An extraordinary generation: Woodberry Down Memories

During lockdown, UOSH volunteer Tim Hughes finished cataloguing Woodberry Down Memories, a collection of oral histories recorded on the Woodberry Down estate in 1986 and 1987. In this post, he explores the context of the collection and shares some of his favourite clips…

Home to over 6,000 people, Woodberry Down Estate is situated in the London Borough of Hackney. In a picturesque setting, next to two reservoirs and alongside the New River, the four acres of large houses and gardens that preceded it were compulsorily purchased from the Church of England in 1935 by the newly elected Labour London County Council. The estate was planned with relatively low densities and large open spaces for working class Londoners, although war intervened and the first residents did not move in until 1948. By the time the project was completed in 1962, 57 blocks of flats had been erected on 64 acres of land. The health centre – a model for the new NHS – opened in 1952 and Woodberry Down School – the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country –opened in 1955.

Map of the Woodberry Down estate, showing the main roads, housing blocks and two reservoirs.
Map of Woodberry Down Estate, 1949 (London Picture Archive 278158)

In the 1980s the oral historian Joanna Bornat led an oral history project on the estate, working with a group of older residents as part of the Over 60s club. The project culminated in the community publication ‘Woodberry Down Memories -The history of an LCC Housing Estate’.

Bornat’s experience was captured in an interview and discussion published in Oral History Magazine Volume 39 Past and Present 2011:

You said in ‘Woodberry Down Memories’ that it was a very diverse community. Is that diversity reflected in the oral history cohort that you managed to record?

JB. Yes it is. I mean, it wasn’t so much in the group who actually formed and met every week. There was one woman who came, an Afro Caribbean woman who would come but who would never speak, even when Grace (her fellow worker) was there. Grace went out and interviewed a couple of people who are in the book – Mr and Mrs Kalra.  And Mr Shah, he was very much part of the group and very keen and he and his wife were stalwart members of the Over 60’s Club as well.  And of course the group themselves, their histories were very ethnically diverse, you know, Sid Linder’s Jewish, Olga Adams Italian …”

Photograph of the Over 60s group.
Some members of the group at London Weekend Television’s award ceremony, June 1987, from the booklet published after the project. Left to right: Grace Harris, Sid Linder, Fred Townsend, Olga Adams, Les Tucker, Edythe Daly, Mr Kalra, Mrs Kalra, Jack Cox, Joanna Bornat, Dora Marks, Doris Hampton.

Joanna describes the estate: “This was an exceptional piece of housing, social housing, it was well researched, well designed, [the LCC] spent a lot of money on it, people liked living there and you had everything you needed you know. It had a school, two schools, a doctor’s surgery, it had an old people’s home.”

As the Star newspaper headline put it in on 7 November 1953: ‘Woodberry Down Estate: London County Council’s Great Experiment’.

Three photographs of Woodberry Down School, including one of a classroom, one of a tuck shop booth, and one of a workshop.
Photographs of Woodberry Down School.
Left to right: classroom, 1954; tuck-shop, 1959; workshop, 1955 (London Picture Archive 192000, 199256, 199285)
Model of Woodberry Down Health Centre, 1949 (London Picture Archive 229423)

The tapes, held at Hackney Archives, have recently been digitised and catalogued at LMA as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – resurfacing the voices of this resilient generation, one shaped by poverty, war, discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage. Listen below to discover a wonderful range of rich stories of working class people, brought together through the common experience of being allocated a flat by the authorities and together forming a new community.

Yet the interviews also reveal common experiences with current generations – preoccupation with family and relationships, the local area, schooling, dealing with people in authority and the rules we have to live by, and concern about the affordability of housing for their own children, who are priced out beyond their locality and roots.

