Reflections from the West Midlands, 2021

Julia Letts, Regional Networker and Accredited Trainer

One of the surprising outcomes of Covid has been the ability to connect with and run training courses for projects across the UK, not just local ones, so the past 12 months has seen me working with projects in St Helen’s, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Avon and Gloucestershire as well as my local area of the West Midlands. Listed below are some of the more local projects I’ve been involved in during the past 12 months.

Brine Memories – Save Our Brine Baths, Droitwich Spa

I have been closely involved in a lovely project to collect and share the memories of the Droitwich Spa Brine Baths. Seams of brine lie under Droitwich and in the 1830s the dense saltwater was discovered to have therapeutic qualities. A series of baths were built, the final one closing in 2008. Brine Memoires, an NLHF funded project to collect memories from those who worked and used the baths, was due to start in 2020 but had to be postponed because of Covid. In early 2021 the project slightly changed direction and went online, with interviewing done over Zoom when restrictions were in place and more emphasis given to digital outputs. The resulting archive, website , two exhibitions and social media memories have been extremely well received and have given a boost to Droitwich’s long-running campaign for new brine baths. 

Brine Memories – Westacre Middle School Project, Droitwich Spa

As part of the Brine Memories project, but worthy of its own mention here, the whole of Year 5 at Westacre (150 pupils) learnt about the brine baths through oral history, an artefacts treasure hunt and a town trail. Then (in a first for me), each class successfully interviewed local people who used and worked at the baths, through Zoom in the classroom. A memorable project.  Westacre brine memories photo gallery

Voices from the Archives; Market Gardening – Explore the Past, Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service

A pilot project to find ways of sharing the oral history collection at the Hive, Worcester resulted in me creating an initial podcast, combining the experiences of project staff and volunteers on an NLHF funded project to explore Worcestershire’s market gardening heritage with extracts from oral history interviews collected during the project. The resulting podcast is here, hopefully the first in a series of oral history podcasts from the Worcestershire Archives.   Voices from the Archives; Market Gardening

50 Years of Bangla Brummies; Purbanat Community Interest Company, Birmingham

I have worked with Murad Khan from the arts organisation Purbanat who is running a heritage project about the independence of Bangla movement in Birmingham in 1971. British Bangladeshis (former East Pakistanis) were directly and indirectly involved in various campaigns and activities in the UK during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. ‘Recording Champions’ from Purbanat are interviewing people from Birmingham who were involved in collecting funds for the movement, organising ‘Friends of Bangladesh’ groups, protesting against injustices, attending rallies and campaigning for international support. The oral histories will be used to create a play, an exhibition, a website and a publication. Purbanat is also delivering a number of outreach activities in targeted communities with the hope of engaging people who don’t usually get involved in heritage and cultural activities.

Solihull Covid Stories – Solihull Council/ Philip Parr/ Parrabbola 

This project aims to collect Covid stories from underrepresented communities in Solihull and then create an artistic response to them. I am involved in training volunteers who will be talking to people about how they have made it through the last 18 months. The volunteers will target communities who may not have had the opportunity to voice their experiences of the Pandemic to date, including deaf families and families with special educational needs. Artistic Director Philip Parr will be coordinating the artistic response, which may be anything from an artwork to an opera and will engage the wider borough.

This is your heritage; stories from the Indian Community – South Gloucestershire Council

South Gloucestershire Council has engaged an oral history interviewer and a film maker to capture stories of from the Indian community focussing on migration, settlement and daily life in various South Gloucestershire communities. I was delighted to be involved in training two brilliant young ‘story collectors’ who are now busy filming wide ranging oral history interviews. The stories will be shared on a website.

Severn Valley Railway Oral History Project, Kidderminster

This project, which started before Covid, is moving into a second phase. The original plan was to collect oral histories as part of the Falling Sands Viaduct Heritage Project (NLHF funded). A volunteer team conducted around 15 interviews with past and present SVR volunteers, charting the creation and development of the railway between 1965 and 2020. The project unveiled such a wealth of stories from extraordinary people who had dedicated their lives to the restoration of the SVR that a new phase of interviewing is now planned, with training commencing in January 2022.

