In Their Own Words
In Their Own Words is part of the Chilterns Stories collection; a series of oral histories presented in videos and a book, describing work in the traditional Chilterns industries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Volunteer researchers working for the Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes community social history project in the Chilterns are very fortunate to have discovered three important collections of oral
history interviews. These interviews, which until now, have largely remained hidden in public and private archives, were recorded onto reel-to-reel and cassette tape between the 1950s and the 1980s by some remarkable local historians. We are indebted to Leonard John Mayes, Philip Viccars, Molly Jones, Stuart King and researchers at the University of Leeds for helping us to understand more about the lives of men, women and children in the Chilterns who earned their livings on the land, or by making items by hand. We are also grateful to Wycombe
Museum, the British Library and Mavis Warner for allowing us to bring a selection of these interviews to a wider public.
In Their Own Words will be placed in schools and public libraries across the area and, along with the other books in the Chilterns Stories collection, we hope it will inspire people for many years to come.
In addition, you can watch the videos below as they are added over time, and read more about In Their Own Words further down the page.
Video: Memories of the Chilterns Victorian Child Lacemakers
Although Victorian children were to be seen and not heard, a parliamentary commission in 1863 investigated the lives and living conditions of children working within the lace industry. Several children were interviewed in the Chilterns – and their stories are brought to life by Janet in this fascinating video.
In Their Own Words - the book
Our new book tells the life stories of people ‘in their own words’, all of whom worked in, or had connections with rural industries in the Chilterns. We had many recordings to choose from, but we selected these because they give insights into four core industries that sustained Chilterns’ families for generations – chairmaking, lacemaking, straw plaiting, and tambour beading.
Chairmaking is perhaps the most widely known of these – an industry that began in the woodlands from the 17th century – growing quickly from the early 19th century into High Wycombe’s famous furniture trade, employing thousands, until the industry began to decline after the Second World War. The Buckinghamshire lace industry is also famous. Hand made by women and children at home, Bucks lace was much sought after until machine-made lace from elsewhere had killed the industry by the end of the nineteenth century. Until we started to research them, we knew less about the many families who plaited lengths of straw for the hat factories in Luton and Dunstable, or the beaders from Great Missenden, Holmer Green, Hazlemere and nearby villages. who sewed beads and sequins onto textiles for high fashion dresses and hats. Our volunteers have uncovered new stories about the lives of employees and employers in these industries, and about the agents who recruited them and traded. The oral histories give us first-hand accounts of these lives, bringing us close to the feelings of those who lived them. The historians who collected these stories have shared them with us through their books, lectures and films.
In Their Own Words is available to pre-order now – go to the Chilterns Stories page to do so
More about In Their Own Words
Why do we feel inspired when we hear people from long ago talking about their lives? Because hearing their voices gives us an emotional connection. We feel their delight, their sadness or perplexity in recalling their experiences. Simply being asked to ‘tell their story’ helps people to see that their life, however ‘ordinary’ it might have seemed to them, has a richness of detail. It is quite rare to find ordinary working people’s accounts of what it was like in the past, and these ‘oral history’ interviews capture people’s personal experiences, giving us an eyewitness account of events, places and people.
Volunteer researchers working for the Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes community social history project in the Chilterns are very lucky to have discovered three important collections of oral history interviews. These interviews, which until now, have largely remained hidden in public and private archives, were recorded onto reel-to-reel and cassette tape between the 1950s and the 1980s by some remarkable local historians. We are indebted to Leonard John Mayes, Philip Viccars, Molly Jones, Stuart King and researchers at the University of Leeds for helping us to understand more about the lives of men, women and children in the Chilterns who earned their livings on the land, or by making things by hand. We are also beholden to Wycombe Museum, the British Library and Mavis Warner for allowing us to bring a selection of these interviews to a wider public.
We have chosen nine recordings for the breadth of experience and crafts they cover. Four of these lives were captured by Leonard John Mayes (1911-2001), or John Mayes, as he was known professionally. John was Borough Librarian at Wycombe library for many years and in 1948 he also took on the role of Curator of Wycombe Museum, retiring from both roles in 1971. He interviewed more than 50 Chilterns people in preparation for his books The History of Chairmaking in High Wycombe and The History of the Borough of High Wycombe from 1880 to the present day, which were both published in 1960. Phillip Viccars [1921-1997] interviewed several people for his book Stokenchurch in Perspective, published in 1980, and he left his cassette tapes in the care of local historians, including Molly Jones, who helped Philip with his research. We have included two of Philip’s interviews in our collection. The more recent interview, with chairmaker Sidney Wingrove, was recorded by Stuart King, a celebrated craftsman, archaeologist and historian, who has devoted much of his life to ensuring the history of Chilterns’ crafts is well told, without mythmaking and hearsay. Stuart has interviewed well over eighty people in the course of his research. The final story is a slight departure from the rest. The lacemaking era was too early for a recording to be made, but we thought it important to include voices from the industry in this collection. Therefore, we have chosen not an interview, but testimonies from children and adults who worked in this industry collected by the Government’s Children’s Employment Commission of 1862. We have used some of these accounts to create ‘oral histories’ from a time before such things were technically possible.
In the below videos you can hear the interviewees speaking in their own voices – often with quite strong Buckinghamshire accents – we and Woodlanders’ volunteers present clips from the recorded interviews. This is just a taste of the many interviews available, but in the future, you will be able to hear more. The Chalk, Cherries and Chairs project is very pleased to be supporting Wycombe Museum in digitising more of their oral history collection for everyone to enjoy.
We would like to thank Mavis Warner and Stuart King, and the other Woodlanders’ volunteers – Jane Barker, Susan Holmes, Janet Rothwell and Keith Spencer – for helping to bring these stories to life and Pete Williamson for digitising and editing the tapes.Find out more about Woodlanders' Lives and Landscapes