Anybody who lives in Sheffield will be more than conscious of its industrial past, a proud legacy that lives on in Sheffield’s architecture, street names and culture. Most will also be aware of the impact of unemployment and deindustrialisation on Sheffield in the 1970s and 1980s, and of the ongoing need for the city to ‘rebrand’ itself. 1
But beyond these large narratives which dominate the history of this city, how aware are we of other aspects of the Sheffield’s past? Lesser-known stories of the city are important too, allowing us to piece together many disparate parts of Sheffield’s history, but also to place the experiences of the people and communities of Sheffield into a national context. It’s in recording, and promoting, these stories that the Witness oral history project is making a contribution.
Since 2011, undergraduate History students in the Department have been volunteering with the Witness oral history programme. Interviews have now been recorded on everything from rugby in Sheffield to the first all-female car garage. We have interviews on local politics, immigration, the Sheffield Blitz, housing, and changes to the city centre, to name but a few. Over the last few years our students have created an archive of over 50 interviews with Sheffield residents.
This week, we’re making all these interviews freely available in both audio and text-searchable form to everyone, through the new Witness website (you’ll find the full list of interviews here) It’s the largest collection of audio material relating to Sheffield available online, and will continue to grow as we add more interviews, and more contextual material. This online archive presents an exciting opportunity for members of the public to explore the recent past of the city – and for social and cultural historians to gain a valuable insight into the history of WWII and post-war Sheffield.
While modern historians often have no end of sources to work with, many of these fail to shed light on the everyday experiences of communities. Understanding deindustrialisation needs more than unemployment figures and industry statistics. Oral history provides the everyday experiences behind these statistics. It allows us to understand better the link between youth unemployment and the rise of musical creativity in the 1980s. It gives us the opportunity to explore how communities reacted to their streets being torn down during slum clearance of the 1960s and 1970s. It allows us to hear stories of the lesser-known Sheffield Blitz.
Of course, oral history works best in combination with traditional written sources. Thanks to an Arts Enterprise grant, Witness has collaborated with a community history group, the Walkley Historians, in an exemplary local history project of this kind. 2 The collaboration has focused on the work of the Walkley Action Group – a community action group who fought the planned clearance of Walkley in the 1970s. Our students have interviewed residents of Walkley during this time to gain insight into the experiences of living through ‘slum clearance’, and the impact of this on families and the community. And they have been granted access to the Walkley Action Group’s archive, much of which is being made available to the public for the first time. 3 This material will be of particular interest to anybody interested in grassroots politics, urban history, and working class history.
Oral history provides us with the tools to make sense of national narratives and a national focus, by truly understanding their impact on people at an everyday level. It is only by researching history at this level that we can properly appreciate the tangible effect of many of these larger national developments. Witness represents a fantastic collaboration between Sheffield students and Sheffield residents that we hope will make this research easier for everyone in the future.
Sarah Kenny is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, and is the Lead Intern on the Witness project. You can find her on twitter @SarahL_Kenny, and read her blog posts for History Matters here
- A fantastic example of this rebranding effort is the clip shown at the start of The Full Monty, which was taken from Sheffield: City On The Move. Part 1 of 4 can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRJISaoytYg ↩
- You can read more about this collaboration in a previous History Matters blog post http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/week-urban-history-sheffield/ ↩
- The archive includes newsletters and surveys, political campaign material, planning maps and materials, official council documentation, publications such as The Slow Death of a Slum, and a memoir of a Walkley resident. ↩