Animals in store

Here, Sue Bradley finds some half-forgotten animals and resolves to listen out for more. Sue is a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective and a Research Associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’ appeared in Oral History, vol 49, no 1, 2021.

By the time I realised my boiler was broken, the papers stored in a carelessly open plastic box underneath were sodden through – heaps of interview extracts that had defeated me years before when editing a book from the British Library’s Book Trade Lives oral history collection.[1]  

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/99/03/2b/99032b30ee103591973ccdd0cd0c0020.jpg

Frank Stoakley, born in 1905, is one of the oldest Book Trade Lives interviewees.[2] In 1920 he started work at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, where he later built a science department of international repute. Sometime before the first world war, his father, who ran the family bindery business in Green Street, had been shocked by the loss of rare books after ‘some fool left the tap on’ in rooms above the university’s science laboratories. Together with his brother, an assistant to the professor of chemistry, William Pope, he had gone on to invent a technique for repairing flood-damaged books. This, Frank explained, had entailed bathing them in several solutions to separate and clean the pages before hanging them up to dry. I lifted soft wodges out of the box, peeled the sheets gently apart and pegged them on the washing line. Once dried, the print was blurred but still distinct, and there, exposed by the springtime sun, were animals that had been hibernating all along. I recognised Vicky the terrier, some leopards, and a cat called Bang who had lived with Leonard Woolf.                                     

However hard I tried, I hadn’t been able to fit animals into that book without tagging them on like curiosities. Then, shortly before they re-surfaced, I had begun to read about animal history, a thought-provoking and increasingly influential field.[3] It proposes a shift akin to the move to ‘history from below’ but, rather than hierarchies, it envisages networks where human and animal lives are dynamically interconnected.[4] From that perspective I see that the problem of fit lay less in the structure of the book than in the original interviews, many of which I had been responsible for. As far as I can remember, I rarely asked directly about animals. They were interesting when they appeared but I didn’t understand them to be historically significant, so if they came into the conversation it would be incidentally, not unlike women and domestic staff previously. At one time, oral historians researching home life were advised to ask specifically about the latter, as interviewees might not otherwise think to include them. Oral history has never precluded accounts about those who cannot speak for themselves; one person’s recollections can help us imagine other lives too.

Frank Stoakley with Sue, 1999 © Mie Stoakley.
Frank Stoakley with Sue, 1999 © Mie Stoakley.

The volume I eventually produced contains a bookseller’s description of men at work in the packing room of the London bookshop of Bumpus in the 1950s, where wrapping from in-coming goods was recycled for out-going orders: ‘They would select pieces of paper and corrugated cardboard and make a parcel. It was all done by eye. And they used string in those days. Their packages were beautiful to look at.’[5] A room full of paper and cardboard and string? Why didn’t I think to ask about mice? That might have led to other creatures – a shop cat? A customer carrying a marmoset?[6] If recollections of animals had been embedded in context like that at the interview stage, they would have fitted naturally into the book and, more importantly, broadened the vision of life that the archive collection affords.  

Re-reading Frank Stoakley’s transcript, I am struck by yet another detail. His father, he says, was skilled in cutting images from coloured leathers to decorate the bindings for books of wealthy clients: ‘The racing men wanted their star horse […] and ladies wanted their pet dogs.’ It is a telling picture of the firm’s clientèle and the creatures that they prized.

And the possible cost of this painstaking work? Frank does not mention – nor did I think to raise – the question of anthrax, a lethal disease of animal origin prevalent at the time in the wool and leather-working trades.[7] As Melanie Challenger says, we’re fond of the notion that being human somehow provides ‘a magical boundary’.[8] Yet human life does not exist apart from animals. Imagine the history that hears them in workshops and libraries and senses their traces in vellum and glue.


[1] The British Book Trade: An Oral History, British Library, 2008/2010 was edited from the British Library’s Book Trade Lives collection of audio interviews with publishers and booksellers: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-writing-and-publishing.

[2] Frank Stoakley interviewed by Sue Bradley, British Library catalogue reference: C872/04.

[3] See https://www.britishanimalstudiesnetwork.org.uk/; https://animalhistorygroup.org/; https://networks.h-net.org/h-animal.

[4] For a useful overview see Chris Pearson, ‘History and Animal Agencies’, in Linda Kalof (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies, 2017.

