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June 2000

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Reading Lives: Reading Museum Service's Oral History Collection

Javier Pes

Oral history is a unique and often vivid source of Reading's history. We can discover and preserve some of that history, which would otherwise go unrecorded, by interviewing people now, about their lives. Reading Museum Service has been collecting Reading's oral history on audiotape for the last five years. The memories we have recorded so far are as evocative as they are diverse.

'It was a very strange day when I returned to Reading on the Monday after the [Huntley & Palmers factory had stopped producing biscuits. When you arrived at work there was always a hustle and a bustle and a big hum about the factory and the Monday after it closed there was silence.' Midge Harris. [interview no. 199,7.127.5b]

As well as biscuit makers like Midge Harris, we have interviewed an artist, two architects, a brewer, a cinema usher, a carnival costume designer, a die-hard Reading football fan, a manager at Sutton's Seeds and founding members of Reading's Progress Theatre. So far we have recorded over 8o hours of interviews. We believe that this will be a rich and unique source of information for future generations interested in the social history of Reading.

Early in her museum career Karen Knight, the director of Reading Museum and Archive Service, led an oral history project in Birmingham. The impetus to establish oral history as an integral part of the Museum's work and the decision to purchase the necessary recording equipment came from the very top of Reading Museum Service. We began talking to people on audiotape in 1995 for a temporary exhibition about the experience of the home front in Reading during World War 11. Excerpts of the interviews were included in a temporary exhibition 'Home Front' held at Blake's Lock Museum that year.

'I always remember the first Yanks that came in. I didn't realise they were Americans because they didn't sound like the Americans you heard on the films. These two came in and one of them said to me "Excuse me, miss, can I have two cups of java and two tomato sandwiches", and I'm walking them up and down the counter trying to find out what tomato sandwiches was and it took me a long time to find out what the java was: coffee.' Olive Green [interview no.1997.1.27.Ic]

When I took up the new post of Curator of Contemporary History in 1996, Reading Museum Service had the tools in place to create a collection of real breadth and depth. We wanted to use what we were recording in a variety of public history projects: long term and temporary exhibitions, in talks and in multimedia and traditional publications. To ensure that the collection was accessible to researchers now and in the future we wanted to base the collection on sound principles of collections care. This has meant that we have never allowed a backlog to grow of interviews awaiting documentation and safety copying.

The next opportunity to use the collection in the Museum's public programme arose with the temporary exhibition 'Making Progress' in 1997, about the history of Reading's ground breaking theatre company. Working with theatre members, we created a lively and colourful exhibition which featured oral history as text on banners and on a soundtrack broadcast from a specially edited minidisc into the exhibition space.

'We were trying hard to think of a name. 'Dramatic Society', there were other dramatic societies, there were other players, like 'The Earley Players'... We could perhaps call it something to do with a word that was very much in the air when everybody was discussing the Beveridge Report. And the word was progress' ' And John Hall came up with the idea of 'Progress Theatre'... One of our number objected, said, "Why, we haven't got a theatre". We felt we were working on the theatre, and so far all we'd got was the progress. 'Norman Bishop [interview no. 1997.127.i6]

Over the last three years at Reading Museum Service our priority has been to create six new galleries at the Museum of Reading, part of a Heritage Lottery Funded refurbishment of the Town Hall and Museum. Two of the galleries feature oral history sound points. They are the Huntley & Palmers Gallery and Reading: People and Place. In addition, several of the programmes in 'Touch Base', the new multimedia gallery interactive, feature extracts from the oral history collection. This memory of the 1943 air raid on Reading accompanies a photograph of its aftermath.

'My mother was behind the counter in the Post Office and the overseer heard the shhhh of the bomb and he shouted to all the staff to get behind the counter because they were those big old sturdy wooden ones and they all got behind the counter and all the panel glass came in, blew the whole lot out'.... 'Funnily enough, the manageress of the People's Pantry, her son was at Bluecoat [School] with me. His bicycle was buried under that lot and they fetched it out a few days later and it was unscathed except it was covered in brick dust. Of course there were about 36 people died in that bomb'. D. Embery [interview no. 1997.1.27.3c]

The sound point in Reading: People and Place, is designed as a 'talking table', so that visitors can sit in comfort while they listen to memories such as this person's childhood evacuation from London to Reading:

