It might look as if the study of oral history is a modern fashion that only began with the 20th-century invention of the tape recorder. In fact it pre-dates written history. Bede, the father of English History, relied greatly upon the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events he recorded in his 7th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
In cultures without a written tradition, such as some African tribes or Romany gypsies and travellers, an oral culture preserves the folklore of the community. The American author Alex Haley wrote the bestseller Roots in the 1970s after tracing back his ancestry to a slave Kunta Kinte captured by slave traders in The Gambia and brought to America in the late 18th century. Older members of his family recounted the family legends of how their forefathers had come to America and Haley was able to link these with the genealogy of the Kinte family preserved orally by a griot, or keeper of oral history. Although there has been criticism of the validity of Haley’s research,it does point to the importance of oral history in preserving the story of people who might otherwise be unrecorded.
Everyone has something interesting to tell about their own life. They might have taken part in great national or international historical events or they might have lived quiet lives. Indeed, it is ordinary people talking about everyday events who can give us most insight into the past, the very people who are neglected in historical documents and who are unlikely to leave memoirs or autobiographies. There have been many television documentary series, particularly on the two world wars, which have retold great events through the eyes of its participants.
The Millennium prompted one of the most ambitious oral history projects yet undertaken. In The Century Speaks over 5,000 people were interviewed about all aspects of their lives, including growing up, leisure, health, work and sex. As well as discussing the changes they had seen over their lifetimes, interviewees were also asked about their hopes for the next century. Rob Perks, Curator of Oral History at the National Sound Archive (NSA), has described the project as being “a unique snapshot of Britain at a key turning point in its history.” The project provides a sample of ordinary people’s lives over the last 100 years, which should prove a gold mine for future researchers. The full interviews have now been deposited with the Archive at the British Library to form the Millennium Memory Bank.
The National Sound Archive already holds important oral history collections, including recordings made by pioneer oral historians such as the interviews George Ewart Evans conducted in the 1950s about rural life in the 1880s, and Paul Thompson’s influential study on Family Life and Work Experience before 1918. It also holds the National Life Story Collection, which includes interviews with City of London financiers, steelworkers, retail workers, artists, Holocaust survivors and women who have made an impact in traditionally male domains.
The Department of Sound Records at the Imperial War Museum has major oral history collections about war in the 20th century. Oral testimony forms a major part of the moving Holocaust Exhibition at the Museum. Many local museums, archive services and libraries now hold recordings, usually indexed with full transcripts.
You can add to them by doing your own oral history work, which will also help you to appreciate the problems and possibilities offered by existing oral history interview tapes.
The Society of Genealogists has acquired microfilm of TNA pieces WO 97/11271, which are soldiers ‘discharge papers between 1760 and 1854. They are arranged by regiment.. However, the index can be searched through TNA’s online catalogue, so if you find a reference you don’t need to travel all the way to Kew to look at the papers — the films are available in their own dedicated cabinet in the library. Also new are copies of WO 364/1-417, which are a fraction of the unborn service records for men medically discharged as a result of sickness or wounds between 1914 and 1919. They are only for surnames A–Robert Broomhead.
The Family History Monthly tour of the Western Front takes place between 10th and 13th September. Staying in a three-star hotel near Ypres, we will be exploring the major sites in ‘France and Flanders’, that many of your ancestors who served in the First Worked War may well have been familiar with. There will also be the chance to visit For details contact FHM Western Front Tour, Grosvenor Travel, 167 Station Rd, Deganwy LL31 9EX, tel (01492) 593674.
May is Local History Month with a number of events being organised around the country to celebrate local heritage and communities. Events are being co-ordinate by the Historical Association and details are posted on their website . You can also ring them for details of events in your area on (020) 7735 3901.
In June 2003′s issue there is an article on coachmen and grooms. The bibliography mentioned The Mews of London by Barbara Rosen and Wolfgang Zuckermann (Webb and Bowyer). Unfortunately, I have been unable to find this book locally.
The book was published in 1982. It may be possible to buy a second-hand copy. It is worth checking the zshops section of to see whether any of the vendors who trade there have copies. Alternatively you can probably order it through the inter-library loan service at your local library.
Email enquiries should include a postal address.
I’m trying to trace a large family who in 1900 lived at 12-13 Aryall Place, London (now Marlborough Street). The children produced a magazine The Bouquet, which was given to friends. It consisted of artwork, songs and poems, stories of daily events, trips abroad and beautiful watercolours. The editor was Edith M. Fitch, and the children were Maude, Mabel, Gladys, Ada, Alice and brothers Charles and Arthur. I’m trying to find out what happened to Edith, particularly the date of her death.
Margaret Windsor, 59 De Haviland Close, Hatfield AL10 ODP,
We can’t find the magazine listed in the British Library’s Newspaper Catalogue or any records for the family in the National Register of Archives. However, it is just possible that the London Metropolitan Archives might be able to help. Their address is 40 Northampton Road, London EC1R OHB. It will be very difficult to find when Edith died, particularly as she almost certainly changed her name on marriage. You could go through the GRO death registers, which are online at, perhaps starting round about 70 years after she was born.
In the money?
I have several wills of relatives. Is there any chance of finding out how much the probate is worth in today’s money? A great-uncle died in 1966 and left £147,505.8s, net £133,277.18s. There is a receipt from the Inland Revenue for £78,173.7s for Estate Duty. My grand-father died in 1948 and left £2,027.14s 5, £835.4s net. My great-grandfather died in 1902 and left £1,709.18s worth of effects.
Noelene M. Cummins, New Pastures, Long Load, Langport TA10 9JX.
It is difficult to make comparisons because what a pound will buy has changed dramatically. However, there are several websites, which attempts to do this. It suggests, for example, that 1835 in 1947 has the same purchasing power as £20,069 today.
Home from home
I have recently come across two asylums in which two ancestors were resident in 1896. They were the Kent and Bromley Sick Asylum and Neasden Asylum, Watford. Could you tell me whether asylums were hospitals of the time, workhouses or for patients needing long-term care because of mental illness? I cannot find this out, or trace whether any records for these institutions survive.
Most asylums housed the mentally ill. A search of the Wellcome Institute’s database at suggests that no records for either institution survive.
The Harbour Masters
My husband’s ancestor may have been a harbour master at one of the Isle of Man ports in the 19th century. Is there a central index of harbour masters, and if so where can they be contacted?
So far as we know there is no central list of harbour masters. Most records, should they survive, will be held locally. There may be information online at, otherwise the Manx National Heritage Library and Archives, Douglas IM1 3LY may be able to help.