We look after lots of fascinating collections at Manchester Central Library. I’m going to talk to you about just one of my favourites – the Greater Manchester Sound Archive. Sound archives are a new thing for us at the library. But they fit really well alongside everything else we do, and they do it in a different way from the rest.
That was a mashup of Lancashire looms, the sound of a mill hooter and Dorothy Fryman singing Not More Shall I Work at the Factory. And the background picture is a pattern book. We hold hundreds of them at the library. They are volumes full of fabric swatches recording printworks’ experiments with patterns and dyes. I can never resist showing them to school groups. I ask the children, so when was this pattern book made?
Oh I dunno, looks like the 1960s, 1970s from the patterns, they say.
Actually no, I explain to the kids. This was made in the 1860s.
NO WAY, they say. Everything was black and white back then!
It’s funny. Everything wasn’t black and white back then. Watching their faces as they process the fact that life, dresses, everything, was in technicolor back in the day is so much fun. But the kids are showing an instinctive understanding of what history is. They intuitively get the limits of historical sources. They’re right. We can’t get past the limitations of whatever source we have in front of us.
This is Mrs Donaldson being interviewed in 1979 by North West Sound Archive founder Ken Howarth. She is talking about her granny’s memories of an attack by soldiers on members of the public in Ancoats Lane on 16 August 1819, in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre.
Yes, 1819. The granny in question was three and a half years old when it happened. Which means that she would have been 80 in 1917. Which means that if her grand-daughter (Mrs Donaldson) was three and a half in 1917, she would have been 68 years old in 1979.
That’s a second-hand story in living memory. It shows how oral history can provide the empathetic atmosphere necessary to recount personal history. Without oral history, historical events can seem distant and textbooky and somehow about somebody else. Listening even to a second-hand oral source is a physical experience quite unlike reading words on a page.
What does the word ‘workhouse’ make you think? Oliver Twist? Victorian poverty? Poor law textbooks? This is a woman being interviewed by Paul Graney in 1960 about her time being pregnant in Salford Workhouse in 1920. She remains anonymous because her son or daughter could still be alive. They would be 95 years old, and they could well be sitting in a Prestwich care home reading this blog right now.
The woman reads a poem she wrote to cope with her experience, and then breaks down with the emotion of the memory. She used her creativity in the workhouse to bear the weight of the difficulty of her experience, and in the environment of the oral history interview with Paul Graney she feels comfortable recounting her pain. It is a difficult listen. A lot of oral history is emotionally difficult, or repetitive, or boring, or annoying. Basically it’s human.
Other kinds of history – the ones we’re used to looking after in the library – are generally the results of already decided courses of action. A committee makes its decision, a photographer snaps his moment, even a private diarist frames her day for her very personal audience of one. Whereas oral history is, no matter how well it is done, one human being talking to another. With all the randomness and kindness and stubbornness that entails.
This is Matt Busby receiving his Freedom of the City of Manchester in September 1967 at Manchester Town Hall. Here he’s reflecting on the potential for football to bring people together despite language and cultural differences. Just a few months later he became the first manager to win the European Cup with an English team. I don’t think many people have heard his speech before.
The ceremony was recorded onto reel-to-reel tape by Manchester City Council but it was only digitised by Advanced Media Restoration last month. You can listen to the whole ceremony, including bumps and mutters and swearwords, online.
In this extract Busby talks about his own life story. Of course the story of his career is central to the story of Manchester United Football Club. But this part of it is very like everybody else’s story of their own life. Busby underlines the chance nature of his fate (he was destined to emigrate to America, instead he ended up in Manchester), just as we embrace the random when we explain our lives to each other in the pub.
Busby talks about how coming to Manchester changed his life, and how he came to love the city – this story comes out again and again in oral history interviews. Busby’s 1967 audience, there in the Town Hall that night, may have listened to the man afresh but we can’t. Nobody alive now can listen to his proud, half-cut Glaswegian voice talking about football without filtering it through the voice of Sir Alex Ferguson. Our listening is relative. We all filter every sound through our own personal aural experiences.
Busby was born in a pitman’s cottage near the deep coal mines of Bellshill, Lanarkshire. He moved to industrial Lancashire to play for Manchester City Football Club (and no blog should reference one club and not the other). Busby won the FA Cup as a player with City in 1934. City played their football until 2003 at Maine Road in Moss Side. These days they play in Bradford in East Manchester. In fact the site of their stadium was once the pithead of the Bradford Pit.
Here Ivan Fryman talks about being a singing miner, and sings the Bradford Pit song. Fryman reflects that singing was difficult down the mine, but popular. Miners would swap water in return for songs. Ivan Fryman was folk singer Dorothy Fryman’s husband. She sang us in with the Factory Song. They sang folk songs together, and they were good friends of oral historian and folk music collectorPaul Graney, who followed them around recording their gigs. And thank goodness he did.
This is a blog based on my nine minutes for We Make History – the Museums Showoff at the Deaf Institute on 18 November.