'We didn't know where we were going to be honest, well, not at that age. I mean nobody knew. I think everybody was sort of crying and more frightened really than anything, because we just didn't know where we were going and I mean my aunt saw me off, my mum's sister, but you know she said it will only be for a few days ... we landed in Reading.' Irene Moore [interview no. 1997.127.1]

The important histories of biscuit making and the allied trade of tin box making in Reading are well represented in the collection. Amongst the many former workers in these two industries we have interviewed someone who was an apprentice in the tin design department of the biscuit tin makers Huntley, Boorne and Stevens in the 1950s. We have also interviewed a person who rose to become managing director of the same company. Like many of his generation his working life was interrupted in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. Here is his memory of how he felt during the retreat through France to Dunkirk.

'We'd got well back into France, on the retreat, but we weren't worried about it... the lack of information we had, didn't worry us... We just thought somewhere we'd make a stand and fight these swine... I wasn't worried. I was worried about getting shot, but that was all.' Basil Tarrant [interview no. 1997.127.23]

A person's first day at a new job is often a memorable experience. This is how one person, who rose to become head of public relations at Huntley & Palmers, remembered his early days at the biscuit factory.

Mr Maslam will take you down, you are going to the tin department. So I followed Mr Maslam ... he took me down and I went into another world and I went into a huge warehouse. There seemed to be hundreds of women hammering tins, square tins, with wooden mallets, hammering them and hammering them and there was an enormous machine that was washing empty biscuit tins that had come back from the grocers and I couldn't believe it.' Michael Paxton [interview no. 1997.127.10]

Because so many Reading people have an association with Huntley & Palmers I have often found myself unwittingly interviewing an ex Huntley & Palmers worker when I had actually gone to interview them for another reason. For instance a man who had organised the Reading Show from its beginning as a wartime 'Dig for Victory' event turned out to have also been in charge of Huntley & Palmers production planning and so was an invaluable source of information about how the company had to adapt its production to wartime conditions in 1939. Another couple whom I interviewed because of their association with Huggins the bakers, formerly in Crown Street, and now on display at Blakes Lock Museum, turned out to have both worked at the biscuit factory in the 1920s, where they first met.

A valuable source of information about Huntley & Palmers was a former factory tour guide. Her interview also tied in with her guide's uniform that had been acquired by the Museum several years before. The costume's historical value has been greatly enhanced by the acquisition of its personal history.

'In the early days, of course, the biscuits were baked in coal ovens and they had bakers putting the trays of biscuits into the oven on peels. They were small travelling ovens and it used to be quite amusing too, because when we walked through the ovens, they were coal fires, and we had to walk past the thermoses, which people found very hot. When we got to the other end they were offered a hot biscuit as it came out of the oven.' Mary Cottrell [interview no. 1997.127.26]

Photo of Factory Tour Guides

Huntley & Palmers factory tour guides c. 1950

We have not neglected Reading's other '3B' industries: brewing, and selling bulbs and seeds. So far we have interviewed a member of the Simonds family who was also a brewery director and we have recently interviewed someone who worked for almost 50 years at Suttons Seeds, beginning his career there as a 15 year old shop boy.

'You had to be very careful with seeds, there was a story once... there was a brussel sprout called 'Market Rear Guard' and there was a savoy called 'Rear Guard' and somehow they got muddled up, and because of that market growers had the wrong seeds, which is quite serious. And they had to grow lots and lots of plants to compensate these people." Jack Warner [interview no. 1997.127.35]

We seek to integrate oral history into the mainstream of the Museum's work and so often an interview has been made to accompany the acquisition of a new object. Three Reading Carnival costumes were specially designed and made by Reading's leading carnival costume designer for the new gallery, Reading: People and Place. We interviewed the designer to find out more about his life story and his experience of carnival as a young child in Trinidad.

