Sound and vision blog

412 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

20 September 2022

Recording of the week: The Rite of Spring

This week’s post comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist.

Photo of Columbia LX 119 disc label

The following post is inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s famous work, The Rite of Spring. The audio featured below is an excerpt from a 12” 78 rpm disc from our archive, released on Columbia Records in 1929. Stravinksy himself conducts the Symphonic Orchestra of Paris.

I was drawn to this recording after recently going to see a revival of Pina Bausch’s 1975 staging of The Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. This was performed by a company of dancers from African countries.

Pina Bausch (1940-2009) was a German dancer and choreographer who was enormously influential in the fields of dance and performance. She worked in the tradition of ‘Tanztheater’ (literally ‘dance theatre’), which marries many different creative skills.

The performance was not very long; it ran for about 45 minutes with no interval. While I was watching it, I kept thinking about the meaning of the title, and its association with the spectacle I was seeing. I found I was often unsure of what exactly I was looking at or whether there was an explicit plotline to follow. It looked to me like a metaphor of seasons passing, of a romantic relationship, but mostly, of an emotional battle framed through an erotically charged dance performance.

The colour red was used throughout the production. Red is the colour of tension, of a bullfight, or, perhaps, of sensual attraction. The pure aesthetic of the movements, and their role in narrating the plot, are probably the things I remember the most. The whole performance revolves around the intrinsic, entangled relationship between two disciplines: theatre and dance.

Ultimately, Bausch’s choreography tells a story of sacrifice. The woman with the red dress is hunted to death by the other men and women on stage.

There is a pervasive emotional tension that is difficult to evade. Whilst the recording we are posting today is not the version used in the stage performance, it relays that said emotional tension, which connects the two works of Bausch and Stravinsky.

Listen to The Rite of Spring (excerpt)

Pina Bausch’s legacy resides in her conception of a new language of dance. She is remembered as one of the most innovative choreographers of all times. Since her death in 2009, her works continue to be performed around the world. It is a testament to Bausch’s interpretative abilities that her choreography for The Rite of Spring continues to reach new audiences, spanning several decades and several continents in the process.

29 August 2022

Recording of the week: Learning garden birdsong with Charles and Heather Myers

This week's selection comes from Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Charles and Heather Myers

Above: Charles and Heather Myers, used with permission from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photographer unknown.

Charles and Heather Myers were a husband-and-wife recording duo. They met through their shared love of nature and sound recordings. Their impressive collection here at the library (BL shelfmark: WA 2010/017) consists of a whopping 559 open reel tapes and over 5,000 recordings. All are meticulously edited, catalogued, and organised by species and subject. The duo’s dedication and technical prowess make every recording in this collection a joy to listen to, and the time they spent organising and documenting made it a pleasure to digitise and catalogue as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Any recordist should aspire to have a collection half as good as this!

Charles and Heather were both active members of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society (WSRS) and regularly met at field meetings before they got married and set up home together in Shropshire. They were always more than happy to share their knowledge and recordings with anyone interested, and often sent in material to the WSRS journals and members’ recording compilations, as well as entering, and often winning, the society’s annual recording competition. Heather took over as the society’s secretary from 1983 to 1994. Both Charles and Heather’s obituaries in the Wildlife Sound journals are filled with kind tributes from members who saw them as friends and mentors.

Heather with reflector

Above: Heather Myers with reflector, used with permission from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photographer unknown.

As well as contributing to the WSRS, they often submitted recordings and prepared pieces to their local talking newspaper for the blind. Many of these submissions are preserved in the collection, including this piece titled ‘Garden Birds No. 3’. In it, Mr and Mrs Myers welcome the listener into their garden in Shrewsbury, and introduce them to some of the regular avian visitors and their vocalisations. In this excerpt, Charles explains the difference between song thrush and mistle thrush songs. The full-length recording, archived here as British Library call number WA 2010/017/502 C6, also features the sounds of magpies, crows, house sparrows and dunnocks, with the latter two introduced by Heather. This is one of many precious recordings from the collection in which Heather and Charles’s passion and personality shines through.

Listen to Garden Birds No. 3

Download Charles and Heather Myers transcript

Charles with reflector

Above: Charles Myers with reflector, used with permission from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photographer unknown.

Sadly the recording ends abruptly. The piece is incomplete, and neither ‘Garden Birds No.1’ nor ‘Garden Birds No. 2’ can be found elsewhere in the archive.

