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.
‘[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.‘
*To learn more about this fantastic collection, and the ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project at London Metropolitan Archives, please visit our website – https://bit.ly/2Az6XkN*
*These oral histories were digitised and catalogued as part of The British Library ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project – https://bit.ly/2Az6XkN, for which LMA is a regional hub.*