an important question that must always be asked of oral history interviews. How far does the account reflect the reality? There are obvious questions about fading memories, particularly of years blurred together – was Christmas in one family celebrated in 1930 the same way as in 1925? But there are also dangers of thinking all was bright and lovely; there was just the right amount of snow; and we were all satisfied with the orange and new penny in our stocking, and wanted nothing more. Did siblings never argue? Did Mother never burn the dinner?

Do Prim Coppin’s memories of playing in the snow mask the bitter cold of the winter of 1947, and how much people suffered to endure it? A clip from an oral history interview from Day 2 of our advent calendar (SA 44/1/12/1).

Most people suggest that Christmas in ‘the past’ (that undefined age) was happier. Children wanted less. There was less pressure to strive for perfection, so parents did not overspend. Families enjoyed spending quality time together without television (or smartphones). Communities came together to enjoy carol singing, or skating on the frozen pond. Is this true? And is Christmas really so bad now? And if it is, do we not each individually have the freedom to decide how we celebrate it? What memories will our children recount in fifty years of their childhood celebrations?

Thirdly, the collection demonstrates the gaps that are still evident in our archive. The recordings were deliberately chosen as representative of the common ways that Christmas is celebrated in Essex. But what about the many other cultures now living in the county that have their own special high days and holy days? Often these minority cultures are not suitably represented in the archive. If you are a member of a community that does not celebrate Christmas, you can help: you can collect recordings about your customs and traditions. Please do get in touch with us if you want to discuss starting up this kind of project.

We hope you enjoy our first advent calendar, and please do let us know if you would like us to do it again in future (resources permitting!).

Click here to subscribe to receive daily notifications as we publish each new day’s recording.

Many of these recordings were digitised as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place.

Changing Perceptions, Changing Essex?

Recently our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, has been cataloguing a collection of oral history interviews received from Epping Forest District Museum. The interviews were collected in 2004-2005 as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, called Changing Perceptions, which aimed to collect everyday accounts to illustrate how life in the district has changed over the twentieth century. Here Sarah-Joy shares some impressions from the recordings.

What do a farmer, a dentist, a magistrate, and a blacksmith have in common? No, this is not the start of a joke. The answer is that these were all people interviewed for Epping Forest District Museum’s Heritage Lottery Funded project, Changing Perceptions. The Museum kindly deposited copies of a selection of their interviews with us at the Essex Sound and Video Archive, and I have had the joy of cataloguing them (Series Reference SA 61/1/1).

The collection shares all of the wonderful features of any oral history interview: providing an intimate insight into the lives of everyday people, told in their own voices, ranging from amusing anecdotes to heartfelt memories. It also achieves its primary purpose of demonstrating exactly how much life has changed in the last century, even in the last fifty to sixty years. Even taking rose-tinted spectacles into account, a common impression running through the collection is of small towns and villages with a true community spirit, self-sufficient places with a range of shops and services and a real local character.

Photograph of Epping High Street, in what looks like the late nineteenth century

But one of the distinctive assets of this collection is its diversity. The interviewers spoke to a range of people: people from different parts of the UK, in different professions, with different backgrounds and experiences. Listening to these together forms a broader picture of the range of life within Epping Forest.

For instance, Bob Willis is a lively, frank character who was born in Suffolk in 1928 but moved to the Gaynes Park Estate, Coopersale when he was nine. He spent most of his working life at Cottis Ironworks. His interview (SA 61/1/1/5/1) gives interesting technical details about his work as a carpenter at the brickworks. It also reveals social information about the relationship between employer and employee.Then he unexpectedly casts light onto significant local events, such as the fire at Copped Hall (though he was not speaking from personal experience).

Print of Copped Hall, near Epping, which suffered a serious fire in 1917

 

The interview with retired dentists Alain Quaife and Graham Bond (SA 61/1/1/8/1) is very different. It also contains technical information about their occupation, but in the process gives a greater insight into social history. For starters, their accents are more polished: perhaps to be expected from their higher class, more educated backgrounds. They remark on changing trends in dental hygiene, exploring possible reasons for this, beyond better public awareness. While both interviewees have now been retired for over ten years, their comments about how the NHS operates, and the difference between private and public treatment, still provide an interesting insight today. A word of warning, though: some details of treatment, particularly in the early years, are so graphic they may give you virtual toothache.

 

Maureen Chalk (SA 61/1/1/4/1) and Jill Atlee (SA 61/1/1/7/1) both describe working at the Bank of England printing works in Debden, and about the experience of raising children in the area. As Jill’s interview reveals, as recently as the late 1970s, it was the norm that women left work to raise children, perhaps returning to work part-time when their children went to school. But this phase of motherhood provided some opportunities to socialise with other women in the same situation, as Maureen describes.

