'Everyone has a story to tell'

The Bradford Heritage Recording Unit and the value of oral history

Robert Perks

(First published in 1986 in volume 2, pp. 18-27, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

"I worked there eight year in the spinning, and then I got finished. I'd to go down to Nelson Street you know, to the dole office, and I'd to go appear in front of a Court of Referees. So I went down, and I walked in this room, and there was about six men sat round a long table, and they were asking me questions you know, and I told them what the foreman had said like: that he was damn well fed up of me asking him for a rise you see. So the Chairman of the Board he said, "Well, I think it's a case of this man's got too old for the job and they've put somebody in younger for less wage". And I'd no trouble getting my dole then you see. If they'd have gone against me I'd have to wait six week before I got anything, and I were married then, and we had a youngster, a little girl. Drawing the dole in those days was terrible. There were crowds and crowds. It was shocking. And the clerks behind the counter, they were very clever, you know. Because I was there one day, and er … there was one chap got to the counter in front of me, and this clerk got right clever with him. I thought he were going to jump over the counter to him, and he said to him, he said to the clerk, "Do you know", he said, "if it wasn't for us", he said, "you'd be out of work". Aye. Oh they were, they were terrible. You couldn't get a job nowhere in them days, it was shocking."1

This was the experience of one Bradfordian in the 1920's, and one may be forgiven for thinking that little has changed. Its importance, however, lies as much in the way it is related as in what it tells us. It is an example of the continuing strength of the oral or spoken tradition in our society and underlines how much we need the experiences of older citizens in order to construct a picture of Bradford's past and also to understand its present state. As anyone knows who has sought to find out how ordinary people lived fifty or a hundred years ago, not only is there a dearth of written or documentary sources but what there is suffers from being written 'from above', often by officials with axes to grind, deadlines to meet, or bosses to serve. Even more recent academic historians have tended to neglect the wealth of information, feeling and atmosphere contained in the oral testimony of the older generation, and are only belatedly and reluctantly accepting the spoken word as a valid historical source.2

Since September 1983, The Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (BHRU), by giving ordinary people an opportunity to express on tape their own history in their own words, has sought to redress the balance, away from 'great events and great people', towards an acceptance that everyone has a story to tell and that even seemingly unimportant details may be of great interest to historians. At its best oral history is the ultimate democratic and participatory form of community history - an entirely new discipline and an end in itself. It can enliven classroom history; form the basis for reminiscence-therapy with the elderly; stimulate cultural awareness, and enable each and everyone to be more conscious of their past, so they may to some extent shape their own destiny.

There is nothing strictly new about oral history: historians of repute like Macaulay, Engels, the Webbs and Rowntree all utilised eye-witness accounts,3 and in African and Asian societies the oral tradition remains a more popular and pervasive form of history than the documentary or written form, which has gained undue reverence in Western societies over the past two hundred years, despite the fact that it is as fallible as the spoken word. Indeed, one of the most frequently misplaced criticisms of oral history is that it relies on memory, which, by its very nature, is sometimes confused and unreliable, as this extreme example from an interview with a Bradfordian born in 1892 indicates:

"Q. Can you remember about the house you were born in?"

"A. Oh, I remember nowt. Only just to say my mother used to tell me what were there."

"Q. Which house can you remember living in first?"

"A. Oh I don't know. I've no memory love that way."4

No-one would deny the vagaries of memory, particularly its power to distort the role an individual has played in life, and its tendency to 'telescope' events, but these inaccuracies are also evident in written forms of history. Crucially however, oral history does not seek to establish a definitive version of an event or experience on the basis of a single person's memory, rather it aims to build a historical jigsaw from a larger number of different memories gathered together. Indeed it is often the case that an elderly person's long-term memory is significantly more accurate and vivid than the short-term memory. Thus the BHRU's extensive textile project, which conducted around 200 interviews covering every facet of mill life from employers through overlookers and weavers, to bobbin-liggers, collected on tape a comprehensive view of the industry that had not previously been recorded nor written down in any form.5 What emerged was a history not of wages and hours so much as relationships, feelings and conditions both inside and outside the mill. Most remarkable was not how people's memories of mill life differed, but how closely they coincided. Above all the infinite variety of atmosphere and language in the industry was conveyed in a vibrant and authentic way that the written word can never hope to compete with:

