Oral history is a unique form of archival material in that it gives a voice to people who wouldn’t usually find themselves in a library. In the case of the oral history collection at the Waterways Archive, based at the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, this includes the memories of well-known characters from the waterways and the boating community including coal carriers, salt traders, carpenters, lock keepers and barge horse handlers.
People such as Sally Chadwick, who was born on a boat on the Shropshire Union in 1915, or Ann Hulme, whose grandfather was the lock keeper near Tewkesbury from 1922 until the 1950s. In one of the interviews, Brian Collings, a canal artist at Stoke Bruerne, summarises the appeal of these oral histories. “The way of life of the people who worked these boats might seem strange or unusual but they were just people doing their jobs,” he says. “The boat people were misunderstood because they were living an unusual life but now people want to know all about it.”
The oral history collection largely consists of two archives, one that dates from the 1980s and recorded on magnetic tape and a more recent collection compiled for a project called 20th Century Voices but it’s supplemented by contributions from local history groups. “There are some really interesting stories in these recordings, such as Irene Atkins who was the daughter of Charlie Atkins, a man known throughout the waterways as Chocolate Charlie, whose boat Mendip is here at the museum,” says Canal & River Trust archivist John Benson. “Charlie would get chocolate crumbs from the Bournville factory and give it to children on passing boats. He had a very striking visage, he looks like the stereotype of a boater, and Irene was born on a boat.” Many older interviewees were born on boats or came from families with long histories on canals, while more recent interviewees are able to discuss the early pleasure boating industry and the conservation movement. Each personal story adds to the whole, providing an overview of 20th century canal life that would otherwise be lost forever.
The collection also brings to life the different dialects and glossaries of the canals. Benson has noted that boaters not only have a different vocabulary from people on dry land, but there are also differences between canal systems – so a term on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal might mean something completely different on the Grand Union. That’s just one of the ways an oral history archive can capture the authentic voices of people whose lives might not otherwise be recorded. Paper records tend to focus on the experiences of authority figures and can lack colour or immediacy; oral history is more democratic and naturalistic, providing a richer, unfiltered social history. “A working boater wouldn’t have the time or inclination to record their lives, and many of them couldn’t have done anyway because they couldn’t read and write,” says Benson. “That’s the unique quality, it allows us to talk to people who lived through particular experiences.”
Oral history is relatively easy to collate – you simply need time, a recording device and somebody willing to talk – but Benson emphasises that is only half the job. As well as issues like copyright, defamation and preservation, recordings need to be transcribed or given a summary description, something often done by much-needed volunteers. Without that, they are no use to researchers. The Waterways Archive collection is used for promotional material as well as research, and the museum often dips into the collection to add context to exhibitions. Collections assistant Zofia Kufeldt explains that, “There’s a lot of material that relates to this site and the slipway, so when we were looking at the slipway we used the oral histories to make sure we had historical accuracy. We wanted to make sure we were interpreting the slipway correctly and used the archive to build up a picture of how it once worked.”
Benson adds to the collection whenever he can and will be attending a Canal & River Trust meeting in spring 2018 where people will discuss a more co-ordinated nationwide approach to collecting material. Finding new voices is often about circumstance. He recently interviewed somebody in Manchester after a visitor to the museum spotted a boat that he recognised as once belonging to a friend. “I went to interview them both about their memories and they recalled an occasion in 1971 when they bow-hauled a coal boat all the way from Wigan to Manchester – that means they pulled it by hand,” says Benson. “One of the really great parts of oral history is just doing it, going out and interviewing somebody. It’s a great experience. For some people, it’s one of the few times in their life when they are properly listened to and it can be very therapeutic for an interviewer as it allows you to slip into somebody else’s life. People can be very pleased at the idea that you are going to record something and will preserve it permanently, and therefore in some ways preserve them. One of the really powerful things about archive generally and oral history specifically is that you are preserving a part of people’s lives, making them available for other people to discover long after they have gone.”
Nancy Ridgeway talks about her time working on a barge in the 1940s. One of the many fascinating insights being stored at the Waterways Archive, National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port.
Visit the Waterways Archive, based at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port - where you can look up company records, staff records, library, photographic collection and more. Research service available. Open Mon–Wed 10.00am – 4pm; booking advisable. Alan Baker