[5] Michael Seviour quoted in The British Book Trade, 2010, p.72.

[6] Bumpus served a grand and bohemian clientèle at a time when monkeys were not uncommon pets.

[7] See Caroline Steedman, Dust, Manchester University Press, 2001, pp. 23-25.

[8] Melanie Challenger, How to Be Animal: A New History of What it Means to Be Human, Canongate, 2021, p.2.

“The timing has gone wrong”

Re-visiting environmental oral histories recorded over 20 years ago

As COP26 gets underway Siobhan Warrington who currently is working on the Living Deltas Hub, revisits a collection of oral histories recorded over 20 years ago with women and men living in mountain and highland regions around the world.

The timing has gone wrong,” stated Yagjung, a 59-year-old female weaver from Uttarkhand, India, interviewed in December 1996. She was referring to the weather, to the timing of the rain and the harvests, but the idea that ‘the timing has gone wrong’ has wider relevance.  Campaigners and journalists talk about climate change ‘happening now’ but for Yagjung and other mountain farmers around the world, the ‘now’ of environmental degradation and climatic changes, was 25 years ago. 

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Oral history and the current crisis

In this statement on behalf of the Oral History Collective, Graham Smith, Professor of Oral History at Newcastle outlines some of the challenges and possible responses that oral historians face during the COVID-19 crisis. He argues that oral historians need to go beyond the technical challenges of remote working and think about the political crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, he warns against oral historians supporting stereotypical and dangerous attitudes to older people, and outlines the Collective’s local and international strategy.

Graham would like to thank Oral History Unit colleagues for their early input and Collective members who commented on the draft. Graham notes: ‘Any errors or mistakes are his alone’.

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Funded PhD opportunity: Oral History’s Design: A creative collaboration.

Sustaining visitor (re)use of oral histories on heritage sites: The National Trust’s Seaton Delaval Hall AS A case study.

Oral history’s popularity as an active collecting method and archiving tool have outstripped the level of reuse of oral histories in historical interpretation. And while oral history’s limited reuse of archived oral histories has attracted some interest, this is based mainly on proposed digital technical fixes. Significantly, there is relatively less research on the dissemination of oral histories and their reception by audiences. Oral history as an emerging discipline has yet to adequately integrate users and audiences into the processes of analysis and reuse.

The PhD project draws on oral history reuse theory and practice in combination with design science to explore ways of addressing reusability. We are particularly keen to explore how heritage site visitors might become active curators and historians in reusing oral histories from an existing on-site archive and how in turn new data could be generated to shape future collecting. The PhD will generate, in partnership, new knowledge to understand and address visitors’ active engagement in interpreting the past through a case study utilising the National Trust’s oral history archive at Seaton Delaval Hall.

Terry Whalebone, 2006, CC BY 2.0 (no changes)

With the support of the local community, Seaton Delaval Hall was acquired by the National Trust ten years ago. Although a recent acquisition in Trust terms, the Hall shares with its locality a rich and significant history, including being the site of a Second World War POW camp. Much of The Hall is currently undergoing major repair and conservation, including a large engagement programme, embedding collaborative practice across the site and encouraging relevance and legacy for the Hall within the local community. Over the next few years, the site will offer opportunities to rethink and experiment with programming and interpretation. The Hall currently primarily focuses on one aspect of history, the Delaval Family, but there is an acute awareness that this is an incomplete picture. Staff and volunteers at the Hall are also interested in exploring a 360-degree interpretation of history. This is, therefore, a timely opportunity to approach this collection, archiving and engagement holistically from the outset. Above all else, the Trust staff want to ensure that Seaton Delaval Hall’s oral histories are not only collected and archived but that they are sustainable.

Design science in this project offers the possibility for a change in how oral history archives are created, curated, accessed, and most significantly in their use and reuse. This will be achieved by the student establishing a network of people from different, relevant, subject-areas and engaging them in a design-facilitated creative discourse around the specific issues identified above. By ensuring that archive creators, staff and volunteers, local community members, and visitors are involved in this network, needs and opportunities will be identified, and insights and ideas harvested and developed in design.