"And so she took me that Monday afternoon at quarter-past-one and I can remember going up in a hoist and a man pulling it with ropes. Not like the hoists today you know, it were pulled by ropes, and handed me over to the overlooker. And when all the machines went on I just nearly, I was petrified, absolutely petrified. I mean a room with about fifty machines in, and they all went on, I just felt as though I was going to collapse where I was you see. I was only thirteen of course. Anyway, my father warned me, he said "Now don't go for t'glass hammer", so he warned me this you see, but instead I went for the leather oil can. We started at six 0' clock in the morning, while half-past eight, and then we had breakfast at half-past eight till nine, and then from nine o'clock then till half-past-twelve. And then we started again at quarter-past-one until quarter-past five. No breaks in between you know. And I used to have to sit on the floor to have my dinner, and I used to put my coat down and have a lay down and have forty winks because I was tired. I was a doffer, what they call a dofTer then. It were all right of a job … (laughs) … But I can remember my first week's wage, my mother kissing it. I can always remember her kissing it … (laughs) … Funny that, isn't it?6

Apart from enabling us to eavesdrop on history itself, by directly sharing in the feelings and memories of people as they were actually experienced, oral history can also give us additional information about the way people lived. The following extracts, both from Bradford in the 1930s, are cases in point. The first, from an interview with a midwife, tells us a great deal about sexual mores and attitudes: the second is a moving description of life on the dole.

"I once attended a girl and she had been working that day, she'd been to work, and she came home from work and, er … apparently all right, and her mother went out as she came in, to the pictures, and her father said … he thought she wasn't so well. And he said "Aren't you, aren't you so well love"? And he were a bit suspicious. And he says "Is there anything you want to tell me"? And she says "No". And he says, "Well, go lie down", and she went upstairs to lie down, according to him, and er … eventually she came down and she had the baby in her hands, and she'd worked up to then. She had the baby in her hands and she says to him "Look what I've got". (Laughs) … He fainted, and anyway she got on the settee and when he pulled himself together he rang for the doctor, and the doctor rang me, and said "Will you come"? because he would never go on his own, you know … But anyway that girl was all right, and to this day she, she would never tell anybody who the father was, and her mother coaxed her, then she called her, she did everything … threatened her, but nobody to this day knows. And she had intended to get rid of the baby, she'd got a suitcase, she'd bought a new case, and in the case was sheets of brown paper and string, and she'd intended to do away with the baby but once it was born she couldn't you see. And she loved that baby, so much so that you could hardly take it off her to bath it or do anything with it".7

"I signed on at Nelson Street in Bradford and after my six months was up of drawing my dole, I'd no money at all so I went to the Board of Guardians, and they sent me to the Workhouse at Bowling. And you'd to parade there … a fellow told me … he told me at Usher Street, "Don't forget", he says. "Go clean, when you go - wherever you get sent to". Little did I realise that I'd be inspected properly, like, and at nine o'clock lined up facing the Workhouse Master's house, which is still there today, at Bowling Colony. Big house, it was. They called him Mr. R., and he came out, a very smart man, walked down the line, inspected us, looked at us shoes to see if we were clean. "Righto", he says. And then a chap … happen a Superintendent he was, I think, he'd give you your jobs. "Righto. You go with the gardener, you go with the joiner, you go with the electrician, you go in the workhouse and help to wash up in the kitchens and that"."

"And we got this voucher, three and sixpence, twice a week. And all you could have on it was margarine, sugar, tea, eggs and jam. You couldn't have no butter, no cigarettes, nothing like that at all you know. No fish, no bacon."

"Q. Did you have to go and get them from a particular place?"

