THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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200 posts categorized "Oral history"

26 June 2019

The Stonewall Riots: I wouldn’t have missed it for the world

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Stonewall_Inn_1969

Stonewall Inn, 1969 (New York Public Library)

In the United States, actions to protest against discrimination of gay men and lesbians began in the 1950s. A decade later times were ripe for what would become known as the starting point of the gay revolution: the Stonewall Riots. Starting at 1am on a Friday night, 28th June 1969, the riots lasted for six days. Six days where gay men, lesbians, drags queens and transgender people confronted the police to protect and claim their spaces, dignity and rights. The turmoil led to the formation of the intersectional Gay Liberation Front in early July and, later in December, of the Gay Activists Alliance which was more strictly focussed on LGBT issues.

The mythology that has developed around the event is not only due to the fact that it, unbeknownst to those who raised their voice that night, made history, but also because of supposedly conflicting accounts of the night. However, David Carter (author of the book ‘Stonewall, the riots that sparked the gay revolution’), shows that when put under close scrutiny, narratives of the night don’t conflict at all and unreliable information can be easily isolated. It was a collective effort in which the whole LGBT community played their role.

Leee Black Childers, a photographer who worked closely with artists pivoting around Andy Warhol’s Factory, is one of the people who witnessed the uproar from outside the Stonewall Inn. He was 24 at the time, and had moved to New York from San Francisco a few years earlier. Looking for alternative lifestyles he found Greenwich Village, an astounding and fascinating mixture of urban realities, from residential houses and deli shops, to the Women’s House of Detention, past the gay scene of the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Street. He recalls a buzzing atmosphere, brightened by mostly gay male youth and statuesque figures running in their stockings up and down late at night. It was around these streets that his passion for photographing drag queens began, thanks to a fortuitous invitation to the wedding of The Factory’s stars Jackie Curtis and Eric Emerson. This was an environment he felt he belonged to; frequented by talented and of control people such as Andrea Whips and Holly Woodlawn, as well as a crossroad of artists who shuttled between Warhol’s Factory in Union Square and Mickey Ruskin’s Max’s Kansas City (originally a steakhouse, with a backroom just dedicated to the craziest people from all avenues of life).

"They're raiding the Stonewall" C456/76/08)

The Stonewall Inn wasn’t the only gay bar in the neighborhood. The Snake Pit, the Checkerboard, and the Sewer were all well-established venues, and had all been raided and shut down in the weeks preceding the riots.

In his interview, Leee Black Childers describes one of the police attacks at the Sewer, an after hour bar, where drag queens were lined up and arrested. He explains how the detention of crossdressers was legally possible due to a law that prohibited masquerading in public. Yet in most of these occasions, although harassed by the police, gay people would be let away unless caught in explicitly homosexual activities.

A few days after, Leee was sitting on the stoops of Christopher Street with some friends, when someone in clacking slingbacks came down the street screaming ‘They're raiding the Stonewall!’ and...

Blog by Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound HeritageThe complete interview with Leee Black Childers can be listened to onsite at the British Library in St Pancras or Boston Spa. For more information on an Oral History of British Photography see the collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.

25 June 2019

Michael Ryle and the development of the House of Commons select committee system

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Forty years ago, on 25 June 1979, members of the House of Commons debated proposals to restructure its select committee system to align with the way government departments were organised.

A Select Committee of the House of Commons in session at Portcullis House, circa 2010-12

A Select Committee of the House of Commons in session at Portcullis House, circa 2010-12. Courtesy of UK Parliament. Licence: CC BY 3.0

In the words of the then Leader of the House, Norman St John-Stevas, these reforms were intended 'to redress the balance of power to enable the House of Commons to do more effectively the job it has been elected to do'.

Calls to redress that balance went back to the early 1960s. Among the academics, parliamentary staff and parliamentarians advocating procedural reform at that time was Michael Ryle, a clerk in the House of Commons whose 40-year career culminated in becoming Clerk of Committees in the late 1980s.

Michael Ryle

Michael Ryle. Photograph courtesy of the Study of Parliament Group.

Ryle joined the House of Commons in 1951, and in his oral history interview recorded in 2003 he remembers how as a new clerk he was made to feel particularly welcome by a long-standing member of the House.