 

Some of the interviews might stir a response that prompts you to take action. After listening to Joyce Woods talk about her experience of serving as a magistrate (SA 61/1/1/9/1), might you consider volunteering for this valuable work? Do you have the qualities she lists as essential to being a good magistrate?

 

Or listen to the interview with retired farmer John Graham (SA 61/1/1/1/1), recorded in 2004. How does that make you feel about the state of the farming industry in Britain now?

 

The authentic stories of real people can be more persuasive than thousands of words of polemic in a newspaper feature or a commissioned report.

Do these interviews change your perceptions? Of Epping Forest, of certain professions, of life in the mid-twentieth century? And does that in turn make you reflect differently on your own neighbourhood, career, life? What will your children and grandchildren think of your Essex?

Thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, the full-length interviews can all be heard through our Essex Archives Online catalogue. Contact the Museum for access to recordings not deposited with us.

You can get further impressions of how life in Epping has changed by visiting the town’s own listening bench, located in the churchyard of St John the Baptist (St Johns Road off the High Street). Join us for the official unveiling of the bench on Saturday, 4 November 2017, at 3pm – which will still leave you time to get to the firework display of your choice!

Taking a walk into sound

Our You Are Hear project Sound and Video Digitiser, Catherine Norris, reflects on sound and why it matters ahead of our ‘Sounds in the City’ event on Friday 27 October 2017.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with sound since I was very young. My very first bedroom growing up was positioned at the back of the house and the view from my window looked out onto a street lamp. One night I heard a buzzing sound and I thought it was in my room. I would have only been four or five years old but I distinctly remember checking under the bed and in the wardrobe as I was convinced there was a giant buzzing monster in there.

I then saw the light of the lamp and walked towards the window and realised that it was the lamp making the noise; it was hypnotising. Years later when training to be a sound engineer and learning about acoustics, I realised why I heard what I did and why it appeared to be such a strong sound.

The sound that I heard was affected by the environment it was being captured in. The fact that it was night time, that there was no traffic and no one walking around, the open casing around the lamp and the location would have all had an impact on the sound and amplified it.

There are many factors in play as to why we hear what we hear, and how and why the sounds around us change depending on what the environment is like and what else is happening within it.

I love how the outside of buildings can affect what we hear because of their shape and size, what they are made out of and how they can be a sound barrier. I also really like the contrast between man-made and natural sounds and how they can mix together.

Weather, traffic, wildlife and people all add to the soundscape we hear on a daily basis. But with many of us just rushing to get from A to B it is as if we tune out of what we could be listening to. This is a shame because there is so much out there to hear and discover.

Just over a year ago, as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project at the Essex Record Office, we launched the Essex Sounds map, made up of old and new sounds captured in Essex. This got me thinking about what else we could do to create sounds, which then led on to the idea of doing a sound walk somewhere in Essex. The sound walk would be a way of encouraging people to collect sounds and create their very own soundscapes.

This idea has now grown into a fully-fledged event taking place in the city of Chelmsford on Friday the 27th of October 2017, as part of the Ideas Festival and the Art of the Possible Festival. Chelmsford is a city that is forever changing and in soundscape terms is very interesting. It’s mixture of historic and modern buildings, nature and busy streets makes it the ideal place for a walk of this kind.

The morning session will include a talk on recording soundscapes, then the sound walk around parts of Chelmsford. During the sound walk we will be recording sounds at specific locations, with myself leading the walk and providing advice on recording techniques and acoustics and how to create the best recordings.

The afternoon session will include learning the basics of editing sound recordings with specialist software at the Essex Record Office.

You don’t need to have any previous experience with recording to come on the walk as training will be given throughout the event. We will also provide recording equipment to those not bringing their own. All you need to have is a passion or interest in sound (and suitable footwear!).

It’s going to be a very interesting event, and I’m looking forward to listening to all the sounds that get recorded on the day.

Date and time: Friday 27 October, 10.00am-4:30pm
Price: £20
Location: Meet at the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Advance booking to our ‘Sounds in the City’ event is essential. Please book through our website, or contact us for further information.

Harwich Society’s Memories Exchange Interviews

Recently, we have been uploading a collection of oral history interviews conducted by The Harwich Society between 2009 and 2014 (Catalogue Reference SA 49/1/2).

These twenty-four interviews are just the first instalment of an ongoing project to record the experiences of current and former residents of Harwich and Dovercourt. As with most collections of oral history interviews, they reveal shared experiences but also how life varied even in one town depending on personal circumstances.