If you enjoyed this recording and would like to hear more from Charles and Heather Myers, a 60-minute mix of ambient sounds and talk from the collection can be found in the NTS Radio archive.

15 August 2022

Recording of the week: Wind in yacht rigging

This week's post comes from Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds Curator.

Photo of sailing boat masts

Wind is usually the bane of a sound recordist’s life. It can ruin an otherwise perfect recording.

Thankfully, this recording of Scotland’s Largs Harbour on an overcast September evening is only improved by the gusty weather. An eerie chiming rises from the harbour as the wind whistles through the rigging of the moored yachts. The recording was made in 'pseudo-binaural' stereo, that is to say, using two microphones either side of a carry bag.

The British Library ref. is WA 2020/004/006/018. 

Listen to the sound of the wind in yacht rigging

This is part of a small collection made by Richard Beard during a five-day sailing trip around the Inner Hebrides in September 2007. The collection also includes the sound of rain on the yacht’s plastic cockpit cover, as well as the vessel under sail.

01 August 2022

Recording of the week: Women’s work on the record

This week’s post comes from Myriam Fellous-Sigrist, Data protection and Rights Clearance Officer.

Women picking netted gooseberries in Bedfordshire  1941

Above: Wartime Activities, women picking fruit, Bedfordshire, 1941. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Source: LSE Library.

One of the many joys of oral history is learning about unexpected topics. Whether recording an interview or discovering another interviewer’s work, oral history - and especially life story recordings - is full of information that we would not suspect if we were to only read the catalogue records and summaries.

In the last few months, I have worked on three collections of interview cassettes that were preserved by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. These are An Oral History of British Horticulture (British Library ref. C1029), An Oral History of the Post Office (C1007) and the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive (C456). Most of the interviews are several hours long, sometimes up to 13 hours. Unsurprisingly, they cover much more than the topics of horticulture, the Post Office, or gay and lesbian experience in the United Kingdom. Some of the transversal themes are fascinating to observe, and one of them is women’s work in the mid-20th century, across social classes and geographical areas.

A large part of my work as an UOSH Rights Officer is to review newly digitised and catalogued sound recordings before deciding whether they are suitable for online open access. When it comes to oral history recordings, conducting a sensitivity review requires paying attention to the interviewee’s family members, key life events and relationships. Each time, I am reminded of the wealth of sociological and historical information that is usually captured in the first hour of most interviews, which often depicts the origins of two parents and four grandparents, as well as their occupations and roles inside and outside the home.

Listening to these recordings shines a light on the power of sound archives, and on the limits of their written description. The four extracts below show the importance of diving into the audio version of any interview, to go beyond the misleading categories that are inevitably created by cataloguing and summarising. This includes the simplistic, and often wrong, category of 'housewife' used to describe an interviewee’s mother. Often the interview summary also hides the many paid and unpaid occupations that many women had in the 20th century. These jobs are revealed when oral history narrators talk about their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and themselves. Although my selection is only of female narrators, the shift in women’s and men’s roles is also described through these personal accounts, as can be heard in the last extract.

My selection starts with Pamela Schwerdt, who was co-interviewed for the Oral History of British Horticulture project in 2002. She was born in Esher, Surrey in 1931. Her father was a naval officer and her mother’s occupation is described as 'none given' in our catalogue. Yet, the first part of the interview unveils a busy trio of women who, between themselves, set up and chaired for a century the National Wildlife Society. Its success culminated in Pamela’s mother receiving a CBE in 1986 for her work as President of this Society.

In this clip Pamela talks about the three Presidents of the National Wildlife Society. The British Library ref. is C1029/08.

Listen to Pamela Schwerdt

Download Pamela Schwerdt transcript

In the same oral history collection dedicated to horticulture, Peggy Cole described in 2003 the many paid jobs that her mother had in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite being catalogued as a 'housewife', her mother worked as a hospital cleaner, a woodcutter and fruit picker. In this extract, Peggy, who was born in 1935, recounts how her mother worked after the birth of her last son in 1950 as one of a hundred other female seasonal workers near Easton, Suffolk. The British Library ref. is C1029/11.

Listen to Peggy Cole

Download Peggy Cole transcript

In the third extract, we hear about Gladys Hillier who worked as one of the few postwomen in the 1940s in Gloucester, where she was born in 1917. In the interview that she gave in 2002 as part of the Oral History of the Post Office project, she described how she went from working in an aircraft factory during World War II, to delivering the mail in 1947 until her retirement in 1982. The British Library ref. is c1007/57.