By researching and immersing themselves in the culture of oral history as a set of practices and theories from collection to reuse, the student will be able to create a deeper understanding of barriers and opportunities. Working together with oral historians at Newcastle, design thinkers at Northumbria and staff and volunteers at the Hall they will aim to create a new active archiving and curation system. This system will also aim to support accessibility for all and open to wider interpretations. Following the development of the system, prototyping and testing will be conducted at Hall with visitors with the findings disseminated through the Trust and beyond. The Hall, as a site for experimentation, has been identified to undertake development and shares learning at a regional and national level within the Trust. This PhD research would, therefore, include sharing lessons to regional and national colleagues across the Trust and within the wider heritage sector.

This Northern Bridge Collaborative Doctoral Award is offered through a three-way collaboration involving colleagues from the National Trust, Northumbria School of Design and History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle. The supervisory team will be led by Graham Smith, Oral History Unit and Collective (OHUC), with Mark Bailey, Northumbria, and Jo Moody and Emma Thomas, National Trust.

The successful applicant will be located in the Oral History Unit and Collective (OHUC) at Newcastle, and will also have a place within Northumbria’s Design-led Responsible Innovation Practice Research group. This will provide the student with access to CoCreate and the wider Northumbria PGR community which has an established programme of doctoral support promoting interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration. Research in the School of Design has developed to embrace both practice-based, action research and fundamental theoretical studies. Especially relevant to this study, the school has particular expertise in externally engaged, applied participatory research supported by dedicated research studios within CoCreate, a research group which explores societal challenges and cultural experiences through participatory and design-led research, with an emphasis on interaction and social design and creative practice.

OHUC at Newcastle has a core team of four PDRAs and four Associate Researchers. OHUC was launched in January 2018 and operates within Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Working across diverse academic disciplines, from creative arts to medicine, and in partnership with local history groups and community historians, the Unit’s work explores the role of oral history in communicating the past in the present with particular reference to historical justice. OHUC produces globally significant research while attending to regional and civic responsibilities. Using oral history as both a method and a source in public history settings, OHUC shares the common agenda of co-researching memory and historical narratives through reflective practices and theories, with the Collective providing a forum for knowledge exchange that explores the dynamics of individual and social memories and historical narratives. The Unit is therefore ideally suited as a research environment for this PhD, providing opportunities for engagement with knowledge-exchange activities and interdisciplinary explorations within the university and with community oral historians in the region.

The student will also have access to an extensive range of National Trust training including working with volunteers, managing change, communication, and leadership and will be allocated working space at Seaton Delaval in addition to a place in the Oral History Unit’s team.

Applicants should have experience of oral history and design. Excellent first and second degrees. Enquiries should be made to  graham.smith@newcastle.ac.uk For further details of how to apply for this Northern Bridge Collaborative Doctoral Award

UKRI GCRF Living Deltas Hub

The Oral History Collective is delighted to be associated with the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Living Deltas Hub. As part of a large, multi-disciplinary team, Professor Graham Smith and head of Newcastle University’s School of History, Professor Helen Berry, will lead a team of Research Associates and collaborative partners in history and oral history that will explore popular memories of environmental change across three of the world’s major delta regions. Here Graham reflects on just why the project is so exciting. 

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In His Own Voice: Dr Julian Tudor Hart (b. 9 March 1927, d. 1 July 2018)

In this blog post Graham Smith remembers the pioneering general practitioner Dr Julian Tudor Hart who died on the 1st of July. Graham interviewed him in June 1999.

Click HERE for a .mp3 audio extract from the interview and for a .pdf transcript of that extract: Tudor Hart in His Own Voice pt 1 extract 1

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Reflecting on a Life in Progress and the Stories of Oral History

Public Lecture All welcome. Admission free.
Register here

Launch of the Oral History Collective and Unit @ Newcastle
Wednesday 10 January, 5.30 pm
Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building,
Newcastle University

Professor Alessandro Portelli
Professor of American Literature Sapienza, University of Rome
Alessandro Portelli has played a leading role in transforming oral history. Through a number of key studies, he has promoted an appreciation of oral history as a literary genre that throws light on the significance of subjectivity in history. By interpreting the themes and structures of eyewitness testimony, Portelli has consistently demonstrated new ways of understanding memory. In this lecture Portelli reflects on his work to date, illustrating his intellectual journey with reference to the stories of the personal, and the historical, victories and defeats that have inspired his critical contribution.