Michael Ryle on Churchill (C1135/13) [Part 2, 00:06:30 – 00:09:04]

Ryle describes his role as a founder member of the Study of Parliament Group (SPG) as one of his greatest achievements. In this clip he tells the story of how it came to be established in 1964 and early proposals for parliamentary reform.

Michael Ryle on the SPG (C1135/13) [Part 3, 00:19:16 – 00:22:46]

Within a few years some of those proposals were in motion when Richard Crossman, Leader of the House, introduced a handful of new select committees in the late 1960s. Some focused on a particular subject area, such as science and technology, but in 1979 the concept of specialist subject committees was shelved in favour of a system that mirrored government departments.

From his time serving in the Committee office, Ryle experienced first-hand how the work of committees changed. 'The main changes I saw during my working life in the Committee office­ – which was most of my life­ – was this move towards the select committees becoming much more public, much more influential, much more concerned with the policy matters, much more testing of Ministers than they were in the old days. I saw real significant changes, especially of course after 1979.' [Part 2, 00:11:40 – 00:12:11]

A recent Liaison Committee inquiry has examined the effectiveness and influence of the departmental select committee system. The committee’s chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, will deliver the annual Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture at a conference being held later this week where delegates will reflect on how successful those 1979 changes have been in meeting the reformers’ original goals.

Michael Ryle was recorded for the House of Commons staff oral history project in 2003. The interviewer was Gloria Tyler, a member of the House of Commons Library staff @commonslibrary. These short extracts come from an in-depth interview which can be accessed in the British Library reading rooms. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. Emmeline Ledgerwood is a member of the Study of Parliament Group @StudyofParl.

24 June 2019

Recording of the week: Frank Land OBE - from Nazi Germany to the tea shop electronic brain

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This week's selection comes from Dr Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Amongst the awards in this month's Queen's Birthday Honours list was a much deserved OBE for An Oral History of British Science interviewee Frank Land, Britain's first professor of information systems and a pioneer of business computing.

In this clip from his interview, Frank recalls the path that led him from a childhood in 1930s Nazi Germany to become one of the early programmers of Lyons Electronic Office, or "LEO", the world's first business computer, created in the 1950s by catering company J Lyons & Co to automate the business operations of their chain of tea shops.

Photograph of Frank Land with his twin brotherFrank Land with his twin brother

Frank Land on emigration, education and working for Lyons (C1379/17)

The full interview with Frank Land can be listened to here.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

10 June 2019

Recording of the week: Loss of a world and a need to capture it

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

Someone asked Goha what was his favourite music and he replied, ‘The clanging of pots and pans and the tinkling of glasses’ (Middle Eastern Food, p.520)

In 2018 Gaby’s Deli closed after 50 years on Charing Cross Road. A popular haunt of both theatre goers and Central London protestors, it’s also where the proprietor Gaby Elyahou claims (although who can really prove such a thing) to have introduced falafel to London. Gaby’s opened in 1965 and three years later, cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden published her first masterpiece A Book of Middle Eastern Food, updated two years later with A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. While Gaby’s was pretty successful in selling falafel, Roden is the first to admit that Middle Eastern cuisine in general did not go down too well in the UK. In the clip selected for this blog she remarks on how “in those days I wasn’t thinking of the English, because at that time the English were not interested at all” and how the general consensus was it might all be “eyeballs and testicles”. Obviously things are different today, but this does raise the question of who Roden was writing for instead.

Photograph of Mediterranean cookery booksMy mum's copy of Mediterranean Cookery, my housemate's copy of A New Book of Middle Eastern Food and a teapot.

Claudia Roden was born in 1936 to a Jewish Egyptian family. In 1951 she left Cairo for France and then the UK to study art, but after the Suez Crisis of 1956 her family, like many other Egyptian Jews who were expelled or fled, joined her to settle in London. It’s there that Roden began, as a form of historical preservation, to collect recipes, and in this recording she gives her poignant reasons for doing so; “loss of a world, loss of a heritage and a need to capture it”.

Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern cuisine (C821/47)

Roden began with “ourselves, my family” and moved on to “others who had come from Syria, or had come from Turkey”, eventually culminating in A New Book which is described in the introduction as a “joint creation of numerous Middle Easterners who, like me, are in exile”. But wherever the recipes came from and whatever stories they told, Roden was adamant that they “have to be written down, have to be made a record of”. With that in mind it’s apt that we come full circle to this Recording of the Week, itself, taken from an eleven hour oral history interview recorded by Polly Russell for the National Life Stories project ‘Food: From Source to Salespoint’. Because if books are one way of preserving history then recordings are another, and both are underpinned by the same principles of heritage. Interviews too are a “joint creation” and, in the domain of oral history, “loss of a world, loss of a heritage and a need to capture it” remains central.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

05 June 2019

Stuart Franklin remembers photographing Tank Man in Tiananmen Square

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30 years ago this week the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China ended when the People’s Liberation Army fired on the student-led demonstrators. While the protests of 1989 took place across the whole of mainland China, it is the events in Beijing that dominated international coverage. The iconic photo of ‘Tank Man’ has come to stand as the defining image of the movement.

Tankman_new_longshot_StuartFranklin

Wide shot of Tank Man by Stuart Franklin (Source: Wikipedia)

In this classic photograph an unknown man holds two shopping bags and stands alone against a line of tanks. Captured by five different photographers, the most widely republished version was taken by Stuart Franklin of Magnum Photos. Stuart was interviewed by Shirley Read for an Oral History of British Photography in 2000 and he described how he took the photograph and how he got it out of China:

"So I hid the film in a box of tea" (C459/129/12)

In the interview Stuart considers what makes his photo of Tank Man different from the other four that were taken. Unlike the others, his shot includes smoke coming out of the fourth tank indicating it was about to move and adds “tension” to the image. Surprisingly, and despite the impact and longevity of the photograph, Stuart describes it as “feeble” and “pathetic” compared to Josef Koudelka’s photographs of Prague in 1968:

"It wasn't a very satisfying image to be taking" (C459/129/12)

Although Stuart is critical of his own photo he recognises its impact and discusses why it became so iconic:

"... a symbolic edge that it wouldn't otherwise have had" (C459/129/12)

Stuart speaks eloquently about how an image is defined as much by its dissemination as by its quality. So while he thinks he took better photographs of the protests, including those outside of Beijing, he is aware that they will never have the importance of Tank Man.

The identity of the protester himself has never been discovered, nor is it known what happened to him after the photo was taken. Yet through photographs such as Stuart’s he is as emblematic of the protests now as he was 30 years ago.

The complete interview with Stuart Franklin can be listened to online by those in Higher and Further Education institutions. For more information on an Oral History of British Photography see the collection guide to Oral histories of visual arts and crafts.

23 May 2019

One of the very first MEPs: Joyce Quin, Baroness Quin, remembers the early days of the European Parliament

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Photo # 1MEPs their vote in the ballot box on 17 September 1979 in Strasbourg. This election would reveal Simone VEIL as the new directly elected President of the European Parliament. Credit: European Parliament

Today, despite the Government’s best intentions, Britons vote again in the European elections, nearly 40 years since the first cohort of MEPs was elected in June 1979.

Joyce Quin, now a member of the House of Lords and former MP for Gateshead (1987-97), was one of the 410 MEPs elected in 1979. She served as an MEP for ten years, and in her 2014 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project, she describes how she came to be selected as a Labour MEP candidate.

“Well, that was a very chancy thing in a way. About the time of the European elections, because I was lecturing on European policy and I was a member of the Labour Party, and also through my mother I still had links with where I grew up near Tynemouth in Witley Bay, I got asked to speak to a newly formed Fabian Society, the North Tyneside Fabian Society, about the European elections which I did and we had a nice meeting.

Then a couple of weeks later the secretary rang me up and said they had realised that they could nominate someone on the selection process for their local [European] constituency, because it was a constituency system in those days, which was called Tyne South and Wear.

And she said that the members would like to nominate me and I thought about it, and even though I was thinking that I would probably stay in the academic world, obviously it was a very interesting offer and I thought I’d really be interested in doing that, so I said yes while realising it was the first rung on an extremely long ladder.” [C1503/61 Track 1, 00:11:32 - 00:12:52]

Quin goes on to explain the backdrop to her selection process, aspects of which are as true today as they were 40 years ago.

