Hello and welcome to Voices of Postwar England. This website focuses on the history of the working class in England since 1945. In particular, it showcases the life history of working-class people in Liverpool and Coventry since 1945. As it grows, we’ll include links and material of interest to people wanting to research their family history, labour history or social history. Explore the site to learn more about life in England in the 1950s and 1960s and how it compares with today.
Selina Todd is preparing a book that features many of the oral histories showcased on this website. For more details please go to www.selinatodd.com. But please also keep using voicesofpostwarengland, which will remain dedicated to showcasing the voices of the postwar past.
A report from BBC Radio 4 here on Liverpool’s new Museum of Liverpool Life set me thinking about what a ‘post-industrial economy’ – dry phrase, but oft-repeated by politicians – really is? And is it really ‘progress’? The Radio 4 feature includes an interview with Liverpool academic Prof John Belchem, who argues that Liverpool needs to capitalise on the cultural economy of tourism. This is certainly important to Liverpool, as city of the Beatles. I can’t help wondering, though, if those 1980s critics of turning industrial cities into theme-parks didn’t have a point. Many of the people whose memories are included on this website recall the harsh reality of Britain’s industrial past, but they also recall the satisfaction of job security and union representation. No reason to just dismiss that as ‘nostalgia’. Call centres aren’t always forthcoming in offering those kinds of ‘benefits’.
But the cultural economy must be good for someone, mustn’t it? for consumers, perhaps. But hang on – who has the cash to just ‘consume’ all the time? What jobs are those people doing when they aren’t trailing round museums? Can we really build an economy on the assumption that there’s an endless supply of shoppers and tourists? With the longest working hours in Europe, we don’t get that much chance to be either.
Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe the new ‘post-industrial’ workplace is offering more than simply low-paid, unskilled, boring ‘McJobs’. The other night, a shocking expose on Channel 4’s Despatches programme highlighted that it certainly offers rich pickings for a few. Mainly, though, they are those Conservative and Blairite politicians who supported the ‘regeneration’ of ‘post-industrial’ cities through a ‘cultural economy’. People like Patricia Hewitt, who told workers at one of Britain’s last car plants to ‘face reality’ (ie redundancy) a few short years ago, and is now trying to wangle herself a ‘consultancy’ with various corporations. ‘Consultancy’ – another meaningless piece of jargon, though one that seems to carry a hefty pay-cheque.
Meanwhile, in the real world, it doesn’t seem that post-industrial. British Airways staff on strike, railway workers threatening to strike. They don’t feel ‘post-industrial’. They consider themselves to be exploited, overworked, underpaid, lacking security. So perhaps Britain is not so ‘post-industrial’, ‘postmodern’, or ‘classless’ after all…
If you don’t come from a long line of aristocrats or celebrities it can be hard to know where to start – but once you get going it can be addictive! Here is a list of 5 first steps for finding those factory workers and peasants in your family’s past!
1.Draw up a family tree. There is no right or wrong format but you need something you can refer to and add to quickly. Having a paper copy is better than simply something on the computer so you can take it to libraries and on visits to relatives. If you don’t know much then start with a simple list: yourself and your birthdate; your parents and siblings and their birth dates. Do you have any names of more distant relatives (even if you aren’t sure where exactly they fit?) Write those down, too.
2. Ask relatives. It sounds obvious, but its amazing how many people regret that they didn’t ask mum/dad/big sister/cousin about the family’s past before it was too late – or wish they had listened fully to what they were told! Consult your family tree (or list): lots of people know about aunts or uncles or second-cousins without being quite sure where they fit in the family. Ask, if you can. And remember: everyone has skeletons in the family closet, and asking about those can be as therepeutic for your respondent as it can be painful. Think carefully about how to approach this, but go for it.
3. Work backwards in time. The earliest stages of your research can sometimes be the most frustrating, as there aren’t many official records (such as the Census) relating to the second half of the twentieth century open to the public yet. But you could try http://www.ancestry.co.uk for birth, marriage and death records. Once you know a year of death, you can try applying for a relative’s medical record from the National Health Service, should you think this will give you more detailed information about the person you’re interested in. You require the next of kin’s permission for this – details can be found on NHS Direct. Also try local reminiscence websites if you are trying to trace a well-know local ‘character’ still within living memory: type the name of their home town/city, ‘forum’, and ‘memories’ into an internet search engine to find helpful websites.