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The playground of Harwich Junior School was flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Most of the recordings touch on the 1953 flood. On the night of Saturday, 31 January, a storm surge caused the sea to overwhelm flood defences along the eastern coast of Britain. Harwich was one of the places affected, and the traumatic experience is unsurprisingly etched on the town’s corporate memory.

Even here, experiences varied. Some residents in Dovercourt only knew about it from news bulletins on the television. But in the Bathside area, the water rose to the first floor of people’s houses. Tom Bell and Danny Goswell, then young lads who belonged to the sailing club, were kept busy ‘fishing people out of houses’ in boats, ‘rowing around doing what we could’ (SA 49/1/2/12/1).

Evacuees sought refuge in the drill hall, where the Salvation Army was handing out blankets and cups of tea, before being billeted with family members or kind-hearted strangers with rooms to spare. The water took a week to recede, and the houses were permanently damaged. Ruby Cooper-Keeble recalls how they lost all their possessions. By the time the family moved back to the house, it had been cleaned out and redecorated, but the smell ‘stayed with it for years and years’, and ‘you could actually scrape the salt off the [wall]paper’ as it seeped out of the walls, residue from the sea salt water that flooded the home (SA 49/1/2/9/1). But as a child, she still saw the ordeal as something of an ‘adventure’.

Some people, such as Mr and Mrs Moore, never moved back (SA 49/1/2/14/1).

The interviews are full of memorable details that bring the event to life: tables laid for breakfast that neatly settled back into place once the water receded; the vigour of local hero Leonard ‘Pummie’ Rose in organising the rescue operations. The stories take different tones. Tom and Danny chuckle over how, after working all day in rescue boats, they still had the energy to go out in the evening. ‘Commandeering’ a dinghy tied up outside the police station, they rowed down the main road to the Spread Eagle pub that remained defiantly open, to enjoy a couple of Vimtos before rowing home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the childhood trauma of that long, cold, dark night spent trapped in the bedroom waiting for rescue affected one interviewee so much that it sounds as if he had to pause during the interview to compose himself.

Whether they were only onlookers or whether they lost everything, when listened to together the interviews reveal how the town rallied together to overcome this ordeal – as they had done just ten years earlier during the Second World War. From the family who tirelessly worked to restore their grandparents’ house to normal in time for Christmas (interview with Diane Butler, SA 49/1/2/11/1), to the boy who joined with his friends to build a sea wall in the sand when they moved back, ‘in our own simple way to try and stop the waves coming again’ (interview with Ray Chippington, SA 49/1/2/22/1), the town was determined to recover. And what better way to cheer flagging spirits than travelling in a ‘cavalcade of coaches’ to a football match at Wembley to support your local team in the FA Amateur Cup final? Harwich and Parkeston Football Club’s finest hour was among the happier events of 1953, as recalled by Malcolm Carter (SA 49/1/2/16/1).

The collection covers other topics as well, including experiences during the Second World War; growing up and working in Harwich; and how the town has changed. We are grateful to The Harwich Society for taking the time to capture these memories, and for allowing us to make them publicly available. We are also grateful to the participants who, as June Cummings describes, had to relive the events in the act of sharing them (SA 49/1/2/20/1).

 

You can listen to these oral history interviews in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, or, thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, in the comfort of your own home through Essex Archives Online.

It is not surprising that such a momentous event crops up in several of our other collections. You can search the subject index term ‘Floods’ to find related material, such as this film footage of the floods on Canvey Island. Or look up Hilda Grieve’s authoritative work on the 1953 floods in Essex, referred to in some of these clips: The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex (copies available in the Searchroom Library or in branch libraries across Essex).

Further afield, the East Anglian Film Archive holds a compilation of film footage of the floods which reveal the devastation caused. You can watch it for free on their website here.

Does your community have a story that should be recorded? Do you want to undertake your own oral history project? Contact us to find out more about the oral history training we provide.

Childhood: change or continuity?

Ah, the sounds of summer holidays: music blaring through open windows, buzzing bees, the ice cream van, an absence of school bells and cars doing the morning school run… and children playing?

If you believe the common rhetoric, children do not play outside anymore. Children spend all summer indoors glued to electronic screens and no longer have the capacity to invent games, be creative, be free. Is this true? What do Essex soundscapes and personal memories reveal about childhood through the ages?

Children at play on the beach (T/562/1 Image 53)

Sounds of children at play on Dovercourt Beach. Recorded by Stuart Bowditch in 2016 for Essex Sounds.

Childhood memories are a common topic covered in oral history interviews. Interviewers are keen to capture information about the earliest possible period, as the time within ‘living memory’ unceasingly marches forward. We often have the most vivid memories from our childhoods, the time when we are first learning about the world around us. Childhood also tends to be the happiest period, the age we are happiest to talk freely about – or at least the version we are comfortable recalling.