Listen to Gladys Hillier

Download Gladys Hillier transcript

Women’s new paid professional activities during World War 2 are discussed in our fourth interview. Jackie Forster, who was born in 1926 in London, reflected on the impact this social change had within her own family. In an interview for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Archive, she explained how her mother worked as an ambulance driver during the war and started making money in the Stock Exchange to support her two children. Jackie’s mother became the breadwinner after her husband, who was an army doctor posted in India, was declared missing in 1939. In this extract, Jackie describes the new family roles and dynamic, and how these had to be accepted by her father, who eventually returned to England in 1945. The British Library ref. is C456/87.

Listen to Jackie Forster

Download Jackie Forster transcript

25 July 2022

Recording of the week: What does the UK sound like?

This week’s post comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

Paul Cheese in Merthyr Tydfil

Above: Paul Cheese in Merthyr Tydfil. Photo copyright © Paul Cheese.

This week we are pleased to feature a video from musician Paul Cheese which showcases a singularly unusual creative project. It is a musical piece he made from over 4,000 ‘found sounds’ recorded on a 5,000-mile bike ride around the UK in 2019.

Download 'Paul Cheese closing comments' transcript

In Paul’s own words:

Carrying a mobile recording setup on my bike, I cycled almost 5,000 miles to every region of the UK, with the goal of capturing the sound of people, places and record in unusual locations. During the trip I recorded and captured the sounds of people, their friendliness, the sound of the elements interacting with architecture and nature, and the activities of everyday life - over 11,000 sounds. I used around 4,000 of these to create a four and a half-minute piece of music.

The sounds of people's workplaces and tools, hobbies, art, and the different rhythms of different materials - outdoor recording the echoes bouncing off concrete, or through tunnels - all combined to create a unique reflection of ‘The Sound of the UK’.

Paul has kindly donated to the archive a high-quality version of the video shown here, plus a wav-format audio file, and an additional ‘making of’ video. A second audio file, of 200 people each pronouncing the name of their respective home city, town or village, has been lodged with our Accents & Dialects section.

Paul Cheese in Shropshire

Above: Paul Cheese in Shropshire. Photo copyright © Paul Cheese.

Via email, I asked Paul a few questions about his project.

Steve Cleary [SC]: Did you camp outside each night or stay in hotels or B&Bs? And how was that?

Paul Cheese [PC]: Sometimes I would be on the road cycling and recording for 16 hours and most evenings I'd spend a couple of hours backing everything up, cataloguing all of the day’s captured media, writing a diary/blog and recharging the cameras/recording gear. So a pillow for my head and somewhere safe to put the bike and recording equipment for the night was required. I mainly stayed in cheap B&Bs and hostels. Most days I wouldn’t have any accommodation booked until the evening.  This was because very early on in the journey I realised that sticking to the planned route would be impossible - the reason  being that when I talked with people along the way they would suggest great-sounding places for recording. Fantastic!, but it was often a completely different way than the way I'd planned to go. So I quit the planning thing and although I had an idea of the main direction I was heading, I just headed where people suggested. This did mean that sometimes I hadn’t booked accommodation until 11.30 pm, and most of the time I didn’t have a clue where I was going, which added a whole different level to the adventure.

SC: How long were you on the road for?

PC: The cycle took me just over three months, longer than planned because of the detours to capture people's sound suggestions.

SC: What was the most interesting, enjoyable or surprising place you visited?

PC: I met so many amazing people and collected thousands of fantastic sounds that take me right back to the moment when I hear them. But there is one moment, that when it happened at the end of a long day it made me feel euphoric, emotional and lucky. As mentioned, sometimes I would arrive quite late to my accommodation. But this meant that some days I would arrive after everything was closed. So, no food. I was cycling in Wales and was staying above a pub.

It had been a long hilly day and I had eaten all my supplies. When I arrived, everywhere was closed and the bar didn’t even have any peanuts. But there were a few locals at the bar, we got talking and they said, ‘You’ve been cycling all day, we can’t have you going without food'. So one guy went home and got me some bread and butter; one lady got me some eggs; another went home and got me sausages; and one lady said, 'I’ve got some vegetables, you can have them too.' I felt like I was in a film, how amazing was that? I was so appreciative of their kindness and food.

During all of my bike adventures I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people, and to top it all, when I left the pub in the morning, the front door made a fantastic sound, which I recorded and used in the final track.

SC: What were your favourites of the sounds you recorded?

