The past speaks

Pupils during their oral history training session

As part of the CXXV research we’ve been asking people for their memories of North School.  Former pupils and staff members have contributed on the website by sending in stories and photos. Friends, and even families, have found each other on social media or at our events.  We’ve also been recording interviews with people about their school days, some of them made by the children and some of them by adults involved on the project.  We’ve done vox-pops, captured live events and created longer interviews.  Our longest so far is with Mrs Walker at 1 hour 15 minutes.

These oral history recordings are first- hand evidence of what has happened here in the past and bring a new dimension to our research that is different from official letters and documents, class photos and family snaps, newspaper reports and written recollections. 

How do these interviews help us on the project?  First of all it is powerful to learn about the past from the person who lived it, to hear them describe things using their own words and voice.  In official documents we get very little sense of the way the writer would speak – do they have loud or soft voices or pronounce their words in a certain way, how would they talk in the playground or staff room, do they sound friendly?

Oral history is also a way of finding the everyday in history.  It might capture experiences in the playground, what someone saw on their way to or from school, or what someone thought when the bell rang.  These sensory details bring the past to life, so that we now know John Harper was short and stout, that sometimes children from the workhouse wore different clothes and that Mr Ashby was a wonderful pianist who “played all the latest songs” (Hector Free, Colchester Recalled 2166-1). 

Oral histories not only put people into history with their lived experience but can democratise the historical process, valuing the contributions of the interviewee and interviewer and allowing more people to take a part.  By inviting people to be interviewed they are put in the position of expert – it’s their life after all – and the people doing the interviews are learning from them.  So, when Laura, Mr Garnett and the children interviewed Margaret Gilbert, the oldest living former pupil at 103 years old, she was in the position of being valued and listened to as what she had to say mattered.  This makes her and all our other interviewees special and, in this case, this was special in the eyes of the children.  When a video recording of Margaret was played at the CXXV birthday assembly, the children were genuinely excited to see her as they felt that they knew her.

Margaret Gilbert

As well as collecting new recordings we’ve been able to listen to recordings made by our project partners Colchester Recalled who have been interviewing a great number of Colchester people for many years.  These aren’t just the great and good of the town, but everyday people doing everyday things.  This has enabled us to go back in time to listen to interviews with people who are no longer around, people who were at school when John Harper was head or who remember WW1. We’ve learnt that John Harper was affectionately known as Johnnie Harper from Hector Free and that he was a “nice old boy” (Phyllis Smith):

John Harper

Just a few years ago Gwen Mason remembered that Captain Twyman sometimes used to walk her to school:

Gwendoline Mason visited North in 2015
Captain Twyman, headmaster 1922 – 1932

Of course, we must apply historian rules to oral history just as we do to other sources, examining and questioning for reliability, but it has been such a valuable and rewarding tool on CXXV to give depth and bring the stories to life.  Our subjects have even enjoyed the whole experience!  So while we’re in lockdown perhaps have a go at interviewing those living in your house or even people over the phone, and recording it on a phone or tablet.  Save it somewhere safe and you’ll be pleased next time you find it.


Oral histories from Colchester Recalled

Hector Free, 2166-1

Gwen Mason, 2759-1

Phyllis Smith, 2014-1