At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, therefore, we have numerous recordings of people talking about their childhoods. For example, this compilation describes the way that people played growing up on Castle Street, Saffron Walden, taken from a selection of interviews recorded for the Castle Street Residents’ Association Oral History Project (Acc. SA496).

Maggie Gyps, Jan Bright, and William Clarke describe playing in and around Castle Street, Saffron Walden in the mid-twentieth century.

The stories are amusing and evoke a golden age when children were free to just have fun. Adults tolerated their exuberance and gave them liberty to range far and wide, making their own games, immersing themselves in nature, packing a jam sandwich and being out all day during summers that were permanently warm and sunny. As the next interviewees remarked, it was a happier time, compared with children today who are mollycoddled, kept on a tight rein due to fears for their safety, and fed on a diet of electronic gadgets to keep them amused – and quiet.

Pearl Scopes and Bill and Daphne Carter ranged free on Marks Hall Estate in the post-war period (SA 51/2/5/1).

Or was it such a golden age? And is it drastically different now?

For our Essex Sounds website, we have two recordings of children at play in north-east Essex: one from 1962, and one made in 2016. Listen to the two and compare: is there a difference in the sounds of play?

Were children better behaved in the past? Many interviewees admit to scrumping, gleaning a bit of fruit from nearby orchards to keep them going on their day-long adventures. We laugh with Bill Carter who ‘borrowed’ his neighbour’s dog to take him rabbiting.

Bill Carter on ‘borrowing’ the neighbour’s dog at Marks Hall Estate (SA 51/2/5/1).

Or Joseph Thomas, who used to sneak into film showings at the Electric Palace in Harwich in the 1920s (SA 49/1/2/15/1).

Joseph Thomas sneaking into the cinema with his friends.

How does this compare with the mischief of those disrespectful youths of today? Will our grandchildren chuckle when they hear stories of what we got up to in our childhood?

Were these children up to no good? Image of Moulsham Street, Chelmsford by Frederick Spalding, 1910 (D/F 269/1/6)

Was childhood really happier in the past? It depends on the individual’s situation, as well as the specific time period. Many oral history interviewees describe working from a young age. Charles Reason, for example, had his first bread round from the age of seven, before he started work full-time after leaving school at 14.

Charles Reason describing his first job delivering bread rolls in Harwich in the 1920s (SA 49/1/2/7/1).

School terms were often set around the harvest seasons, as Gerald Palmer describes, because children stopped attending in order to go pea-picking or fruit-picking anyway (SA 59/1/102/1).

Excerpt from Coggeshall National School log book for 1873 showing low attendance due to pea-picking (E/ML 310/1).

Child labour was vital to the household economy. If children weren’t engaged in paid work, they were often heavily laden with chores around the house, particularly when the mother was absent, as experienced by Rosemary Pitts, whose mother died when she was thirteen years old (SA 55/4/1).

Rosemary Pitts’ memories of childhood in Great Waltham in 1939-1940.

Current scholarship studying Western societies generally traces the start of ‘childhood’ as a distinct phase of life back to the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century saw growing concern about the wellbeing of children, with increasing legislation regulating the employment of young people. In Britain, a series of Education Acts from 1870 onwards gradually made education compulsory and, eventually, free. The 1908 Children’s Act consolidated much previous legislation to protect children from exploitation and abuse (including abuse at the hands of the law). This represents a significant cultural shift: children were seen as vulnerable people to be protected rather than extra hands contributing to the household economy – or enabling cheaper manufacturing. However, many oral history interviews reveal that real change was much slower to take effect. Most people also have at least one memory of a particularly violent punishment suffered by themselves or a peer while at school, in the days of the dreaded cane.

Oral history interviews do tend towards rose-tinted depictions of the past,

(A12416 Box 1)

particularly childhood memories. However, by comparing many different stories from the same period, we can start to query the common narrative and draw conclusions from specific events rather than vague generalisations. Then we can take a fresh look at children today and reassess if things really have changed that much after all.

The United Nations’ 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child includes the right to play, recognising that it is an essential and characteristic part of childhood. In general, young people in Britain are today free to have fun in their leisure time. It will be interesting to hear how our children recall their formative years if giving oral history interviews later in life. For now, we can use Essex soundscapes to gauge whether or not children still play. What do your ears tell you about childhood in twenty-first-century Essex?

 

Hugh Cunningham’s book The Invention of Childhood (London: BBC Books, 2006) is an excellent starting place to research the history of childhood in Western societies. For further details of the oral history interviews mentioned above, or other memories of childhood, search Essex Archives Online.