“The trade unions were less organised for that European election than for any other selection I’ve ever come across because it came across people at the last minute, the Labour Party wasn’t certain whether they wanted to fight the European elections, there was a lot of pro- and anti -Europeanism, I mean it was quite a troublesome issue in the Labour Party at that time. … There were no women MPs in the north-east at all at the time and it was just the beginning of the rumblings of discontent about this in the Labour Party in particular and therefore a lot of the women’s organisations in the Labour Party looked at me with some interest.” [C1503/61 Track 1, 00:14:28 – 00:15:22]

Once elected, Quin was part of a new project in which fellow MEPs “were thrilled to be creating something so different and democratic and hopeful.” In this clip, she describes the idealism that permeated the atmosphere during the early days of the new institution.

Joyce Quin on the European Parliament (C1503/61) [00:16:14 - 00:18:37]

For the candidates of 2019, the atmosphere that awaits those that are elected as MEPs could not be more different.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.

You can listen to the complete interview with Joyce Quin at British Library Sounds.

10 May 2019

Hearing the Dead – Florence Nightingale’s voice

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Sunday 12th May sees the 199th birthday of Florence Nightingale. To celebrate, Mike Esbester and Natalie Pithers share their experiences of exploring history with children, with particular reference to Florence's story.

How do children find out about the past? A challenging but crucial question for school teachers, the British Library, historians, genealogists and indeed anyone with a feel for history. Particularly for younger children, the nuances of historians’ interpretations and different theoretical approaches are difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. Instead, we make history more tangible by looking at the people and events of the past: from the everyday woman or man in the street, to ‘great lives’ and exceptional moments.

In some schools at the moment, children in Year One are looking at Mary Seacole, Edith Cavell and Florence Nightingale. A chance comment from the British Library’s Oral History Curator, Mary Stewart, alerted professional genealogist Natalie Pithers and academic historian Mike Esbester to the British Library’s sound recording of Florence Nightingale – and offered a great opportunity to make use of this and other sources with some Year One children in different settings.

Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering, copied by Elliott & Fry, half-plate glass copy negative, 1950s (late 1856-1857) NPG x82368, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering, copied by Elliott & Fry, half-plate glass copy negative, 1950s (late 1856-1857) NPG x82368, © National Portrait Gallery, London. License CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 

C1693/1 Recording of Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910 

History at home – Natalie’s experience

Last term, the ‘Florence Nightingale and Bravery’ topic captivated my bubbly 5-year old. She’d been enthusiastic about Florence since the first day of term, when she walked home from school eagerly recounting how the class had been given an ancient battered suitcase. The case was full of medicine and bandages, but best of all it contained ‘a dead rat’ and ‘Miss had no idea how it got there!’ It’s not hard to imagine the joy I felt at hearing my own passion for history echoed back at me by my daughter.

As a genealogist I wanted to share some of my professional life with my daughter, and this topic was ideal. We snuggled on the sofa surrounded by paper printouts, starting with Florence’s Christening record. My daughter saw the writing: ‘it was really bad in the olden days, wasn’t it Mum?’ She was captivated by the idea that this person ‘in history’ had parents, and a Nanny and Grandad – just like her.

We checked other records – the censuses. With a magnifying glass to ‘look for clues’, we cross-referenced across sources to find out when Florence was born and the names of her parents. What about Florence’s place of birth? She shouted excitedly, ‘It’s Italy!’

Next, newspaper reports on Florence’s death. My daughter bounced on the sofa as we ‘discovered’ poems and romanticised illustrations of the ‘lady of the lamp.’ For comparison we looked for articles on Mary Seacole’s death. There were no pictures and reports were scant. My daughter nodded knowingly: ‘it’s because she was poor.’ I let her draw her own conclusions.

Lastly, we found Florence’s voice at the British Library Oral History. Ears angled at the laptop speakers, we listened to the crackly tones of someone who died over 100 years ago, bringing alive in a different way someone so far only experienced on paper. I might just have good old Florence to thank, not only for so much of modern nursing, but for my child’s budding love for history.

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick
Example of a letter from the British Library collections: Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick (Shelfmark: MS 45814)

History at school – Mike’s experience

Once I’d found out about the Florence Nightingale recording, I wanted to use it in a session I’d volunteered to give at Botley Primary School in Oxford. I hoped it would surprise the Year One children to hear the voice of one of the long-dead women they were finding out about that term, as well as produce a greater connection with the past.