PC: I collected thousands of sounds, just by having a good listen to the world around me.

How can I choose just one? There were so many great sounds and every sound has a story:

the beat of firemen retracting ladders in Suffolk;

the rhythm of chalk marks as the sign writer marked out the new lettering at a carriage restorers in Ballantrea on the west coast of Scotland;

lock gates in Leicester;

curlews and electric fences on the Orkney isles;

the kettle drum-like sound of metal girders being dropped in Cornwall;

the breathing of the shingle on Brighton seafront;

waves on steps in Rhyl;

footsteps on the beach of the North coast of Guernsey;

crop sprinklers in Shropshire;

the winding of cable on the transporter bridge into Middlesbrough;

Hull Cathedral bells and the flicker of bunting;

the favourite chord of an organ master in Newark-on-Trent;

the one-o -clock gun in Edinburgh;

clog dancers in Leeds;

kicking the bar in Aberystwyth;

the wind whistling in the rigging of boats at Sandwich bay, Kent;

the scrape of bull dozers pushing metal into compactors on the north coast of Wales;

Manchester town hall clock;

the rhythm of builders re-pointing a wall in Somerset;

the sound decay of the reverb in an old railway tunnel in West Yorkshire;

the sounds of Rossy boatyard at Clydebank as a plane flew over;

a Spitfire fly-by in Folkestone on the Kent coast;

the audio tones of the different sluice gates and weirs on the Kennet and Avon canal;

rhythms and clanks of metal works in Keighley;

an old man with a 2 piece metal walking stick in Cambridge;

a motorbike dealer’s favourite engine idling in Norfolk;

‘relay for life’ walkers footsteps in Barnstaple…

There were so many different bird songs and the sound of people’s accents.

If I had to choose from a cycling point of listening/view, it would have to be the sound of a strong wind humming bass lines through barbed wire fences.

From my experience, the loudest sparrows were on Jersey: the loudest blackbirds were in Norfolk; the loudest seagulls were in Devon (Sidmouth); and the most melodic blackbirds are from the northeast of England up to around Dundee.

SC: Were there advantages to doing this by bike?

PC: The brilliant thing about being on a bike is that you can stop and listen. Here’s an example.

I was cycling EuroVelo 1 in Scotland, ah, the amazing quiet! It was so quiet that I could sense this low rumble… the kinda sound you can feel. People say about following your nose - well I followed my ears…

I followed my ears for about a mile. Eventually I found it: the low sub bass was coming from a water pumping station. Which incidentally was humming the note of D.

There were some interesting things I noticed from the recordings (not highly scientific but interesting all the same). From the sounds I recorded, 30% blackbird calls on the east of the UK were at 98 bpm, in the west, 108 bpm. Three out of four UK builders render a wall at 108bpm.

From the thousands of sounds I collected, the most prominent tempo across the UK was 98 bpm, then 110 bpm, then 122 bpm. I reflected this by the three different tempo changes within the final piece.

I also found that the prominent key was F# major, then D major and A# major (I found that D major was the prominent key of Kent). I also used this in the different movements of the final piece of music.

SC: Would you consider doing something like this again?

PC: Absolutely!  I’m in the middle of creating my third solo album Just for The Record Three. This is being written and recorded on 12 worldwide cycle missions with one song being written on each trip.

I’m looking forward to how the third album will come together and the inspirational sounds and locations I will find on the way.

11 July 2022

Recording of the week: Trailblazers in women’s sports

This week’s selection comes from Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

EURO 2022 promotional flyer

Last week, the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 competition kicked off in Old Trafford. This is the second time England has hosted the tournament, and there are live matches in stadiums across the country. With an exciting and inspiring summer of women’s sport ahead, I would like to highlight this conversation recorded for The Listening Project in 2021.

The Listening Project is an audio archive of personal conversations, collected by local and national BBC radio stations. Since 2012, people have been invited to have a conversation recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and archived by the British Library. You can listen to over one thousand recordings in full on our Sounds website, and learn more about the ongoing project on the BBC website. In this recording, archived in full as British Library call number C1500/2124, two pioneering sportswomen discuss their successes and experiences.

Leah Caleb started playing football at infant school, joining in with the boys in the playground. As her love of football grew, her mum heard about a new women's football team called Chiltern Valley run by Harry and June Batt. Leah joined the club aged 11, and at just 13 she went to Mexico to take part in the 1971 Women's World Cup. At the time, the media were comparing her footballing skills to George Best, and interest and ticket sales for the competition exceeded all expectations. 