4. Check out the Census online. There are various websites that will allow you access but the best is http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. The most recent Census is for 1911. Remember that Scotland has a different Census to England and Wales. If you aren’t sure which of the many ‘Smiths’ or ‘Jacksons’ is your relative, then note down the most likely ones and go to an earlier Census to see if that throws up any clues.
5. Remember that you and your ancestors and the writers of official records are only human – and you therefore all make errors! If you draw a blank on the Census or on birth, marriage, or death certificates, check you have used the correct spelling. However, also be flexible; use ‘wildcards’ if the search facility allows, or try any common misspellings of the name you are searching for. For example, I found that the ‘Frank’ I’d identified in the 1911 Census was ‘Francis’ ten years earlier and ‘Franck’ ten years before that (this all took several hours, naturally). Either he or the person compiling the Census wasn’t sure of the correct spelling.
Another common frustration is that a relative can be ‘missing’ from a particular Census, only to pop up again in the next one. This may be because they weren’t at home, the Census investigator didn’t call (that was particularly common in overcrowded working-class tenements, where a ‘reliable’ neighbour might be asked for information on several households, to save time), or because they were working as a domestic servant. A servant usually lived with her/his employer but they might assume that s/he would be counted on her parents’ household Census, and fail to record them.
Last night – March 15 – I sat down eagerly at 9pm to watch one of BBC 4’s ‘Women’ series of programmes. The series claims to examine how the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s affects women’s lives today (or not). I was particularly keen to watch this because so many of the students I teach have no idea what feminism is. It is a part of our recent history that has almost vanished from popular memory.
The programme showed very perceptively just how little feminism has affected some women’s lives. Many interviewees spoke about how difficult it is to juggle childcare, domestic chores and paid work, and most felt they had no ‘right’ to ask their partner to help out more. I really wished I’d been able to record it for my students and it made me determine to begin teaching the history of feminism once more.
Yet, astoundingly, this programme chose to focus exclusively upon middle class women. At least one-third of them sent their children to private school (compared with less than 8 percent of the British population as a whole) and one couple said their last row had been over whose turn it was to ‘light the Aga’.
It was this kind of class-bias that led so many working-class women to feel that feminism was not something ‘for them’ in the 1970s. Judy Walker, whose story features on this website (see her story on our ‘Youth’ page) was a community-rights campaigner who helped establish nurseries in Coventry during the 1970s (an important gain for working women), and established an informal women’s group in her home. Yet she said that she ‘never thought about’ feminism; ‘it didn’t seem to touch my life’. It is about time that highly-educated, professional women recognise just how much they have in common with their working-class counterparts. I think we could all learn from Judy’s struggles and campaigns.
If you’d like to find out more about Women’s Liberation, the National Women’s Library is holding an exhibition until 17 April 2010: go here for details.
In Nov 2009 the Times Higher Education supplement carried a feature on ‘Bad History’. Historians were invited to critique the ways that politicians sometimes use history erroneously to justify their policies, or fail to learn the lessons history can teach them. I was asked to contribute a piece on education. I’ve reproduced this below. You can read more about postwar education on our other pages (see top of this page for tabs).
You can read the rest of the THE articles and comments at:http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=408693
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS … BUT NOT FOR EVERYONE
The postwar “meritocracy” provokes nostalgia among many politicians. Alan Milburn, the former Secretary of State for Health, claims he was “part of the most socially mobile generation this country has ever seen” (The Independent, 12 January 2009).
Some commentators attribute this to grammar schools: Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle, said in The Times that “grammar schools did a fine job of lifting children out of poverty and into opportunity” (24 June 2008).
This is a myth. During the 1950s and 1960s, more than 60 per cent of high-status professionals’ children attended grammar schools, but less than 20 per cent of manual workers’ children. More than 70 per cent of children were educated in secondary moderns, which prepared them for manual or lower-grade clerical jobs.
Grammar schools did not overcome class inequality. Working-class children were most likely to leave school before sixth form – not because of low parental aspirations, but owing to families’ financial needs. Less than 4 per cent of manual workers’ children entered university.
Although the proportion of the workforce employed in professional work doubled, this increase was concentrated in school teaching, nursing and technical occupations that did not pay more than skilled manual jobs. The “top” professions – law, politics and the Civil Service – recruited from the ex-public-school Oxbridge graduates they still rely on.
Policymakers’ promotion of a “meritocracy” ignores the historical evidence that life chances cannot be divorced from class. Politicians would do better to tackle the underlying causes of economic inequality.
At the very least, they should address the really serious change that has occurred since the 1960s: the loss of economic security for manual and service-sector workers, which makes it hard for people to plan for the future.
