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KNOWSLEY ARK: Bringing history alive

Voices from the past

One of the most evocative ways of sharing information about a community’s past is through the medium of oral history.  

Storytelling is the most ancient form of sharing personal experiences, deeply embedded in many cultures as a way of communicating important information and of preserving community identity.

The folk tradition ensured that this identity was maintained, defining tales being passed down through the generations as a shared wisdom.

Oral traditions, however, were eclipsed by the written historic account which became the accepted recorded history.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century, with the formation of the Oral History Society and technical advancements in sound recording, that interest in the validity of the spoken word and its impact on our understanding of historic events began to gain credence.  

Oral history is important because it gives a voice to the ordinary person, as both observer of and participant in events, regardless of gender, social class, race or disability.

The recordings differ from reminiscences in that they are more focused and deal with first hand experiences examined through specific themes, the dialogue prompted by an experienced interviewer who guides the subject (or narrator) through their memories to provide a structured, coherent record of that person’s very personal experiences.

Oral history can present that person’s perspective of events in a way that is far more powerful than the printed word alone: it captures emotion and tone; it reveals dialect in a way that print simply can’t.

Importantly, it makes an emotional, personal connection between the listener and the narrator that is both absorbing and intense.

The oral history collection in The ARK records many aspects of the socio-economic, political and cultural life of the borough, from childhood recollections and Lancashire dialect recordings, through to memories of wartime Huyton and the rapid social change experienced in Kirkby from the 1940s onwards, to the accounts of politicians and activists from across the political divides.

The collection can be divided quite neatly into two parts, roughly based on when – and how - the recordings were made.

The analogue collection features cassette recordings made during the 1970s and the 1990s using basic equipment. These have now been converted to digital format to enable access to the recordings.

The digital collection, initiated through support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is now in development, and includes the ‘Talking Kirkby’ project interviews from 2015, which feature memories of Kirkby from the 1940s to 1970, and the ‘Huyton Camps’ project of 2016, which recalls the Internment, Prisoner of War and United States Army Transit camps operational in Huyton during and just after the Second World War.

Delving into the analogue collection, made primarily in the 1970s and later the 1990s, reveals a broad selection of recordings recalling memories of 20th century life.

Interestingly, many of the speakers share a Lancastrian accent, common at the time before the full integration of the Scouse accent.

In particular, the voice of Alice Wharton, who was born in 1907 and recorded in 1998, evokes a gentler pace of life, when early 20th century Kirkby was a truly agricultural village. She speaks eloquently of the harshness of farming life.

The teamsmen would have to get up at 3am to feed and harness the horses, load the wagons with produce such as potatoes and travel into Cazeneau Street Market, Liverpool in time to sell their wares.

Once empty, the men would load the wagons up with manure from the cow keepers in the city centre, to be carted back to Kirkby to be spread on the fields as fertiliser. She also talks about ‘bagging time’ – break time for the farm workers who would take a short rest and a snack whilst feeding the farm horses their nose bags – hence ‘bagging time’.

Other childhood memories are related by Mrs Winifred Wallace of Cronton. Born in 1896, she remembers with wonder trips into Liverpool and to Widnes by horse-drawn cab for the Christmas pantomime, in an interview recorded in 1978.

There are numerous recordings of past local councillors and former Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Sir Harold Wilson KG, features a number of times, recorded in conversation with Tom Scragg and Bill Lund in 1977 as well as in interviews originally broadcast by Radio Merseyside.

The Second World War is covered from several different perspectives.

In an interview with Tom Scragg recorded in 1978, Mr Lyde talks about his ARP duties in Huyton during WW2 and vividly describes a direct bomb hit.

More eyewitness accounts were recorded digitally as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund supported ‘Huyton Camps’ project in 2016, when we were fortunate to be able to interview Dr John Goldsmith, a former internee at Huyton Internment Camp 009 and Erich Kirste, the last remaining German Prisoner of War from the King George V Playing Fields Camp to have remained in Huyton, as well as local residents who remembered the events of the time.

Here we see the beauty of oral history and how it gives a voice to those individuals who would not normally be able to contribute to the historical record: each was present, each has a different – and equally valid – point of view that serves to add depth and texture to the official information that is held on events set in a very specific space and time.  

The process for recording oral history involves careful training of the staff and volunteers, who understand the sensitivities that surround the rendering of such personal testimonies and making them available to researchers.

Recordings are securely held, by permission of the narrator, in WAV format (the most flexible, time-proof format) and each recording is fully documented according to British Library guidelines.

In line with copyright restrictions and the wishes of the individual involved, recordings can then be made available for researchers to listen to. There are some excerpts from the archive available online via the ARK’s Soundcloud page. Find them at https://soundcloud.com/knowsleyarchives - or drop in to the ARK in the Kirkby Centre to browse the collection.
 You can visit the ARK at the Kirkby Centre, Norwich Way, Kirkby, L32 8XY.

For more information about the ARK or to find out about the services on offer, call 0151 443 4365 or email infoheritage@knowsley.gov.uk.

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