"No, they all took them at that time, you know. Such as Driver's, and Lion Stores. But I … it felt a bit degrading, you know, going in and giving them this voucher, because automatically they knew, you know, what. … 'Hello, hello', you know. … and it seemed a bit degrading."8

Apart from helping to plug such obvious gaps in our knowledge of the past as personal relationships, oral history has a major contribution to make in women's history and in charting the long history of immigration to Bradford. In both instances there is a paucity of documentation, and in the case of women's history oral testimony has been an essential tool in revising that version of history written mainly by men for men, in which women figure only incidentally. Elizabeth Roberts' recent book based on interviews with working women in the north-west, firmly re-establishes women as the mainstay of the 20th century family.9 Taped memories in Bradford similarly chart graphically the lot of working women:

"This is before the war like, when we had nowt. My granny only had ten shilling pension, so my granny used to go out about four o'clock at morning to knock all the tram drivers up. And then she used to come back about half past five, and then my mother used to get up. Well we always had a bed downstairs because my grandma was a diabetic and she was always ill. And then when my mother used to get up at half-past-five I used to get up with her, and when they come downstairs we had gaslight, but we couldn't afford pennies for the gas, so what my granny used to do we either had a candle or we'd a paraffin lamp, and then I used to get in her bed till it was time for school. Then my mother went out knocking up from say half-past-five up to about quarter-to-seven then she'd have summat to eat then go, go into the combing till five o' … from seven o'clock in the morning. Then she used to come home for dinner, because it was just at the bottom of the street where we lived, she used to come home for dinner, and then had three-quarters-of-an-hour for dinner. Then she used to go back and then she used to stay there while five, and then … this is before the war like when they were on three days a week."10

From the outset it was a main aim of the BHRU to record the experiences of immigrant groups that came to Bradford during the past century. We talked to Germans and Italians who came early in the century; to those Eastern Europeans (notably the Ukrainians, Poles and Yugoslavs), who came as European Volunteer Workers or Displaced Persons between 1945 and 1950; to Italians and West Indians who came in the early 1950's to find work; and latterly to the Asian and Vietnamese communities. Some of the problems we encountered like language difficulties, and the suspicions entertained by those being interviewed, have been discussed elsewhere.11 But the Unit was fortunate to be able to build on close contacts with the communities themselves, to establish one of the most important sound archives in the country of the immigrant experience.12 A taste of the uniqueness of the 250 or so interviews can be found in the following contrasting extracts, the first from a second generation Italian lady born in Bradford in 1896, remembering the Italian community before 1914, the second from a first generation Sikh man who arrived in Bradford from the Punjab in 1959.

"Well they came over you see because they couldn't make no ends, no ends, and then when they knew that they had people over here working, and they were sending for them. They said "Come over here, you can earn a living doing this and doing that", you know, because Italians were very clever in doing things you know. They could work, they could sew, make things, they were … some of them were real in woodwork, you know, they used to do a lot of woodwork, and so they started coming over here, and that's why they all got together. But some of them, if they couldn't make a living, they'd get a little cart, make it up, put a little sort of wooden thing on the top, and start cooking chestnuts and, er … roast potatoes or, oooh, they'd do anything really to make a living you know. And Mr. Mollicone, he had a cage and birds and an organ. He used to have an organ with a big cage on the top of the front of the organ, and he used to have two birds there. If anybody wanted their fortune telling, he'd have a long stick, get a bird out, pull a drawer out, and all these tickets used to come out and the bird would just pull one out and give it to the lady, and charge sixpence you know. Now did I tell you Montelano? He come, he cooked, Montelano … he was a lovely man, he came from Milano, and he, he were right clever in cooking Italian spaghetti. So when the hotels, big hotels, got to know about him in Bradford, they used to send a note up, a little letter saying "Could you come down and cook for us, such a course?" you know. And he'd go down with a big apron you know, right nice, serene, and he'd go and cook this. Well that's what he did, but he never went out with the organs."13

"Q. How did you feel about coming to Britain?"