Selina Todd is a lecturer in modern history and a fellow of the Centre for Research into Socio-Cultural Change, University of Manchester.
I was delighted when Manchester-based MaD Theatre Company have received two prestigious awards in one week. I became a fan after seeing their production of ‘She’s Just Nipped Out for Fags’ in 2007, and a devotee of actress Jill Hughes, who blends Vera Duckworth’s wit with Joan Rivers’ panache. MaD’s last production, Angels with Manky Faces (based on Andrew Davies’s bestselling book The Gangs of Manchester) was selected for a Inspiring Voices Award by the Media Trust. The award recognises MaD’s groundbreaking work in giving people in working-class neighbourhoods a voice through its use of digital media. For more details, check our ‘People’s History’ page on this blog.
Jill Hughes, actress and co-founder of MaD, told me that ‘this is fantastic recognition for our work, and that of Andrew Davies, in showing that ordinary people’s history is important, and accessible. We knew we were on to a winner because ordinary people’s history is so often hidden from view and yet it is rich, fascinating and really entertaining. Now lots more people can find that out through watching our films on youtube and checking out all the genealogy sites and blogs around about local history.’
MaD also received an award from the O2 Community Foundation for its forthcoming project ‘Performing for change’. This will help pay for costumes and props for the company’s 2010 shows which will hopefully be in Liverpool as well as Manchester – and may travel further afield too. Watch this space for more details of how to book!
Today I had a conversation with Libby from O2’s Community Foundation, because I was referee for a funding application that MaD Theatre Company had lodged. MaD works with young people living in working-class neighbourhoods in north Manchester. Libby was telling me about a similar initiative in Maidstone, Kent, based on, in her words ‘one of those 1960s estates that seems to have inherited – or maybe caused – so many problems’.
Libby’s words, and her uncertainty about who was to blame for those problems, made me think about council housing.
As the credit crunch bites – if a crunch can bite – we’re hearing about schemes to help home owners hang onto their houses. What the government and the Conservative opposition don’t seem to be contemplating is an expansion of council housing. Council estates – which not all council houses were, or are, located on – are often portrayed as ‘sink estates’. Yet the memories on this site suggest people welcomed council housing as a more secure, better-maintained form of housing than privately rented accommodation. What those who moved to estates like Speke or Kirkby in Liverpool found, though, was that they didn’t have many amenities like shops or libraries or schools or parks. These amenities only became more scarce as the years went by and Conservative governments demanded public spending cuts.
I don’t know what historians should focus on – the problems that people living on these estates have had to contend with, or the fact that, despite the problems, many of them carved out satisfying lives and have happy memories of the communities they made there. But we do need to highlight social housing as a crucial issue, even if politicians ignore this.
Although politicians tell us we’re all middle class now, most British people still prefer to call themselves working class. Surveys by pollsters Ipsos MORI shows that over half of all British people consider themselves to be working class. The major two reasons they give are similar to those offered by the people whose stories are showcased on this site – that they have to work for a living and that they feel themselves to be ‘ordinary’.
For more details see the latest Ipsos MORI survey here.
Our site features histories from people who are still alive – how do historians find out about people who died long ago? Check out the play Angels with Manky Faces, at Manchester’s Dancehouse in November if you are interested in seeing how one historian collaborated with celebrated theatre company MaD in dramatising ordinary life in the 19th century city. See http://www.gangsofmanchester.com for more details.
Go into the history sections of most major bookshops and look for social history, oral history, working-class history.
You will find very little between the military histories and lives of monarchs. Some general social histories, maybe – but most of them give little space to the the people who actually built the cities, fought for an 8 hour day, suffered poverty, and made the modern teenager.
News From Nowhere Bookshop is different. This independent bookshop on Liverpool’s bohemian Bold St. is a not-for-profit community business. They have a policy of taking the kinds of books other booksellers turn their noses up at. And they’ll supply any book for you – if it’s in print – regardless of whether you live in Liverpool or not, through mail-order.
We’ve bought many books there for this project. Just going in and taking a look around gives us more ideas. This is where we discovered Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book Estates: An Intimate History (she grew up on one). It’s where we found out about the Belle Vale reminiscence group in Liverpool. The friendly staff really know their stuff, unlike some of the harassed staff in the bigger bookstores.
What’s more, News from Nowhere supplied the space for our exhibition in 2008 (see below for photos).
Why the plug? Sadly, News from Nowhere is under threat, due to this recession. We know times are hard for everyone (unless you’re one of the fat cats) but if you can, please support this bookshop, because they’ve supported us. http://www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk