On a very cold winter’s day, inside a Georgian cotton mill that seemed to be colder than outside, I repeatedly checked the battery of my digital recorder whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. I thought that a cup of tea would hopefully warm up my subject as he sat shivering on an undersized plastic chair. I thought to myself that central heating and cushions should be a must when undertaking any oral history interviews in the future.
It was my role to interview Tom Dixon the youngest gardener at Quarry Bank, a cotton industry museum and historic garden run by the National Trust. The aim of this interview amongst others was to record the experiences of the people who have enjoyed and worked in Quarry Bank’s riverside gardens. These interviews were interpreted alongside letters, photographs, watercolours, diaries and botanical records from the extensive Quarry Bank archive to provide content for the Spring 2016 Unearthed Exhibition.
I undertook this research as part of my work placement and I soon realised how many distinct lives are linked to the beautiful gardens of Quarry Bank. From the exclusive pleasure grounds of the cotton magnate Greg family to the Trust gardens tended by Tom and visited by many people today (as inclusive as a membership or ticket fee will allow). The gardens were used as a status symbol housing rare rhododendrons but are now a place of education and contemplation of an industrial past. They stand as a testament to the blood, sweat and tears that might have paid for these exotic specimens. The apprentice children who worked in the mill would have seen glimpses of these gardens but would never have been allowed inside them.
Quarry Bank is therefore a place of contrasts; its Spirit of Place ‘tells a story of social change and industrial revolution, rich and poor, mill owner and mill worker, the power of nature and the ingenuity of man; of benevolence and exploitation. It is neither sublime, nor satanic, but a subtle mix of all these different aspects’.1 The oral history and archive work done to support Unearthed has revealed how there are interesting connections to be made through the multiple lenses of the past, present and future. This juxtaposition of complex social messages reminded me of the work of the theorist Alessandro Portelli who states that this type of work is a ‘genre of discourse which orality and writing have developed jointly in order to speak to each other about the past’.2 Oral history is not just a record but about the dialogue between the interviewer and interviewee and then the interpretation of this work is how sense is made of these complex narratives.
I was introduced to Portelli’s contextualising of oral history by Dr Fiona Cosson from the Manchester Centre for Regional History. Dr Cosson provided practical and inspiring training during my placement at Quarry Bank. I found the practical tips that Fiona passed on to be invaluable, from simply taking a spare recorder battery to ensuring the proper legal paperwork had been done. However, it was the theory and historical context that made the workshop so meaningful. Dr Cosson revealed how oral histories were often developed to record the voices of minorities or underrepresented groups.Specifically the tradition of oral history uncovering the stories of of the industrial past and of working people really hit a nerve with me and the work I was doing at Quarry Bank. David Briggs, Lord-Lieutenant of Cheshire recently stated that ‘here is a project of interest to every working man and woman in the land’.3 I was by now a unwavering recruit to the cause and I had a mission and my weapon was a recorder.
Back in the mill, and once Tom had warmed up he shared with me some charming stories from the garden, mainly about the way he feels about the seasons changing and of his connection to nature. Tom talked of the extrovert robins who perch by his side demanding the dig up a fresh worm, or of the baby grass snakes hatching from the warm nursery of a compost heap. Tom’s recollections were used in the Unearthed Exhibition Listening Shed (yes, a garden shed of course) in which visitors could listen to the voices of the gardens. In the shed, alongside Tom were recordings of Maurice and Cyril, who were gardeners in the 1930’s. They are now in their 90’s and their voices, in contrast with Tom’s, that makes for a very creative device. In my opinion, this interpretation has made something more than simply ‘recovery history’ 4 but meaning too. Tom’s interview is also now in the Quarry Bank archive and the Manchester City Library archives in perpetuity. Hopefully in a hundred years time another work placement student will be able to reinterpret Tom’s story to add to the complex history of Quarry Bank and its epic gardens.
1. Quarry Bank Project Team (2014) Heritage Lottery Fund Activity Plan Second Round Application. National Trust.
2. Portelli, A (1991) ‘What Makes Oral History so Different?’ Cited in Abrams, l (2010.) Oral History Theory. Routledge
3. Briggs, D (2014) cited by the Quarry Bank Project Team (2014) Heritage Lottery Fund Activity Plan Second Round
Application. National Trust.
4. Abrams, l (2010.) Oral History Theory. Routledge