Revolutionary regional working class oral history project goes digital

Old photographs showing floods in Lancaster and another showing land army girls with rakes on a trailer being taken to a job © Images courtesy of Lancashire County Council's Red Rose Collections
Floods in Willow Lane, Lancaster (left) and the girls of the Land Army en route to work

A digitised version of one of the most important and remarkable twentieth-century oral history archives in UK history, bringing decades of memories of Lancaster, Barrow and Preston to life, will be launched at Lancaster University in May.

A team from the Regional Heritage Centre (RHC), based in the History Department, has led the project to digitise the Elizabeth Roberts’ Working Class Oral History Archive – which will be accessible as a fully searchable, largely open access, online resource.

Now the creation of the new website to host the transcripts of the archive is almost complete and a team are putting the finishing touches to the digitisation of two oral history projects covering memories of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston during the period from 1890 to 1940.

The transcripts of a third project in the archive, which covered the same three locations for the period 1940-1970, will be added to the website as soon as their digitisation can be completed. 

The dedicated website hosted by the RHC, featuring the transcripts, will be launched at a special oral history conference at the University on Saturday 19 May 2018.

This archive was created during three pioneering research projects undertaken at Lancaster University in the 1970s and 1980s, which sought to capture the history of working class communities in north-west England, focusing particularly on the experience of people in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancaster and Preston between 1890 and 1970.

Dr Sam Riches, from the Regional Heritage Centre, said: “It is hailed as one of the most important twentieth-century oral history archives in the UK, allowing us to hear the voices of people born in the late nineteenth century.

“Thanks to the degree of skill and sensitivity shown by the two interviewers, Elizabeth Roberts and Lucinda McCray Beier, the veracity and impact of the material are unusually high.

“The impact of the archive will be transformed once it is digitised and made accessible worldwide.”

Dr Elizabeth Roberts, who lives in Lancaster, was a postgraduate student when she undertook her first oral history project, 'Social Life in Barrow and Lancaster, 1890-1925' in the mid-1970s.

Later in the same decade, whilst working at Lancaster University, Dr Roberts undertook a second related project, 'Social Life in Preston, 1890-1940'.

It is these archives which form one of the most important collections of oral history testimonies collected in the 1970s when oral history was a relatively new form of data collection.

They are an important source for the history of working-class life in north-west England.

In the 1980s Dr Roberts undertook the third oral history project, working with Dr Beier on a project entitled 'Family and Social Life in Barrow, Lancaster and Preston, 1940-1970'.

The archives formed the basis for Dr Roberts' ground-breaking work on working-class life in industrial towns, which has been published in various forms, including books and articles, including A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women, 1890-1940 and Women and Families 1940-1970. Dr Beier has also published For Their Own Good. The Transformation of English Working Class Health Culture 1880-1970.

In the future organisers are also looking to create an online exhibition for presentation alongside the transcripts, as a result of a community history project developed in collaboration with archive offices at Barrow and Preston.

This will involve volunteers gathering historic photographs of the locations, occupations and activities described in the interviews, and perhaps photographing relevant artefacts. They aim to deliver this part of the project later in 2018.

The Archive comprises 548 reel-to-reel interviews and contains the oral testimony of more than 260 respondents.

Long-term preservation of the original reel-to-reel tapes is assured as they are now held in the sound collections of Lancashire Archives.

The archive contains typed transcripts of the interviews, subject indexes and biographical details of each respondent.

Many of the transcripts are now poorly legible and required re-typing, not scanning, to create digital copies.

The Regional Heritage Centre sourced £45,000 worth of funding to enable the digitisation to take place.

“Although we have reached our funding target we are still accepting donations to support the project. You can read more about how you can support this important archive here,” added Dr Riches.

“Elizabeth’s research is widely admired and has informed a wide variety of outputs, from dissertations and monographs to historical fiction, but we know that there is so much more for researchers and the general public to discover in these wonderful interviews. The team has worked incredibly hard to bring this archive into the twenty-first century, and it has been a real privilege to help lead this project to fruition.”

The conference in May will include inputs from a range of Oral History projects in the region and the event will feature artists who have been inspired by the archive to create new work as part of the project 'Walking In Others’ Footsteps'. 

Jointly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council, this project is curated by Mirador, a Lancaster-based arts and heritage company and inspired by the hidden heritage of the North West. 

To celebrate the widening of access to the archive Mirador has commissioned several artists to take part in an events programme designed to bring the archive to life in Lancaster, Preston and Barrow, the towns in which the archive was originally recorded. 

The conference will be followed by the first showing of a documentary film examining the artistic process within ‘Walking In Others Footsteps’.

For full information about the conference and to book places please visit:

Images courtesy of Lancashire County Council's Red Rose Collections

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