About Voices of Postwar England
The aim of this blog is to offer more information about life in England during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s – and provide some thoughts about how life then compares with life today. In particular it focuses on working class history, and showcases oral history from twenty life history interviews we have conducted with people in Coventry and Liverpool between September 2006 and now. These oral histories are part of a wider project that Selina Todd and myself, Hilary Young, have been working on to explore working class identities in postwar Britain. The relationship between the working class and affluence is central to this wider project. In order to build a bigger yet more nuanced picture of how people experienced class and social mobility we have looked at a wide variety of sources including sociological surveys conducted in the fifties and sixties, newspaper reports, diaries, films and memoirs. But at the heart of this project are people’s own experiences of growing up, living, socialising and working in two predominantly working-class cities in this period: Coventry and Liverpool.
Coventry Lives During the winter of 2006 and spring of 2007 I interviewed 13 people about growing up, living and working in Coventry after the Second World War. The people volunteered to take part in the project after we had advertised the research in the Coventry Evening Telegraph and at some local history group meetings such as the Willenhall Reminiscence Group. In response to our appeals for volunteers we had over 60 replies. We only needed 10. The interviews took a life history approach which meant that I returned to interview people sometimes twice but more often than not three or four times. The people who were invited to take part represented a broad geographical sweep of the city: some had grown up and lived in the city centre, then moved further out to outlying suburbs either as young teenagers or later when they married; others had lived in outlying districts of the city such as Foleshill, Whoberley and Cheylesmore. A quartet of women belonged to Willenhall, a suburb of Coventry. Ten out of thirteen people interviewed still live in Coventry. Two of the remaining three live in other neighbouring villages. The final person now lives on the south coast.
Liverpool Lives After a press release in the Liverpool Echo in December 2007 asking for volunteers to take part in the Liverpool side of the project, and a visit to the Belle Vale Prefab project I started interviewing a group of ten Liverpudlians in January 2008. Again this group of people represent a variety of areas of Liverpool including Abercromby, Bootle and Croxteth. They too experienced a lot of movement as inner city areas were cleared in the 1950s and 1960s and they were moved to outer lying areas of the city such as Kirkby and Netherley. I am still conducting a number of interviews at the moment but hope to have these interviews finished soon.
About the Authors
I’m a historian of 20th century Britain. Prior to working on this project, I wrote a book about young people in Britain: Young women, work, and family in England, 1918-1950. I got interested in all the alluring images of interwar flappers and factory girls made up like actresses. As I looked into the subject, though, I realised how crucial work and family life were in shaping most young people’s lives. The book argues that young women were important agents of change: they produced new commodities like cosmetics and records in the factories they worked in; they instigated important wildcat strikes that improved working conditions; and they used their growing financial independence to finance the growth of dance halls and cinemas, promoting new forms of youth culture. The book was published by Oxford University Press in 2005; you can download it as an e-book from their history webpages.
Researching that book led me to think about what had happened to the working class after 1945 – the popular assumption is that the working class has ‘declined’, but the people whose testimonies I used in my book suggested otherwise. Many of them felt, looking back at their lives, that they’d describe themselves as working class – and that class had helped to shape and define their lives. I’m interested in the ways that gender and age and race relate to class identities, too – often, studies of the working class focus on white men, but many of the people featured on this site are women, and/or recall the importance of childhood and family life as well as work in shaping their life history. Unfortunately, we don’t have as much material on Black and Asian working-class people – this is something we are working on.
My interests lie in the social and cultural history of twentieth century Britain. Prior to working on the Voices of Postwar England project I was based in Glasgow where I completed my PhD at the University of Strathclyde and Scottish Oral History Centre. My first research project used oral history interviews with men and women in Glasgow to think about how men’s domestic role has changed across the later twentieth century period, and questioned how men spoke about issues of masculinity with me, a young woman. This research has been published in Oral History (Spring 2007). My PhD thesis, “Representation and Reception: An Oral History of Gender in Children’s Storypapers, Comics and Magazines between 1940 and 1960”, developed my interest in how gendered identities are constructed especially in response to media images of men and women. I conducted oral history interviews with twenty-five people about their memories of reading as children. Through this research I argued that children were active readers, not ‘passive cultural dupes’. The narrators recalled how they negotiated the representations of class, youth and gender presented in their reading material in order to create their own gendered identities.
Current and Future Research: I have spent the past 2 years traveling between Liverpool and Coventry with my voice recorder and camera speaking to people about their experiences of living and working in these cities since 1945. Based on this research I have been developing a number of ideas based on the methodology of oral history. I hope to develop my research on people’s experiences and stories of home in the postwar period in a number of ways. Coventry’s city centre has often been the focus of academic research in urban history and design but from the oral history interviews gathered for this project people’s home were just an important site of reconstruction after 1945 as the city centre, yet is an area that has attracted little academic interest. I am also interested in how mobile interviewing impacts on people’s memories and the stories they tell. Going back to places of peoples’ past, such as their childhood home or school, reveal different memories and different stories to those recounted while being interviewed in the comfort of their present home or the university for example.
The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
We would also like to thank all of the interviewees who have participated in the project over the course of the project.
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