Spoken history of Cumbriaproves fascinating

Date: Friday 23rd March 2018

THE March meeting of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society took place at the Friends Meeting House.

In the absence of the chairman, Professor M. Mullett, Mrs L. Mullett welcomed members and guest speaker Elizabeth Roberts, who was to talk about the oral history of Cumbria.

However, she did inform members that the title was somewhat misleading as the project originally concentrated on Barrow-in-Furness where she had lived, and Lancaster where she was living in the 1970s.

At a later date Preston was also included, charting as it did the experiences of people in a textile town. Eventually, there were 548 tapes of authentic voices to be digitised to make them available to a wider audience than the originals, which could only be accessed at Lancaster University.

Dr Roberts had previously been the author of five books concerning political figures of the 20th Century and thus found this new venture somewhat challenging.

The interviews with people in their own homes were based on 215 prescribed questions, many of which would be answered by the interviewees’ response to earlier questions.

All the interviews were with working class people and would result in a social history of times gone by. In previous years it became obvious that most working class families lived in the terraces of urban areas.

Bathrooms were non-existent, the water supply provided only cold water and the outside privy was commonplace. Overcrowding was the norm as many households had numerous children — the tin bath saw much use.

Frequently, people described their lives as “bed and work” — not difficult to imagine with the lack of facilities and the familiar gadgets and appliances of our present time. Most houses were rented.

Music was a great source of entertainment within the homes as well as storytelling. There would be few books as reading was considered “a waste of time when you could be working”.

In spite of the overcrowding problems, the parlour was usually used quite infrequently although usually opened for people paying their last respects to the deceased.

Health care was generally provided by family members or friends, doctors being expensive and providing some rather strange recommendations.

Occasionally workers did take out health insurance through friendly societies but the system was quite complex and too expensive for most working class people. Imagine the joy when the NHS was established after WWII — workers declared “now we can afford to be poorly”.

Workers made good use of allotments and provided vegetables for themselves, extended family and neighbours and this also helped to keep local shop prices at a reasonable level as they also sold their produce to retail outlets. Fishing was another provider of family meals and, at the coast, crab collecting for selling on was popular.

In the later 19th Century, there was an influx of iron and street workers in Barrow from the Midlands and they introduced the keeping of pigs in back yards — a good source of food but the associated effluent proved problematic.

The project also revealed the dominant role of women in the home. Many of them had complete control of family finance with the working members of the households “tipping up” their wages into the communal pot and receiving pocket money. It was often the women who purchased houses — one in particular had bought a house for each of her six children.

Post WWII, conditions began to change rapidly. The size of families became more limited, incomes improved and the introduction of many household appliances and gadgets freed up women to work away from the home and thus contribute to income.

These changes led to the demolition of many older terraces as people moved out to the suburbs and purchased their own homes, as well as cars to facilitate transport.

In a fascinating talk, the audience heard many stories including those of girls as young as 12 attending the hiring fairs in order to find employment — a mind boggling scenario to our 21st Century ways of thinking. Neighbourliness and religion played a much greater part in people’s lives which built up strong communities among the working class and throughout the extracts of the conversations there was evidence of fondness in spite of their harsher existences.

Doubtless, some members of the group empathised with the speakers in the interviews and Dr Roberts was thanked appreciatively by Mrs Mullett.