'The competition [in Trinidad] is very fierce. Everybody wants to win but there is only going to be one Carnival king and queen. Every year costumes have a different theme. I remember on Carnival night when it finishes at 12 o'clock people discarded their costumes ... they are big and they have nowhere to store them and they have ideas about what they are going to do next year. And so the streets are littered with fantasy, bits of glitter, bits of costume .... My first costumes ]for the first Reading Carnival in 1977] were Native American. It was not easy to get materials; we only had two weeks to prepare. For wire I used bits of clothes line and for feathers I went all the way down to a peacock farm in Pangbourne. I got some beads from Heelas and bits of velvet. We worked day and night'. Herman Philbert [interview no. 997.127.32]

When we record an interview we always have in mind that we are building a public collection. We seek to obtain a recording with the best possible sound quality. This might mean avoiding interviewing someone in a room with a lively budgerigar in the background. Likewise, because Reading lies under the flight path of Concorde, sonic booms have interrupted several interviews. The issue of good sound quality also meant that we chose to record on digital audiotape as opposed to analogue cassette tape. This made Reading a pioneer museum service to go digital.

We are also careful to ensure that whoever we are interviewing is happy that other people can listen to their memories. We always explain the purpose of the interview and obtain the written consent of the interviewee, that their memories can be made publicly accessible. As a matter of courtesy we always make a copy of the interview for the interviewee. From personal experience the interviewee's family often appreciates this.

In addition to recording oral history ourselves, Reading Museum Service is keen to encourage and advise individuals and groups to undertake their own oral history projects. We have written a simple 'how to' guide, called 'Reading Within Living Memory' which is available free of charge from the museum. The guide covers areas such as which tape recorders and microphones to use, through to simple dos and don'ts.

As with any primary source oral testimony cannot be judged on face value. Oral testimony, like any written document, can contain biases, silences, unreliable facts or even fictions, which the historian needs to be able to evaluate. Oral history is a particularly good way of finding out how people felt about an experience or event in their life. Sometimes the emotional truth of a memory does not match its factual reliability. My colleague Jocelyn Goddard was formerly Oral History Officer in Oxfordshire. She remembers this telling incident:

'At a talk I played a piece from an interview which 1 had found very moving - it was a story from the Second World War about a woman at home waiting for news of her husband.

She had heard on the wireless that the hospital in Chittagong, where he was posted, had been bombed and there were no survivors, but she never got any official notification that he was dead. For months she could not tell her young children and went on helping them write letters to their father, even though they never received a reply. She kept on telling them he must be too busy to write, but she was becoming convinced that he was dead. Then one day she came home from work and the front door seemed to be jammed. When she finally pushed it open she found the hall floor covered with letters - her husband had been moved to China and several months of his letters had all arrived on the same ship.

Someone in the audience put his hand up and made the point that this story demonstrated the unreliability of oral evidence - the interviewee had said 'the Germans bombed Chittagong', when in fact it was the Japanese.'

I agree that for hard facts, dates and so on, oral testimony should be carefully compared with other sources. 1 still think this story was valuable as historical evidence, because it took me so vividly into an experience shared by so many people at that time, almost ordinary to them then and extraordinary to us now. You can find out from an encyclopaedia who bombed Chittagong. You need a person to tell you how it feels to live through a war.' Jocelyn Goddard, Education Officer, Reading Museum Service.

When we interview someone for the oral history collection we are very much an 'outsider' or stranger. People interviewing other family members have created very interesting oral histories. They will therefore have a very different 'insider's' perspective and knowledge. This will naturally affect the content of the interview. A technique open to a family member who is recording an in depth family oral history would be to repeatedly ask questions about the same subject over several interviews held at different times. By doing this, one family historian was able explore experiences and events about which the interviewee, who was their mother, was initially hesitant to recall.

The Museum's oral history collection has been formed with a social historical intention. However, 1 want to conclude this brief introduction to the oral history work of Reading Museum Service by recalling how researchers at the University of Reading found a quite unintended linguistic value in the collection. They were researching how the Reading accent was changing as younger generations spoke in a less localised south-eastern or 'Estuary English' accent. Several of the interviews that we have made have been with people born in or near Reading between 50 and 70 years ago. They were ideal sources of the more traditional Reading accent. We were delighted to be of assistance. It also impressed on me how we cannot wholly predict what will be of interest to current and future generations. However, one thing we can be sure of is that the growing collection of interviews, complimenting the Museum's rich collection of objects and images, will form a unique and vivid resource for future generations.

Javier Pes is Curator of Contemporary History, Reading Museum Service and formerly worked at the Museum of London.


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