We started by discussing what sources we might use to find out about the past, including looking at paintings and photographs of the Crimean War and thinking about what they might tell us. We had a look at one of Florence Nightingale’s letters, available from the British Library: it gave a personal insight into the conditions, as well as reassuring the children that grown-up ‘scribbly’ handwriting was nothing new! Importantly, we used it to question the idea that Nightingale was unproblematically virtuous – the children loved the rudeness of her comments about ‘drunken old dames’.

They were really keen to hear Nightingale’s voice – and whilst it was difficult to make out (unsurprising, giving the recording technology of the 1890s), they were excited. We talked about why the recording was made and the need to support war veterans before the modern welfare state.

I also took in a family possession – an 1855 jug sold to raise money for the Royal Patriotic Fund, a charity established in 1854 to support soldiers’ dependents. That the children could see something in front of them from the same time as Nightingale helped make that connection and they responded very strongly to the jug and the images it showed.

I was impressed with the projects the children had already been putting together, and the keenness with which they greeted the items we explored – their teachers have been doing great work with this generation of future historians!

1855 jug sold to raise money for the Royal Patriotic Fund
An item owned by Mike's family: 1855 jug sold to raise money for the Royal Patriotic Fund

History in mind?

This curriculum topic was a great opportunity to introduce children not only to particular episodes in the past but also the method and process of historical research. At home and school we were able to think about the figures that are popularly remembered from the past, the ‘great lives’, and those who haven’t been remembered – those ‘old dames’ Nightingale bemoaned as well as individual soldiers and others from all sides of the conflict. This level of abstraction wouldn’t work well with the children, so the primary sources allowed us to get to grips with the bigger questions – and for that, the British Library’s collections, oral history and manuscript, were a great help. It was also important that this wasn’t simply a discussion about the past, but opened up conversations about gender stereotypes and what women and men were and weren’t allowed to do – and how that has changed today.

Blogpost by Mike Esbester and Natalie Pithers

Biographies

Natalie Pithers is a professional genealogist, driven by a long-standing interest in her own family history and a desire to help others find out about their pasts. She offers her professional services as Genealogy Stories, helping people link family history with wider social contexts of the time; at the same time, her website is a means of sharing her own research and general tips to help people. She tweets as @geneastories.

Mike Esbester is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Portsmouth. Taking history out of the University and into other settings, like schools, is an important and fun part of the History team’s work. The team tweet as @UoP_History and run an active blog. Mike researches and teaches on a variety of topics relating to 19th and 20th century Britain, including the history of accidents, safety and risk. He co-leads the collaborative ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project, looking at accidents to British and Irish railway workers from the later 19th century to 1939, and tweets as @RWLDproject.

Natalie, Mike and Mary Stewart are currently working together, with a number of others, on an initiative to bring together historical researchers – archivists, academics, local historians, family historians, genealogists and more – to share expertise and to promote better cooperation. The Oral History Society is supporting this initiative. This collaborative effort is going under the banner ‘Historians Collaborate’ – for those on Twitter, look for (and please use!) #HistoriansCollaborate.

01 May 2019

The Duke of Wellington

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Sir Arthur Wellesley  1st Duke of WellingtonSir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Thomas Lawrence

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Two hundred and fifty years ago today, Arthur Wellesley, Field Marshall His Grace the Duke of Wellington, was born in Dublin.  Most famous for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo where he defeated Napoleon in 1815, he was also Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Lords three times and Prime Minister twice while upon his death he was still Commander-in-chief of the British Army.

Wellington at Waterloo by Alexander HillingfordWellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Born in 1769, when he died at the age of eighty-three in 1852, Wellington was given a state funeral, a rare honour also accorded Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Nelson, Palmerston, Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill.  It is amazing to think that we can hear the voice of someone who attended the funeral of this great man born two and a half centuries ago. 

Ticket to Wellington's funeralTicket to the funeral (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

Frederick Mead was ninety-two years old when he recorded his memories of the occasion in 1940.  He can only have been four or five years of age at the time and is obviously reading from a prepared script, but we are hearing the voice of an eye-witness which creates a living connection to the event.  Mead describes queuing with his brother to see the lying in state at Chelsea Hospital and his uncle withdrawing them as he saw no hope of attaining their purpose with such a large crowd.  In this extract, he goes on to describe the funeral including a reference to the Thames Embankment which at that time did not exist.

This recording comes from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Frederick Mead 1940

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