Lest We Forget: Family History, Memorabilia, and World War II Part 3

Dr. Stephen Tate
July 2020

Welcome to the third post on the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generations associated with World War Two.  

In this latest blog I want to examine the idea of oral history. The advantages and some of the pitfalls associated with this method of historical enquiry – a method that might be best suited to the sort of family reminiscences that this World War Two anniversary lends itself to. There’s a sense that oral history, history written or recorded as evidence gathered from a living person, perhaps a family member, can provide us with a direct route to the past, unadorned and unembellished. A means of extending the historical record – what we know of the past – to include the ordinary man and woman, perhaps our elderly relatives and their memories of wartime, or of their parents’ memories as recounted to them many years earlier.

At its most basic, oral history, in terms of this wider heritage project, can be described as talking to elderly relatives about parts of their lives that might otherwise go unrecorded. It involves recording, in some way, their first-hand recollections.

For some historians oral history, the spoken word, is a poor substitute for official records and written sources. They argue that spoken reminiscences leave too much open to doubt and to speculation, too much rests on the whim of the speaker, the person being interviewed, as to what they see fit to reveal and what they wish to remain unsaid. Spoken reminiscences can lack a sense of precision. Memory itself can be elusive and limited, open to forgetfulness and partiality. The order of events can become blurred. There are gaps. And oral history can only take us a relatively short distance into the past. It depends on what people can actually remember accurately!

But proponents of oral history as a means of understanding the past argue that it can deliver a sense of freshness. It assumes that everyone’s memory is valuable, however humble the person speaking or being interviewed might feel. It can certainly expand and extend the range of ‘voices’ from the past, opening the door to those outside elite circles, those living what might be seen as more ‘ordinary’ lives. And the argument that oral history can lack precision is often compensated by the element of emotion and detail that personal memories can deliver. At its best, oral history can deliver powerful insights, it can speak of the lived experience, it can deliver a sense of immediacy, and it can provide colour and drama!

‘Doing’ oral history sometimes involves quite sophisticated techniques, but it can also prove accessible to all. It can deliver a democratic feel to the study of the recent past. Everyone’s testimony can have a value. That is particularly true when, in our case, we might be interested in simple domestic routines associated with life in wartime Britain. The sort of detail that just might not be recorded anywhere else!

One thing to bear in mind if we embark on our own version of an oral history project, is that in recording wartime or as-near-wartime reminiscences as feasible, our presence as an interviewer is bound to affect the person being interviewed. It will influence what they recall and the manner in which they recall it, especially if being led by our questions. Even if we ask no questions and just listen, we are playing a part in the process. As one historian wrote, “the voice of the past is inescapably the voice of the present too”. The memories we are presented with have been filtered through other experiences and in a search for a sense of the past, as in some forensic exercise, we risk ‘contaminating’ the evidence. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

But let’s think of a few rules. Presuming we are looking at family members speaking amongst themselves, it is still important to tell the person you are interviewing what your purpose is – what you will be doing with the interview, whether it be written down or recorded. Will you be circulating it among other family members? Or outside the family? If they are to go beyond the family, you need to know if the interviewee is happy to have their name linked to their reminiscences or whether they would prefer a form of anonymity, say, with just their age and perhaps initials to identify the speaker. We must maintain an air of respect, too, in how we deal with the interview process and the end product. It is important to prepare for the interview, or series of interviews. What is it you want to discover? Have starter questions in mind. Decide how much you are prepared to intervene to guide the conversation if things slow down. Consider a few prompts in terms of events, locations or the names of other family members from the interviewee’s generation that might guide the course of the chat. Be prepared to be flexible. Think of the times on TV chat shows when someone being interviewed has started to discuss a really interesting point only to be annoyingly interrupted by the host (all too keen to hear their own voice) and the moment has been lost. Sometimes it’s good just to go with the flow . . .

A good example of oral history in practice can be found on this heritage website (‘When the lights came back on in Blackburn’). Stephen Irwin, Education Officer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, interviewed Richard Croasdale who was a young child when war broke out. The questions Stephen asked in a telephone conversation had been prompted by children from our area, including Blackburn Children’s University, intrigued by the stories on this website. The details Richard reveals are fascinating, and I was particularly taken with the childhood rhyme for skipping! The ordinary parts of life all too easily lost to the record.