"A. Well I wanted to come because I knew my father was here. I was missing him, but also it was an adventure to me because it was a different thing altogether, and people used to talk about it, so to me it was a, it was a really exciting thing to happen. In them days, because the people that came here obviously were earning at that time, to them, decent money, it sounded like as if it was a prospect place you know, so it appeared. The impression that people got was that if you went there you, you'd get rich, which isn't all that straight, is it? It's not like that."

"Q. What were your first impressions of Britain when you came here?"

"A. The only thing that seems to stick in my mind is that. … at first it was the colour. You all looked the same to me at that time."

"I can remember saying to my father "How come they're all the same colour? It's very difficult to tell". And that's, that's the first thing I noticed. I said everybody. . . I heard that there was white people but seeing them was, was a sort of, like a shock to me … From what I can remember, there was a complete change. It just felt like as if you're having a dream and then you wake up and it's something completely different. I couldn't really sort of compare it, because everything I did or touched and the way I lived and the way I did everything you know, and the daily routine was different, so everything had more or less become a complete flip of a coin."14

Again what was remarkable about the interviews collected was the number of common parallels of immigrant experience in Bradford, whether patterns of settlement (for example White Abbey, Leeds Road and Manningham), the quality of housing (generally poor), or the nature of employment (usually the lower end of the textile industry).15

In its first year the BHRU, funded by the Manpower Services Commission and Bradford Metropolitan Council, sought merely to build an archive of taped interviews, which could be made available for public reference via the Library service, and which could form the basis of exhibition material for the Museum service. To this end the emphasis has been on producing verbatim transcripts of as many of the interviews as possible, together with detailed summary sheets and a full catalogue (shortly to be computerised). It rapidly became clear that such a narrow brief was untenable. The Unit had opened a floodgate of local interest in Bradford's history by reaching people who may not always venture into libraries or museums. Through popular exhibitions, extensive local media coverage, a quarterly magazine of oral history, On & Off the Record, and a large number of public talks, the BHRU has established a reputation for an exciting and accessible approach to history.

During its second year the BHRU, supported by the MSC, the Gulbenkian Foundation, Department of the Environment and the Local Authority, has extended its interview programme amongst the city's immigrant communities, as well as capturing on tape, before it is too late, some of Bradford's dying crafts and industries, notably through interviews with quarrymen, blacksmiths, stonemasons and fire-clay and brick manufacturers. We have also charted changes in such trades as painting and decorating, and more recently in undertaking.

"Now the funeral trade has altered greatly. A person died, and the undertaker at that age used to take a lady or a man to come and lay the person out. Now I think I was a little bit, should I say more advanced than that. I thought "Oh, it's very pagan, and old fashioned and no good". So we built a private chapel at Nab Wood, which is there today, and with very great difficulty we were the first to build a private chapel in Shipley, Baildon … well, there was only one in Bradford in those days, so we had a great big area and we were the only ones that could cater for those circumstances. However, it was very slow at the beginning. There were eighteen funeral directors in Shipley, and they all had their connections. And then we found out that first one went and then another went, and to this day there are only two. And I remember the first year in 1936 I think we did, in the full year, I'm speaking of funerals, about twenty to twenty-six funerals per year, but we did monumental besides, and we'd a very good position for monumental because we were at the gates of Nab Wood cemetery, and of course that was a great advantage. However, I've been retired now seven years, and we were doing over six hundred a year when I retired."16

Above all the BHRU has set out not only to make history accessible as a distinct alternative to professional and academic approaches, but also to use oral history in a way which seemed relevant to the community. One example of this has been through outreach work with schools, by providing raw source material for teachers in the form of extract cassettes,17 and also by actively encouraging school-and-community-based oral history projects in which pupils do their own interviews under guidance. This improves links between the school and its neighbourhood and enhances children's awareness of how the past has affected their own lives. At a time when school history itself is under attack for being 'irrelevant' to society's needs, oral testimony can transform the subject from the dry, dull and dusty, to the lively and entertaining, whilst developing the essential life skills of communication, self-confidence, listening and analysing. More specifically, of course, oral history can playa central educational role amongst the blind and the visually disabled, whether it be at school or through such ventures as the blind newspaper cassette. It is, moreover, a tool which helps children to understand and accept racial and cultural differences.