There are so many personal stories to listen to, value, learn from, and enjoy. Here are a few brief excerpts:

Sid Linder talks about gangs in Clerkenwell and Aldgate (ULMA031/1)
Olga Adams talks about training as an oxy-acetylene welder during the Second World War (ULMA031/3)
Interviewees talk about the issue of rats when the workmen moved out (ULMA031/4)
Olga Adams talks about hosting visitors from Belgium and Scotland at her flat on the estate (ULMA031/6)
Olga Adams talks about her father being classified as an ‘enemy alien’ during the Second World War (ULMA031/1)
An interviewee describes fitting out his flat on the estate – and how he secured one (ULMA031/7)
Dora Marks talks about the lack of amenities on the estate when she first moved in (ULMA031/8)

Explore more photographs of Woodberry Down on the London Picture Archive, and read about Hannah’s experience of cataloguing the collection on placement here.

The Sounds of Billingsgate Past

For over 50 years, field and sound recordists have captured different soundscapes to help develop our knowledge of local history – enabling researchers to identify change around language, technology and the environment. One such soundscape is the market place, and in particular the cries and general noise of this traditionally busy and crowded centre for local trade.

The end of an era

Included among the City of London Corporation archives are the sounds and voices of Billingsgate Fish Market. Formally established under Act of Parliament in 1699, it wasn’t until the mid to late Victorian period that work began on the design of a more purpose-built structure, first by City Architect James B. Bunning, and then later by Sir Horace Jones, who enlarged it twofold to incorporate Billingsgate Stairs and Wharf, and Darkhouse Lane. Opened in 1877, the fish market remained in this building before its relocated to the West India Docks in 1982.

© London Met Archives Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973Image: Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973 (COLLAGE 36135)

In January 1982, before the market moved, Capital Radio conducted a series of interviews with traders and porters. In the introduction, our host reflects on what will be lost once the building is vacated including the friendliness – and language – of the porters, as well as the powerful smell.  So, who best to reminisce about its history than those who worked and bought produce from the market?

Memories of Old Billingsgate

One interviewee comments, for example, on how the younger traders lack the fish handling skills of his generation:

 “… you get hold of a Salmon, you put your hand around the back of the Salmon, lift it and the same with a Hake, you put your fingers in the eyes, slide your hand along the body, lift it. You see them now, they get hold of fish, they just throw it and chuck it away …”

While another discusses the different buyers, from the West End to Walworth Road:

“… they’d have the fish on the stands by 5 in the morning when the market opened, it was bloody noisy then what with the clatter of the hooves and the wheels of the vans rumbling over the cobbles. After the West End buyers had bought the fancy fish for all the hotels, the costers from Kennington and Walworth came round and they bought loads of haddock which they smoked themselves at home overnight. They bought the fish for tuppence and sold it smoked on the street for about six pence or eight pence”

© London Met Archives Interior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973
Image: Exterior view of Billingsgate Fish Market, 1973 (COLLAGE 36140)

Market Sounds

Recording at Billingsgate Fish Market, it is not only the interviews themselves that provide insight to its history, but also the transient sounds and colloquial voices heard in the background. For instance, traders heard selling different types of fish, traffic echoing through the market from trucks or vans transporting goods, and the ‘chat’ used to sell produce:

“… what about the mackerel?”

“You’re not trying are you really?”

“Sir, here you are mackerel!”

“Where you going handsome?”

Although we have printed collections of market cries within our wider archives, sound recordings like these help us understand more about the pace and rhythm of the words spoken – a shame really that the process of ‘how to record sound’ wasn’t discovered until the 19th century!

*These recordings were digitised and catalogued as part of The British Library ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project –, for which LMA is a regional hub.*

Unlocking the Huntley Archives

How saved sound heritage helped me discover the radical lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley

Kirsty and Eric

Eric and Jessica Huntley came to the UK from Guyana in the late 50s, part of the Windrush generation. They were pioneering political activists, involved in many grassroots campaigns for racial and social justice, both nationally and internationally. They are highly respected in the African-Caribbean community and beyond for their work in giving a voice to black people in the UK.

I’ve only recently discovered the legacy of Eric and Jessica through my placement at the London Metropolitan Archives, where the Huntley archives are stored. It was the LMA’s first major deposit from the African-Caribbean community, and it reveals the story of the changing cultural landscape in Britain since the 1950s.