Oral History in School Update

I have continued working with OHS member Kate Melvin on developing oral history in schools. I am currently working on 2 films for the Historical Association, aimed at trainee history teachers, and I’ve recently run training courses for school archivists and record keepers.  

Siobhan Stevenson, Regional Networker  

In 2021, I took over the role of Oral History Society Regional Networker from Helen Lloyd, a well-known OHS Networker and Trainer and I am just beginning to find my feet. Despite Covid offering opportunities to continue and contribute to some national projects, it presented some problems for organizations who had started projects and were due to finish in 2020 and those trying to get things off the ground.

Stories of Those Over 50 – Down’s Syndrome Association, Teddington, Middlesex.

I started working with the Down’s Syndrome Association back at the beginning of 2020, just before the first lockdown. To celebrate 50 years of the organization, they embarked on an oral history project to collect the experiences of people in their 50s with Down’s Syndrome. The project was due to be launched on World Down’s Syndrome Day (31stMarch) in 2020 and culminate in an exhibition at the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disabilities Museum in 2021. However, due to Covid restrictions everything was paused. I’m happy to say interviewing re-commenced and shorter edited versions are now available online with the exhibition due to take place later this year.

Tales from the Quarter – Jewellery Quarter Townscape Heritage, Birmingham.

In 2019, I worked on the People’s Archive which was the oral history element of a larger project conducted by the JQTH to celebrate the heritage of what was once known as ‘the workshop of the world’. The project used the volunteers to collect oral histories of those who lived and worked in the Jewellery Quarter and the interviews were archived in the Library of Birmingham. I was asked to edit some of the interviews into a pilot podcast which was released during Birmingham’s Heritage week. Initial responses and engagement were positive, so JQTH have two more planned for release later this spring.

Plans for 2022

I have been contacted by a couple of organisations in Birmingham asking for advice about their project ideas, as they are looking to submit NLHF applications during 2022. However, this year I am planning to be more proactive and get to know the organisations in my region conducting oral history projects and hopefully start to build relationships with them. Helen’s are big shoes to fill, but I hope to establish myself as a useful source of information locally.

Maggie Tohill, Regional Networker

Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service at the Hive (WAAS)

The Hive

During the second lockdown and its aftermath much of the usual project work and training undertaken by WAAS staff was again curtailed.  We were occasionally able to meet up with local groups and organisations who were thinking of undertaking projects, including Covid related ones, give advice and guidance, but it continued to be very much the exception rather than the rule.  I continued to answer enquiries about our audio holdings and deal with potential deposits.  I also used the time to start looking at processes for conducting sensitivity reviews of our legacy collections.

Staff continued to use the opportunity to transcribe and summarise interviews relating to earlier projects and to test out some workflows for preserving some of our audio formats.  This latter task was partly as a result of the appointment of a senior archivist to lead on our digital strategy. Their work covers auditing our digital holdings including our audio-visual holdings, settling up workflows for their future preservation and looking at how we might make them more readily available. 

The Market Gardening Heritage project reported on last year concluded this year with a very well received project exhibition in the Hive, together with the creation of school resource and reminiscence packs.  For details about the project including an online version of the exhibition and packs, including sound clips from the project interviews see Market Gardening Heritage – Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service (  My fellow West Midlands networker Julia Letts also undertook some work for the project to create our very first podcast which was an exciting development for us.  For the podcast see New Explore The Past podcast! – Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service

The Midlands strand of the Unlocking Our Sound Archives project in which we had taken part also entered its final stage with an emphasis on outreach and training.  Sadly, Covid prevented any face-to-face opportunities to attend events, but the online activities I was able to attend proved very enjoyable and informative.  The material we had loaned for the project was returned to us together with a digital copy.  Information about our holdings has now been included in the British Library catalogue, but we still have a lot of work to do ourselves to make copies of the recordings available locally.  The project has already led to the surprise discovery by a granddaughter of one of our interviewees that her late grandmother had made a recording for us and resulted in the sheer delight of the family being able to listen to a digital copy of the lady’s wartime reminiscences.

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