Although she was representing England and played in front of crowds of 90,000, the team was not recognised by the Football Association or the then Women's Football Association (WFA), and on their return home they were banned from playing for three months. You can read more about the WFA’s reaction to this event in the WFA Archive held by the British Library at call number Add MS 89306. However, this sequence of events paved the way for much greater recognition and support for women’s football, leading to the huge popularity and excitement for the 2022 Euros that we are seeing today.

In this clip, Leah describes her love for the game:

Listen to Leah Caleb

Download Leah Caleb transcript

Joining Leah in this conversation is Dana Abdulkarim, who was the first Muslim and Arab woman to represent England in any sport. Like Leah, she was also 13 when her football career was taking off. She was encouraged to go for trials to play for England, but an injury combined with attitudes around her faith and participation in the sport proved to be a challenge. Instead she focused on rounders, which at the time felt more inclusive. She had great success and subsequently gained 67 England caps. She then went on to become Britain's first hijabi Muslim PE teacher, encouraging future generations of girls in sport. She is also a speaker, writer, and trustee at the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation and the Chance to Shine charity.

Leah and Dana talk together about their trailblazing experiences as women in sport across different generations. They also discuss the challenges they have faced and their hopes for the future.

In this second clip, Dana talks about how things are changing for the better in school sports, and how much she is looking forward to the Euros:

Listen to Dana Abdulkarim

Download Dana Abdulkarim transcript

Get involved with preserving women’s football online:

The British Library is part of the UK Web Archive, which has an extensive collection of content from sports clubs (amateur and professional), fan sites, football research and events. There is no distinction in the collection based on gender, and we are working to ensure that information, discussion and creative output related to the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 competition is preserved for future generations. Anyone can nominate UK published websites for inclusion in the UK Web Archive by filling in our nominations form.

You can read more about the UK Web Archive’s UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 collection in this recent blog post by Curator of Web Archiving, Helena Byrne

08 July 2022

Starting from here: ‘Interview with Michael Saville’

Yee I-Lann is one of the British Library’s Resonations artists-in-residence. She lives and works in her hometown Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. Her practice engages with regional Southeast Asian history, addressing issues of colonialism, power, and the impact of historical memory in lived social experience. Yee I-Lann was one of the featured artists in this summer’s Unlimited. This was Art Basel’s section for large scale projects. She presented her work TIKAR/MEJA, 2020 which was created in collaboration with women weavers in her homeland. In this blog, she gives us some insight into the start of her online residency at the British Library:

Perhaps Mr Michael Saville wanted me to find his story buried in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at the Bristol Archives. I was looking for stories and sounds on the British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue and entered ‘North Borneo’, where I am from, into the search box. An interview with him landed first on my screen. In the summary of the interview, I read: ‘He describes the nationalism movement [in Malaysia] and his involvement in it, and he expresses various doubts.’

‘What doubts, Mr Saville?’ I asked the screen. Did you have premonitions of the history I have since lived? I have doubts too, lots of them. What’s your story? What do you want to tell me Mr Michael Saville? What do I want to know from you? What do I want to say to you? Do you want to hear what I have to say?

So I chose this audio file as my first request for the Resonations residency I am part of. I chose it because the recording’s summary contained the word ‘doubt’. ‘Doubt’ seemed a good place to start a conversation.

Mr Saville, his wife and two children arrived in my home town Jesselton, North Borneo in April 1949. The name has since changed to Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah.

Since 1881, North Borneo had been a British Protectorate under the CEO of the North Borneo Chartered Company. When, as a consequence of the war with the Japanese during WWII, the company went bankrupt, the North Borneo Chartered Company handed us over to the British Empire, and we officially became a British crown colony in 1946.

A young Mr Saville, with his education in finance, had come to join the administration. He would work for the secretariat, become a District Officer, and hold the office of Controller of Supplies, dealing specifically with rice.

Playing sports Town Padang with the Jesselton Sports Club in the backgroundPlaying sports, Town Padang with the Jesselton Sports Club in the background, 1950s, Robert Knowles’ Collection, Sabah Museum. Mr Saville speaks of the Sports Club in Jesselton at the Town Padang in his interview. The Town Padang was the site for the Proclamation of Malaysia in Sabah in 1963.