On a personal note, I regret not having engaged in that sort of oral history exercise in my father’s lifetime . . .

On the last web posting I said I would continue my late father’s story, following his ‘archive’ in chronological fashion, from the surrender of British forces in Hong Kong in December, 1941, where he was posted in the Royal Artillery, and the means of families finding word of those missing in the pandemonium of war. If you recall, I went out of sequence in the last blog and wrote about a powerful, recurring image of my father’s end to captivity after three-and-a-half years, prompted by the letter home that he wrote to his parents mentioning Lancashire songstress Gracie Fields entertaining the troops in Manila in the Philippines.

I want to return to the months following the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese army in late December, 1941, and consider the trauma my father’s family must have experienced on the Home Front. The mood is captured in a handful of newspaper clippings and official letters. The first, of January, 1942, a tiny news-cutting from a Burnley newspaper, carries under a small headline, ‘MISSING’, the fact that ‘Gunner Arthur Tate’, who had enlisted aged 15, had been ‘posted missing’ after the surrender of Hong Kong. The nine lines of print are accompanied by a head-and-shoulders pre-hostilities portrait photograph of an incredibly young-looking and proud teenager in uniform. In the same month, his Burnley-based father and step-mother received an official typed letter from the Royal Artillery in Rugby. It was clearly in response to an earlier enquiry seeking news of their son. The letter informs the couple that, ‘I am sorry to say that just at present I am unable to state Gunner Tate’s exact whereabouts. You will appreciate that the recent developments in the Far East have delayed and interrupted the receipt of routine information. It may lessen your anxiety however to know that under present conditions the location of a man or even a Unit may be unknown for a time to the military authorities in England. If you do not receive any news of Gunner Tate within the next few weeks and you will write again to this office, I hope I may then be in a position to be of more help to you’.

Gunner Arthur Tate

It is clearly a standardised letter, the sort being received at thousands of homes across Britain as the war began to take its toll. Some six months later, in July, 1942, the same Burnley newspaper among its reports of local men missing in action from various theatres of war, carries equally brief news of Gunner Tate, announcing he, ‘is now officially reported to be a prisoner of war’. That, too, is accompanied by a photograph but, intriguingly, one different to the one printed earlier in the year.

There is a postcard among my father’s ‘archive’, unfortunately undated, written in pencil, faded by the years, from ‘Hong Kong Prisoner of War Camp’. In half-a-dozen lines my father writes to his parents, ‘I am quite well and in good health and I hope you are the same. We are being well treated so please don’t worry . . . hoping we will meet again very soon’. Prisoners were allowed to write only brief remarks, approved by their captors. How long it had taken the card to reach Burnley is not known, but presumably it was the first word of his whereabouts, of his survival, since the colony fell months earlier. The mood of his family when the card arrived can only be imagined . . .

In the next blog I want to concentrate on my father’s wartime ‘archive’, and consider the means of staying in touch during the long years of captivity.

I will close this blog by once again using one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History and this time it’s from a book on the sporting past, although the context is not really relevant. Here the author cautions against present-day readers imposing their own ideas, their own world view, on individuals from the past, or of attempting to explain their actions merely in terms of our own experiences. It’s quite a lengthy extract, but it is central to a reasoned understanding of those who have gone before.

It is worth stepping back from the discipline and its attendant debates to remember that what we call ‘history’ or ‘the past’ was the present for other people. An appreciation of this simple fact is useful when faced with debates about the nature of history. The people who lived through what we are studying were not thinking of themselves in the historical terms that we use for them, but were simply getting on with their lives: fighting their wars, having their families, worshipping their gods, working in their fields, or whatever. Keep this in mind whenever you come across historians using shorthand terms such as ‘between the wars’ or ‘before the industrial revolution’, and remember that the people who lived then could not have known what they were between or before. The period we now call ‘medieval’ or ‘the middle ages’ was, for the people living through it, nothing to do with the middle of anything: to them, each day was the present. Remembering this can also help you to avoid anachronistic judgements about past people’s behaviour, beliefs, or motives. Burning women accused of witchcraft, voting for a dictator, or basing an entire economy on a single crop may all strike us as foolish things for people in the past to have done: but those acts must have made sense or been viable options for the people who did them, and to criticise them only in the light of later evidence or opinions does not make for good history.– Martin Polley, Sports History. A Practical Guide (Palgrave Macmillan), 2007, p.6.

