Words in time

31st March 1995 at 01:00
A Woman's Place: an Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890-1940 By Elizabeth Roberts Blackwell, #163;12.99. 0 631 14754 3. Women and Families: an oral history, 1940-1970 By Elizabeth Roberts, Blackwell, #163;21.95. 0 631 19612 9. Oral History and the Local Historian By Stephen Caunce Longman, #163;29. 99. 0 582 07294 8, #163;11.99. 0 582 07295 6

Julia Thorogood on the value of oral history. They "knew their place", writes Elizabeth Roberts in the first of her two surveys of working-class women in the towns of Barrow, Lancaster and Preston. Certainly this is true of the older women interviewed: they knew their role, their immediate locality, the mores of their class, intimately - as intimately as they must have known every crack and blemish on the front door-steps which they "donkey-stoned" with such assiduity. (Stoning was a process whereby scrubbed flagstones were rubbed over with a white or cream chalk. It looked fine but didn't last.) Unobtrusively Elizabeth Roberts persuades the reader to view this single domestic chore as a symbol of neighbourhood cohesion (not to say coerciveness) and of a devotion to appearances that is simultaneously comic and gallant.

"It wasn't unusual," recalled a male resident of a council estate in the 1950s, "to see at nearly every door-step various ladies' bottoms moving up and down as they donkey-stoned the step. They used to hold their nylons up with elastic bands. It wasn't very dignified; rather large, rotund old ladies with long bloomers on! But you just accepted that was the nature of things."

"Are you ill?" the neighbours would ask if the step wasn't done - by some innocent up from the South, perhaps, or a rebellious 1950s wife.

"I got married and I said 'I'm not going to spend my life scrubbing front steps.' It was absolutely ridiculous and I refused to do it. My mother came and did mine. She wouldn't let the neighbours see that I had a front step that hadn't been done. So then I had to do it myself to stop my mother coming and doing it, and I was very resentful." She continued, however, until her mother died.

Donkey-stoning was an occasion for gossip. And gossip, in the older community, was a means of enforcing social control. Reputations mattered - if a child-minder neglected her charges or a husband drank away his wages before handing them over to his wife, these things would be known and disapproved. Gossip was also the method whereby neighbours discovered who needed help even before it had been requested.

When donkey-stoning was finally abandoned and weekly trips to the supermarket replaced daily visits to the corner shop, so families withdrew into their increasingly comfortable homes. One woman returned to live in the street where she had grown up and found it changed. She supposed the neighbours would still help in time of trouble "but not like they did before . . . you would have to ask them; before you didn't have to ask them."

In Women and Families Roberts notes the extent to which the phrase "they did their own thing" has replaced "it was the thing to do" in her respondents' testimony. Most people still liked to think of themselves as good neighbours but had somehow lost track of the conventions through which such relationships should be conducted.

An overall lack of certainty as to their "place" pervades the responses of many of the women in the post-1940 period. Roberts's suggestions why this should be so are thoughtful and undogmatic. "As this is a book based chiefly on oral evidence, it is primarily concerned with the local and the personal. It would be unwise to draw from it too many conclusions about a wider society but it is hoped that it will raise questions in other historians' minds."

This is almost too tentative. Her knowledge is deep-rooted (Barrow was her birth-place) and her research solid. Even her statistics manage to be stimulating. I was saddened by the percentage of children who had lost one parent before the age of 15 in the first study (around 23 per cent of the sample) and, in the second, depressed by the falling age of women relative to their husbands at marriage and their consequently greater dependence. Elizabeth Roberts knows her strengths as an oral historian and can poke quiet ridicule at theoretical sociologists who attempt to explain family caring in terms of "calculative instrumentality" - overlooking simple human affection. Her two volumes appear austere but tell an absorbing tale.I hope she is collecting material for a third.

In Oral History and the Local Historian Stephen Caunce describes how he was inspired by George Ewart Evans's work among the horsemen of East Anglia to seek similar information about conditions in the East Riding of Yorkshire. In 1960 the New Statesman had reviewed Evans's The Horse in the Furrow as "probably the last book to be written with the personal aid of the men who served the horse when it was still the prime mover of all field work." In fact, comments Caunce, "Farm horses did not vanish overnight and men are still around thirty years later who knew what it was like to work in an industry based completely on horsepower." Caunce cites his own research (which was finally published in 1991 as Amongst Farm Horses: the Horselads of East Yorkshire) to demonstrate the unwisdom of premature assumptions. If farm-horses (or indeed obsolete domestic rituals) seem to limit the role of the oral historian, Caunce is not short of alternative exemplars - the value of recording a founder member of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers during the strike of 1984-5, for instance.

His overall approach is disarming - he advocates "wise use" of one's ignorance and dissuades the beginner from excessive heart-searching about whether a project "is history". His expectations of courtesy to contributors, treatment of material and wider research for corroboration of sources are nonetheless rigorous. The reader of Oral History is left in no doubt that it is as academically respectable a discipline as, say, cliometrics. Like Elizabeth Roberts, Stephen Caunce is both meticulous and modest, "oral history," he reiterates, "is not truth, just evidence".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today