Distant voices

By other museum staff on 4 Apr 2012

Following Hilary Young’s blog post Listening for a change last week, author Harriet Salisbury talks about the discoveries she made while delving into the Museum of London’s oral history collections for her new book, The War on our Doorstep.

I am not an oral historian – or even a historian. Before I began researching material for The War on our Doorstep, my experience of oral history was limited to recording a few interviews in my student days. So for me, the Museum of London’s vast collection of tapes was a big step into the unknown.

Luckily, in the case of the Port & River collection, there was a thick file containing an information sheet for each interview, listing the topics covered. I began by picking out anything that looked promising – ‘detailed account of childhood in East End’, ‘first day of Blitz’, or in one memorable case ‘incidence of transvestism in docks’. After a while, I concluded that the women were nearly always worth a listen, that many dockers were a winning combination of the poetic and the profane, and that managerial figures could be dispiritingly dull.

What captivated me was the way oral accounts give more than one route into the past. If you want to find out how the casual system of dockworkers was organised, or what items were regularly sent to a pawnbroker, or what a doodlebug rocket was like, you will – eventually – track down or stumble across that information. But with an oral history, you get the personal context that brings the information to life. It might be a docker’s memories of fights breaking out while waiting for a day’s work; a woman recalling trips to the pawnbroker with her dead father’s suit, or a recollection of standing in a bedroom as a child, watching a V1 rocket fly past.

‘The foreman would have perhaps 30 to 40 tallies, according to the amount of work that was going, and he’d throw that amongst the men and then they used to fight and scramble for these tallies. It was bad. That would be in the morning and it would happen again at one o’clock. That was for half a day’s work. They didn’t get a full day, no guaranteed day, only what they fought for. And it was real nasty to see it. There was no friends, there was fights for half a day’s work.’
Walter Dunsford, born 1910, Carpenter, West India Dock 1920-1970 (85.593)

‘My mother had a suit – my dad was dead, but that suit still went in and out. We always laughed about that suit – he was dead but that suit went in and out of the pawnbrokers – in on Friday, out on Monday. Everything went in, including the candlesticks, but we always had the candlesticks out for Friday night. My mother would never have done without the candlesticks. She never got her wedding ring back, though – she bought another wedding ring when my sister first brought a young man in. We said, “He’ll think that you’re not married – you got six kids and not married.” So we went out and bought her a ring.’
Miss H, born 1900, Dress Machinist (2008.112)

‘I saw the first doodlebug – the first V1 over London – with my face pressed up against the glass of my bedroom window. What a stupid thing to do. This thing went over – an extraordinary sound – not like an aeroplane at all. And I could see flames coming out of the back of what I now know was the jet propulsion unit. And then the engine stopped. I yelled to my mother. “It’s coming down!” And of course it did come down, with a bang. But not anywhere near us.’
John Earl, born 1928, Surveyor with London County Council (2005.24)

When you listen to the tapes, the voices gradually people a vanished world. As your ear tunes into individual turns of phrase, exclamations, jokes and preoccupations, you get to know and enjoy a huge cast of characters. And the further you delve, the more you begin to build up a picture of a community interconnected by people’s shared experiences, defined both by their differences and what they hold in common.

I have tried to reproduce my journey – the excitement of discovery, the growing sense of the characters behind the voices, and the layering up of a portrait of a vanished East End – in my book. My second task was choose pictures to illustrate the stories, and I’ll be writing about using the Museum’s picture library next week.

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