Within the collection is a series of interviews that the Huntleys did with Professor Harry Goulbourne in 1992, recently digitised through a British Library-led project that the LMA are part of, called ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and, over a period of five years, will preserve almost half a million rare sound recordings that are at risk of being lost, on formats that are physically degrading and gradually becoming obsolete. Through this, I’ve been able to access audio heritage that has helped me understand the importance of Jessica and Eric’s story.

Here’s one of my favourite clips that I’ve discovered from the interviews, which is of Jessica describing her first job in a shirt factory back in Guyana:

I love this story because its shows Jessica’s early revolutionary spirit in calling out injustice, even before she moved to the UK. Once they did, she and Eric went on to campaign about everything from housing discrimination to National Front attacks, and even helped organise the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ march in 1981, which was the largest protest march of black Britons to take place in the UK. They maintained an international involvement in politics, continuing to demonstrate against government injustices in Guyana, the South African apartheid regime, and the incarceration of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row in Pennsylvania, USA.

Though not officially part of the Black Power movement, the Huntleys were influenced by its key figures. Here’s Jessica reflecting on Malcolm X’s visit to the UK in the 1960s:

A key part of the Huntley’s activism was through their publishing company and bookshop, Bogle-L’Ouverture, which they set up in 1968, originally in their front room. It was named in honour of two freedom fighters – Toussaint L’Ouverture and Paul Bogle – who were both figure heads in black resistance against the slave trade. It was one of the first black publishing houses in the UK, at a time when books by black authors were rare in mainstream bookshops. This was an important action to stop the voice of black history from being silenced. Once established, the bookshop became a venue for workshops, readings and lectures, and an important community hub. Some notable writers they printed were Linton Kwesi Johnson, the only black poet published by Penguin Modern Classics, and Sir Walter Rodney, after whom the bookshop was renamed following his assassination in 1980.

Eric and Jessica saw the importance of preserving history for community and education. They kept many records of British racism and black activism, and believed in the power of the written word to document the contribution of African-Caribbean people, as Jessica explains:

This belief in preserving heritage and passing down history led to the Huntleys depositing their archives with the LMA. They are managed by a charity called FHALMA (Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA), who work to bring the material to life and expose it to wider audiences and new generations. One way they do this is by hosting an annual Huntley Conference at the LMA. This year’s conference marked 50 years of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Attendees had the chance to record an audio memory of Jessica, who passed away in 2013, which will later be added to the sound archive. I had the opportunity to volunteer at the conference, helping record these memories – including this one from Eric himself, below. Having listened to so many of his archived interviews, it felt like a huge privilege to be recording one myself.

In June, the LMA and FHALMA are collaborating with arts and diversity organisation Culture& to host ‘The Memory Archives’, an event commemorating Windrush Day. The programme will use sound material, including that of the Huntley Archives, as a reminiscence tool for people living with dementia – particularly those from the African-Caribbean community. ‘The Memory Archives’ will take place at the London Metropolitan Archives on Saturday 22nd June – save the date and we hope to see you there!

Kirsty Kerr is an Archives and Digital Media Trainee at Culture& and a volunteer on the LMA’s ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at London Metropolitan Archives

Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA




The importance of Oral History in sharing London’s untold past.

Throughout the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), as one of ten UK-wide regional hubs, will be working to digitise and catalogue a number of sound recordings that will include world music, academic lectures, urban sounds and oral history.

Of all these types of audio, it is oral history that we anticipate will provide us a broader understanding of different London communities, helping us to learn more about who they were, where they lived, their lifestyle and what traditions they valued.


What is an Oral History?
Oral history is an audio recording of historical information based on the experiences and opinions of an individual (or group). The origins of oral history can be traced back to the 5th century BC when Greek historians like Thucydides were using eye-witness accounts of the Peloponnese Wars to support their work. In a modern context, oral history in Britain emerged as a recognised field of study during the 1970s, and in particular became a useful way of documenting community histories.

