In essence, oral history is a modern version of the way history was passed on for thousands of years: through story telling and recounting of memories from one generation to the next. With the foundation of the Oral History Society in Britain in the 1970s, the practice of recording narrated memories in sound and video re-emerged as a universally accepted technique. It now allows communities and individuals to play an active part in the making of history.
These interviews, with Exmoor’s inhabitants, deepen and enliven our understanding of the past in a way that buildings, landscapes or documents alone cannot. They record the personal experiences of great events and day-to-day life on Exmoor: the emotions and attitudes and the colours, smells and sounds associated with them. The recordings in this growing collection come from three community-based projects and we welcome your contributions in extending it.
Exmoor Oral History Archive
Between 2000 and 2002, Birdie Johnson, a local resident, made the 200 or more recordings that make up the Exmoor Oral History Archive. A strong supporter of oral history, she travelled throughout Exmoor recording the life stories of 79 people from different walks of life. The archive also includes a few early recordings going back to 1994. It was produced by the Dulverton and District Civic Society as part of a project grant funded by the Local Heritage Initiative. The photographs and recordings can be accessed in the Dulverton Guildhall Heritage and Arts Centre and online. The archive is accompanied by a beautifully produced book 'Reflections, life portraits of Exmoor', with photographs by Mark Rattenbury.
In 2006, Rob Wilson-North, Archaeologist at Exmoor National Park, resolved to present to the public recently released RAF aerial photographs and National Archive ground photographs of the of the Lynmouth Flood Disaster of 16th August 1952. He found that the material awoke the memories of people who had lived through the disaster and their reaction encouraged him to organise an oral history project to capture them.
That same year, Mary Ingoldby of English Heritage, recorded 19 interviews giving a taste of the wide range of experiences of the flood and its aftermath. She interviewed a variety of people: Exmoor residents who were children at the time, holidaymakers and relief workers. Their stories complement the existing newsreel film and photographic material with personal memories.
Exmoor Farmsteads Project
In preparation for the publication 'Exmoor, the Making of an English Upland' in England's Past for Everyone (Victoria County History) local history series, the layout and buildings of farmsteads across southern Exmoor were recorded with the help of volunteers. Conversations with the farmers in the course of this fieldwork spawned the idea of complementing the written documentation with Oral History recordings. The resulting five interviews with farmers were carried out by Jane Golding during the summer of 2008 and capture the knowledge and memories of hill farming; how traditional farm buildings were used; and how life on these farms has changed in the past century.
Each of these recording is as individual as its narrator. The stories are far from dry; some are sad, some are very funny and full of suspense and surprise, but they are all entertaining.
Dig Dulverton community project delved into the past of Dulverton by drawing on various methods, including archaeological excavation, historic building analysis and oral history interviews. Oral history recordings are still being collected for Dulverton, so contact us if you would like to contribute.
Heart of Exmoor
One of the aims of the Heart of Exmoor project is to help people connect with their moorland heritage. As part of this project, oral history interviews were recorded with a focus on hillfarming.
World War II on North Hill
A project to record the memories of those who lived or worked on or near North Hill, Minehead, during World War II is underway. If you would like to contribute to this project, please contact us.
Further Reading/ Websites
Oral History Society
Making History: The changing face of the profession in Britain
Exmoor Oral History Archive
Lynmouth Flood Disaster
England's Past for Everyone Exmoor
Siraut, M. 2009. Exmoor: The Making of an English Upland. Phillimore & Co Ltd.
Johnson, B. + Rattenbury, M.J. 2002. Reflections: Life Portraits of Exmoor. Dulverton & District Civic Society.