When the Lights Came Back On in Blackburn: Richard Croasdale Responds to Questions About His Wartime Childhood

June 11th 2020

After watching the video of Richard Croasdale talking about growing up during the war in Blackburn, children from Blackburn Children’s University plus a few other children from the local area, wanted to ask him a few questions.  We arranged for Stephen Irwin, Education Officer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, to put their questions to Richard in a phone interview and we have a wonderful recording of their conversation to share with you.

We suggest that you listen to the recording in a quiet room with no distractions to give you the idea of what it was like listening to a wireless broadcast.

Richard was asked the following questions during the interview:

  1. How old were you at the start of the war?
  2. Were you frightened?
  3. Did you think you were going to die?
  4. Where were your parents?
  5. What games did you play?
  6. What did you eat on VE day?
  7. How did you celebrate VE Day?
  8. How did you feel when the lights came back on in Blackburn?
  9. What happened to your gas masks at the end of the war? Did everyone have to hand them in or could you keep them?
  10. Do you feel as though rationing helped prepare you for budgeting in later life?
  11. Did you feel that during the war everyone became closer in the community?
  12. Did adults also have to carry gas masks with them all the time?
  13. What music did you listen to during the war?
  14. What was it like reuniting with family members who had been away during the war?
  15. What would you say to children today who are living in war zones?

“To see all the trams again, all lit up at night, oh what a fantastic sight that was”.

– Richard Croasdale, June 2020

WW2 The Homefront

If you want to find out more about the WW2 Homefront please watch the videos presented by Stephen Irwin, Education Officer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

You can find out about: The Blackout, Rations in the War, and A Blackburn Wedding

VE Day 2020 Showreel

On May the 8th staff, students, alumni, friends and families from the University Centre at Blackburn College, together with children from Blackburn Children’s University and members of the 5th Rishton Brownies commemorated VE Day 2020 by taking part in a variety of activities at home.  Everyone was asked to send us photos and videos of their activities and we have made a showreel to capture everything.  People were invited to make bunting, sing a song, do a dance, bake cakes, write a poem and we had a great response.  Thanks to everyone involved and we hope you enjoy our showreel and photographs from the event.

The event was held remotely in accordance with government guidelines on social distancing.

We are disappointed that due to the pandemic residents at EACHSTEP Care Home were unable to join us in our original plans for a VE Day party at UCBC or take part in the activities but we hope they enjoy watching the showreel and reading the letters sent to them from The Children’s University.

A special “thank you” to:

Student Receives National Award

First year Joint Hons student Nicole Roe has been awarded U.K. Youth’s Bronze Youth Achievement Award for her work with Blackburn Children’s University. Nicole is studying English Literature and History at the University Centre at Blackburn College and is participating in the Heritage Lottery Funded Project, ‘WWII East Lancs Childhoods: Sharing Stories, Making Memories’. Nicole organised a ‘design your own planet’ task at an event to commemorate the moon landings, and in November she delivered a ‘Dig for Victory’ activity for the children during the event ‘A Wartime Childhood’. Nicole also worked with the children and residents at EACHSTEP care home where they made bunting, poppies and played games prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the national lockdown.

Nicole says:

To achieve this award, I had to choose two activities and challenges of my own, so I decided to help organise and take part in Children’s University events. I had to record every meeting and activity in order to create a portfolio of evidence to account for 30 hours preparation and activity time.

I believe it is important to take part in activities such as the Youth Achievement Awards and Children’s University as it allows you to gain confidence when it comes to helping organise events.  It also enhances your skills of communication and problem solving. Participating in such activities allows us to gain vital skills for our future, but also helps the children by giving them the ability to gain a broad range of skills, showing them that learning can be fun. It encourages children to see that their education and future is important.’

Project leads Sandra Nichol and Dr Val Jessop said ‘Nicole has worked hard for this award and deserves to have her achievement recognised. She is an important participant in the Sharing Stories project’.

Blackburn Children’s University manager Sara Burton said ‘Nicole has been a vital part of the team both in the preparation and running of the events for Children’s University. The time and effort she puts in is fantastic and, she works well with both the children and adults. She uses her initiative, listens carefully to any instructions and fits in well with all the others that are involved.  Nicole has great dedication and we are keen to continue working with her on our future activities’. 

