Listening for a change

By other museum staff on 30 Mar 2012

Our Recorded Media Project Assistant, Hilary Young, introduces the research work recently undertaken by author, Harriet Salisbury.

Over the last year author Harriet Salisbury has been regularly visiting the Museum of London. You’ll normally find her burrowed away in a corner of the History Collections department. Her headphones and stack of tapes are the only giveaway to what she is doing: listening to Londoner’s life stories.

The War on our Doorstep cover image

Harriet has been working with the Museum’s oral history collection to research her new book on how people’s lives changed in the East End after the Blitz. The War on Our Doorstep: London’s East End and how the Blitz Changed it Forever charts people’s everyday experiences of life before, during and after the Second World War. Her notion of the East End has been defined through listening to people’s memories of their individual connection to place through, community, family, work and location.

Harriet focused on some of the unique audio material in our oral history collections. We’ve been collecting audio visual memories and footage of Londoners since the 1980s. We have around 3,000 hours of recorded life story interviews in our collection. A dynamic source of stories about the city, the audio and video oral history interviews vividly reflect the lives and perspectives of Londoners over more than a century. It’s a rich collection of first hand accounts of people’s ordinary lives and experiences that may otherwise not be represented in the historical record. Oral testimony provides memories of how life in the city has changed or even stayed the same. By listening to someone’s stories you get an idea of their feelings, their emotions and reactions about what happened in the past.
Factory girls outside a “hot joint” shop c.1910. Unknown photographer © Museum of London

Factory girls outside a “hot joint” shop c.1910. Unknown photographer © Museum of London

One of the collections Harriet used was from a project that in 1985 set out to record the attitudes and experiences of those who worked in London’s Docks, only a few years after the last of London’s upstream docks closed. The bulk of the recording for the Port and River oral history project was undertaken by a small team of museum staff and volunteers who interviewed almost 200 people creating approximately 500 hours of audio material. The collection features interviews with people who worked in a range of jobs associated with the port and river – dockers, engineers, stevedores, lightermen, watermen, machine operators, river pilots, typists, porters, crane drivers, customs officers, policemen, even a pie & mash shop owner. The time frame covered by the interviews extends as far back as the early 1900s and brings us up to date with people’s feelings about the closure of the docks in the 1980s.

Harriet’s use of the oral history collection unpicks the layers of experiences and memories associated with the East End. For example, here Herbert Hollingsbee (born 1899) recalls the Silvertown explosion in 1917 while Anne Griffiths (born 1918) recalls going dancing in Silvertown after her shift at Tate & Lyle during the Second World War:

Flourmills after the Silvertown Explosion, 1917 © PLA collection/Museum of London

Flourmills after the Silvertown Explosion in 1917. John H. Avery © PLA collection/Museum of London

‘My first year at the PLA in the Albert Dock, we were working till seven and one evening, there was a jolly loud bang and it was the Silvertown explosion and we lost three of our staff who were working. As far as I know, there was quite a number of casualties in the civilian population. We were lucky really because between us and the explosion, there was a large ship on the north side of the Albert Dock and also on the south side, and they were both loaded, which stopped the blast. Even so, our tank in the office burst and there was quite a flood. We all packed up work, caught the tram to East Ham, and home. It was quite exciting.’Herbert Hollingsbee, PLA Audit Clerk (DK87.81)

‘I liked working at Tate & Lyle’s because I could look over the docks from my window where my machine is. I used to look into the docks and see the ships coming in and going and the dockers all coming out at various times. We used to have little social evenings, dancing. We used to be two till ten, and at ten o’clock then we all used to rush up and have a little last hour in the dance. And when we was six till two, we could go early.’
Anne Griffiths, Machine Operator Tate & Lyle (DK88.66)

Look out for Harriet’s upcoming blog posts about her experiences of using the oral history collection to write her book and selecting images from the museum’s collection to illustrate the book.

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