When I first listened to ‘Interview with Michael Saville (1999-04-13)’ - British Library shelfmark: UBC034/700 - I thought, oh, that’s quite benign. The sound of his voice was familiar to me. In 1963, as the British exited North Borneo, it joined the Federation of Malaya, as Sabah, to form Malaysia. Mr Saville left Sabah in 1964. I was born seven years later. I grew up hearing what I’ve come to think of as a British paternalistic tone: earnest, sympathetic at times; defensive at others, with swallowed breath at the racier moments.

Of the colonial administration and his role within it he says:

Whether we did a good job or not I don't know. We can't be like the Irishman who says, when being asked the way, ‘Well, if I were you I wouldn't start from here’. We started from here. It was one piece of cloth and one was part of the weaving process.

Mr Saville also sounds like he loved my home, or at least enjoyed his time there. I transcribe the interview. Start, stop, rewind, play. What was that? Stop, rewind, play. I hear his intonation and pauses, I hear the doubt and nostalgia that must occupy him and old chaps from the administration like him, swept away as they must’ve been in their youth by the currents of their unquestioned times.

I must not be cynical, I say to myself that is not useful. I must listen to the gaps, hear the rehearsed speech, and hear the guilt and pleasure and joy beneath this tone of ‘one must be loyal to the office’.

I must listen to the rhythms of this voice just as I want to answer back with the rhythm of my own experiences, powered by a hunger to better understand. In many of our native and local communities here in Sabah, our history is told through oral storytelling, and I have belief and loyalty to the power of that.

Mr Saville ends his interview with a tone of regret directed towards his wife and two older children:

I think going out there was incredibly selfish… I enjoyed myself immensely but it was my life and my career, and the people who suffered from it were my two older children.

Perhaps this is my favourite part of the interview because he allowed himself to be vulnerable, to allude to other people’s trauma. I am reminded, as I sit here amongst threads and threads of that ‘one piece of cloth’ to untangle, that his people too were impacted by our shared histories. Perhaps we all need to start again from here, where we each are now, and re-weave anew.

04 July 2022

Recording of the week: The NHS turns 74

This week’s post comes from Hannah Tame, Oral History Cataloguer for the Voices of Our National Health Service collection.

On 5 July 2022, the NHS celebrates its 74th anniversary. It seems appropriate then, that this week’s selection is taken from the Voices of our National Health Service oral history collection. I am currently cataloguing this at the British Library. The collection of interviews is one of the largest collections of oral histories to ever be deposited at the British Library, with interviews captured from over 1200 different interviewees.

The collection consists of interviews from the University of Manchester’s 'NHS at 70' and 'NHS Voices of Covid-19' projects combined. NHS at 70 was initially set up in 2017 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the formation of the NHS (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund). It recorded first-hand experiences, memories and reflections of the NHS from staff, patients and members of the public. Then, with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council - part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Covid-19 Urgency call - interviews continued remotely during the pandemic for ‘NHS Voices of Covid-19’.

This week’s clip is taken from one of the pre-Covid interviews in the collection. Interviewee Margaret was born in 1935 and was interviewed in March 2019. Sadly Margaret passed away last year. Her interview captures her career as a dressmaker for the NHS, as well as her childhood reminiscences of healthcare. Margaret recalls a pivotal moment for her family in 1940 (before the creation of the NHS in 1948) when she was just five years old and her mother contracted tetanus.

Listen to Margaret Southey

Download Transcript

Illustration of couch grass

Above:  Couch grass, how Mary's mother contracted tetanus. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. See Wellcome Images. Used under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

This experience captured in Margaret’s interview offers a unique insight into an infection that less than 100 years ago would have been life threatening. Treatment for tetanus was relatively new when Margaret’s mother received it. Before the Second World War (when developments advanced for the treatment of tetanus) around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. In 2019 there were only 4 cases of tetanus reported in England. The number is low thanks to the effective tetanus vaccine given since 1961 as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

Margaret’s story is just one of many interviews in the collection that demonstrates how direct and in-direct healthcare experiences can impact all aspects of people’s lives. There are numerous other interviews in the collection that include experiences of tetanus. Whether that be from a nurse who treated babies with tetanus or someone’s first healthcare memory of receiving a tetanus vaccination at school. In my eyes, the huge variety of perspectives is one of the things that makes the Voices of Our National Health Service collection so valuable and interesting to listen to. Each interview, and each person’s experience allows us to see the NHS from a different viewpoint.

The full interview with Margaret Southey is catalogued at our reference C1887/281 and is available to listen to on-site at the British Library.

Facts and figures from the Vaccine Knowledge Project.

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