One of the influences behind this renewed interest in oral history was the work carried out by institutions like the School of Scottish Studies (Edinburgh University) and the Welsh Folk Museum during the 1950s, whose focus on capturing lost traditions and dialects of rural community groups inspired later oral historians to explore similar themes of hidden or forgotten histories. In particular, identifying subjects, identities or community groups absent from surviving documentary evidence such as women, black and ethnic minorities or LGBTQ.

The Voice(s) of a London Community
One of the first collections of sound recordings to be digitised and catalogued by the UOSH project are the oral histories of the Samuel Lewis Housing Trust (part of the Southern Housing Group). Recorded between 1999 and 2001, older residents of the housing estates were invited to reminiscence groups (and one-to-one interviews) to share their memories of childhood, work and setting up home. The main bulk of the oral histories focus on life in London during the early to mid-20th century.

Those who participated in the oral histories categorise themselves as ‘not the poorest people but ordinary, hard-working families’. Consequently, their stories of life in the capital during the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s can be interpreted as more representative of what a majority of London residents would have experienced.

Arguably the most interesting topics covered by these oral histories are those that detail less-represented aspects of London history, such as immigration, sexuality and women at work.

Below, we’ve selected a few examples with accompanying audio clips for you to listen to …


‘At that time, it was hard to get a house or flat. “No coloured, no Irish, no children, no this, no that”. So eventually we had to look for a foster home for the children, because were we go they didn’t want children. The first one was then about three months old.

[Eventually, they found a one bedroom flat] The boy was three and girl was just two.

Stella Adekunle, London from Lagos

‘[London] was vast. We didn’t really go anywhere for a long time because we were frightened to go. I remember we went to the West End, the first time we ever went by tube, and that was scary. One of the girls she was quite, you know educated, she was able to read, where to get on and where to get off. We got out of the underground and we went straight up to C&As and we came back again because we didn’t know which way to go in case we got lost.’

Kathy Gannon, arriving 1948 from Kildare


‘Working in the West End of London I used to overhear a lot of conversations in various areas.  At the time there was a very famous […] coffee shop in the Haymarket, the name now escapes me. In the Soho area there were a lot of places, gay meeting places, one of which was in Meard Street and that was a coffee shop which was built up as though it was a cemetery. The tables were all designed as coffins so that was one of the areas that one would go and investigate and associate with ones peers even though again nothing was said. But of course it was the usual business of like recognising like so the question of whether I was or was not gay was not broached because I obviously had to be gay to be in these locations.’

‘And of course it was six years passed after I left London and moved to Brighton that the law was changed.  1967.

Not long ago really?

Not when one considers, I suppose it must have been at that time or shortly after that time that I wished I had been able to discuss my feelings properly or more easily except that I had no indication that anyone else who worked in the same building as me had any ideas of gayness on their side.  Of course, subsequently I discovered differently but yes I soon discovered differently but at the time I didn’t know.’

William Ernest Lawrence

Women at work

‘There was a big advert in the paper about girls coming to London and getting jobs in hospitals after the war, so three of us came over from Athy. They sent us our fare. Came over on the cattle boat. We were orderlies, we wasn’t nurses as such because I couldn’t really read and write a lot. We would clean the wards, talk to the patients, clean the lockers and do their bit of shopping. It was marvellous. [Fourteen] was young but we didn’t know much about sex life or anything like that. Innocent in that way, but grown up workwise.

Kathy Gannon

‘[My mum] used to keep three jobs going, just to keep the family going. She would start in the morning and clean the pub round the corner, the Live and Let Live. And then she would go to what they called a silver badge café and then cook about two hundred dinners. Finish about half past four. Come home and cook all the family meals. Go back to the silver badge café from 8 pm to 11 pm at night. And in between that she used to clean the school.‘

Cliff Donald

*To learn more about this fantastic collection, and the ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project at London Metropolitan Archives, please visit our website –*


*These oral histories were digitised and catalogued as part of The British Library ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project –, for which LMA is a regional hub.*

#oralhistory #reminisce