Another positive way in which the BHRU has used oral history, especially when supplemented by photographs drawn from the Unit's growing collection, has been as the basis for 'recall' therapy and reality orientation with the retired and elderly. The medical and caring professions have long recognised the value of reminiscence in helping the confused and dementing elderly to get the present in context with the past.18 Hitherto, however, available historical material has been based on the Home Counties, which diminishes its value in West Yorkshire. There was a clear demand for a locally-based pack and the BHRU, in conjunction with a working party drawn from the N.H.S. and Social Services, was able to provide a slide/tape pack entitled 'Not Like it is Today', drawn from local interviews. This has direct relevance to those elderly in residential homes and hospitals in the Bradford area. The initial pack, concentrating on domestic life, from which the following extract is taken, will be followed by others on work, street life and high days and holidays.

"The washing-liquor man, he used to come up on a Monday morning up Grafton Street with the horse and cart, and he used to have bottles of washing-liquor in it. And it were right strong stuff, and they didn't use soap and powder like they do now. They used to wash, use this washing liquor. I tell you what he used to sell and all, scouring stone, yellow and white scouring stone for your steps. The washing-liquor they used to use, my grandma used to use it on her wooden fender. We used to have a wooden fender you see, and oh it used to be lovely and white. You used to scrub it you know, and your dresser, that top of that dresser used to be white and all, that all used to be scrubbed. There was no mopping. They didn't believe in mopping. Even to your doorsteps used to be all scrubbed. Your window bottoms all scrubbed with your scouring stone on."19

If we can learn anything from the past it is that we ignore it at our own peril, and if the BHRU has made history more democratic and accessible then it will have succeeded.


1. BHRU interview AO045. (back)

2. Amongst the most prominent recent exponents of oral history techniques have been George Ewart Evans (see especially From Mouths Of Men, 1976), Paul Thompson (The Voice Of the Past, 1978), Studs Terkel (especially Working, 1974) and Stephen Humphries (The Handbook Of Oral History, 1984). (back)

3. For a good survey see Thompson's The Voice Of the Past, Chapter 2; also A. Seldon and J. Pappworth, By Word Of Mouth, (1983). (back)

4. BHRU A0083. (back)

5. A full index of the BHRU's textile and immigrant holdings is available on application to the unit. (back)

6. BHRU A0027. (back)

7. BHRU A0067. (back)

8. BHRU A0105. (back)

9. A Woman's Place: An Oral History Of Working-Class Women, (1984). (back)

10. BHRU A0058. (back)

11. See .B. Perks "'A Feeling of not Belonging': Interviewing European Immigrants in Bradford", Oral History Journal, vol. 12. no. 2 (1984). (back)

12. This is based on estimates by the National Sound Archive. (back)

13. BHRU B0012. (back)

14. BHRU C0016. (back)

15. These parallels were the subject of a BHRU exhibition entitled "Destination Bradford: A Century of Immigration" (back)

16. BHRU M0046 (back)

17. Two have so far been produced at £2 each: Bradford Voices, and Destination Bradford. (back)

18. See for example: Help the Aged Education Department, Recall: A Handbook, (1981), and A.D. Norris & M.A. El Eilah, "Reminiscence Groups: A Theory for both Elderly Patients and their Staff", Oral History Journal vol. 12, no. 2, (1984). (back)

19. BHRU A0058. The pack comprises a twenty minute cassette, sixteen slides, a full transcript and brief introductory notes. Available from BHRU, 140/148 Manningham Lane, Bradford BD8 7JL. (back)

© 1986, Robert Perks and The Bradford Antiquary