All events and interviews currently being shared on smallstories.blackburn.ac.uk took place prior to the nation’s COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing measures were followed. All future events have been postponed until they are safe to be held.

Letters to Eachstep Care Home from Blackburn Children’s University

Children’s University members were asked to write a letter to the residents at Eachstep Care Home.  Here are a couple of letters: one from Humaira in year 1 at St Silas Primary School and another from Jemima and Alisha, two sisters at Wensley Fold Primary School. 

All activities took place remotely and in accordance with government guidelines on COVID 19.  

Message to Eachstep Care Home from the 5th Rishton Brownies

The 5th Rishton Brownies have been holding their weekly meetings online for the past 5 weeks. The Brownies are aged 7 to 10 years old and do a variety of activities while working towards different badges. Their meetings have been slightly different since the lockdown and, last week, they decided to record some messages for the care home residents at Eachstep following the postponement of project activities due to the pandemic. The children wanted to pass on positive comments to the residents to let them know they care.

All activities took place remotely and in accordance with UK government guidelines on COVID 19.  

College and Children’s University to Commemorate VE Day at Home

Blackburn College University Centre is teaming up with Blackburn Children’s University to take part in a Stay at Home VE Day Party.

The stay at home party will take place on Friday 8th May 2020 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded WWII East Lancashire Childhoods: Sharing Stories, Making Memories project.

The event will see staff and students from the University Centre at Blackburn College and children from Blackburn Children’s University have picnics or afternoon tea in their homes or gardens, make bunting and flags, bake buns and write poetry.

Participants will be asked to share their VE Day moments by sending in photographs and short videos.

Project Leads Sandra Nichol, Lecturer in BA (Joint Honours) Pathways, and Dr Valerie Jessop, Programme Leader BA (Joint Honours), Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, said: “We are looking forward to seeing all the photographs and videos of people commemorating the event in their own homes. These will be used to create a digital record of people’s activities and will be posted on our project website.”

Sara Burton, Blackburn Children’s University Manager, said: “This is a little bit different than what we had planned, but we still wanted to commemorate this momentous event. Children from Blackburn Children’s University have already been completing various challenges like painting pebbles red, white and blue, writing letters and making poppies.

“For VE Day we will be encouraging our members to make bunting, party hats and even have a picnic at home. I can’t wait to see the pictures and videos of how they are all commemorating this event.”

The Sharing Stories, Making Memories project is an inter-generational community arts project which commemorates the events of WWII. For more information visit smallstories.blackburn.ac.uk.

The project’s original VE Day 75th anniversary commemoration was initially set to take place at the College’s University Centre but was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Memorabilia Afternoon

Early in February 2020, Sandra Nichol and Val Jessop (Project Leads) met with residents of EACHSTEP care home to enjoy a memorabilia afternoon.

Residents were shown some of the staff’s personal artefacts from WWII, in addition to a box of items kindly loaned by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. This helped the residents to reminisce about their experiences of childhood during war time.

The event was photographed by Photography students from the University Centre at Blackburn College School of Art and Society as part of their work-based learning.

All events and interviews currently being shared on smallstories.blackburn.ac.uk had taken place prior to the nation’s COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing measures. All future events have been postponed until they are safe to be held.

Here are some quotes from residents about the day.

Showing gas masks to female residents:

“I used to stick me lunch in mine and put it on me arm. Just carried it like that.”

When the sirens went off:

“They said ‘now there’s going to be a big noise y’know, so don’t be frightened’, but I mean I cried me eyes out, being a girl and I was only small, about 5 or 6.”

“When the sirens went off you’d have everything ready, your gas mask, and a lunch…and they used to open the cellar and we just used to go charging down y’know. They’d bring us something to eat. We used to go nearly every night. Me mother used to say ‘put your coats on ‘cos the sirens’ll be going in a minute’.”

On rationing:

“There was enough to survive on. It was a very healthy diet (laughs) for weight loss (laughs).”

“We went to Bury market just to buy sweets. You could buy as many as you wanted to buy. Everything was rationed. Didn’t matter what it was, it was all rationed ‘cos when the convoys of course were being destroyed, they were struggling to get food in so every patch of land was a plot. Every possible area, parks, everywhere, had something growing.”

On games:

“We played marbles mostly, indoors. You got a box of marbles for Christmas. Everybody else was the same, so you didn’t get upset about it.”