Writing an oral history of Tottenham - Melvin Hurst


In September of 1977 I answered an advertisement in the local paper to enroll in a new evening class entitled “A People’s History of Tottenham” (later renamed “Tottenham History Workshop”). The aim was to put together an account of Tottenham life in the early years of the 20th century, based on the oral testimony of ordinary residents of the area during those years; by now, these people were well into their 70s and even 80s, and it was felt that their memories should be recorded before they were lost forever. A similar project had been successfully undertaken in neighbouring Hackney, and some local people had approached the Workers’ Educational Association with a view to providing a tutor to oversee such a project in Tottenham. Oral history was at that time beginning to emerge as a bona fide branch of history, and I had read several publications on a similar theme, often the reminiscences of one person: for instance, the fascinating trilogy by Molly Hughes, based on her London life in the 1870s, 80s and 90s.

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The course tutor was Jerry White, who had recently written an excellent book, about to be published, called “Rothschild Mansions”, about the lives of the occupants of one particular building in the East End of London. (During the course of our work, he published another book about the most notorious street in North London in the 1920s, known as “Campbell Bunk”.) We were planning to do on a borough-wide scale what he had done for one building. Jerry had gained a great deal of experience in interviewing older people and knew all the pitfalls of their wandering off the subject, having fallible memories, etc. This experience was to prove invaluable in guiding the small group of would-be oral historians who gathered for that first evening in Tottenham Town Hall
Our first task was to find someone to interview. We advertised in the local paper and spread the word through local contacts. Most of the group lived in Tottenham, some of them for all their lives, and all had, by definition, an interest in the area in general. We were soon given the name of someone who had volunteered to be interviewed, and Chris Protz and I were delegated to visit Harry Saunders, armed with a “portable” tape recorder which seemed to weigh half a ton! Harry proved to be a veritable gold mine of anecdotes and memories of growing up in Tottenham, and when we brought the tape to the next group meeting and played the interview back, everyone was very excited. As we listened, one or two of the anecdotes would strike a chord with the early memories of some of the group, since some aspects of life on the streets which they remembered in the early decades after WWII hadn’t changed that much since the early part of the century. For other events recalled, we listened with fascination as a way of life long since gone was vividly brought to life again by the voices on the tapes.


One of Harry’s most common openers was “In them days…” Later, when we were discussing a title for our book, Chris suggested using Harry’s expression, but although this would certainly have been an authentic Tottenham voice, it was felt that some potential readers might not understand this, and instead think that we were merely incapable of good grammar! In the end we decided on, unimaginatively, “How Things Were”.

However, we soon realised the difficulties of interviewing someone (even Michael Parkinson must have had problems in his early days). Chris and I had no real agenda of questions to ask – we merely started off by asking Harry what it was like in Tottenham when he was growing up. Once he started to reply he was off, ranging over his school days, what his home was like, what games the children played in the streets, where he first went to work, etc. Since he was the first to be interviewed, we just let him talk about whatever he wanted, occasionally interrupting to clarify something he said, or to ask about something related which had occurred to us as he went along.

Once we had all digested the first interview, Jerry suggested that in future we try to direct the conversations along certain lines, in accordance with the way the final work would be produced. We decided that, although it would be a collaborative effort overall, one person would volunteer to take a particular subject, such as education, or life in the streets, and be responsible for background research into that subject, while extracting from the interviews information which corresponded as far as possible to that category. Thus whenever one of the group conducted an interview, they had to bear in mind not only the subjects which they were most interested in, but also those which others would be covering, and make sure that as much information could be extracted as possible in those interviews.

Gradually, more interviewees came to light, and before long we had amassed many hours’ worth of material, which would form the basis of our work. Some 30 people were interviewed over a two-year period, and the material taken as a whole covered the subject divisions of our book. The first task in each case was to transcribe the interview so that everybody could have access to the material without having to go back to the original tape. This proved to be a very time consuming task, and clearly could only be done by someone present at the interview, who could try to remember what was said when this was not clear from the tape – which was often the case! There was a great temptation to edit the interview as it was transcribed, but it had to be borne in mind that many other people would read the transcription, and it was important to prepare as complete an account as possible, so that nothing would be missed. Even so, it was still necessary to omit all the inevitable repetitions, “err”s and “you know”s in order to make the account easier to read.

Most people gave general accounts of their lives, but some were able to give information of particular interest or poignancy. For instance, most people had been through the elementary school system of the day, and we had many memories of the old “Board” schools, as they were known. However, it was unusual for boys to go on to the Grammar School, unless they were bright enough to win a scholarship. We were fortunate to find one such former pupil, John Bolitho (the name is actually of Cornish origin, but we never found out how his family had ended up in Tottenham), who gave an account of his time at the Grammar School when it was on the corner of Somerset Road and the High Road, opposite Tottenham police station, and thus we were able to give a more complete first-hand picture of the education system in Tottenham.

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When it came to describing married life in those days, we came upon the sad story of Jessie Hall, whose husband had been gassed during WWI and who had nursed him for several years after the war, until he died in 1923. Fittingly, his name appears on the war memorial in the main Tottenham Cemetery, a victim of the war just as much as those who died during its course.
I discovered one interviewee surprisingly close to home – my aunt, who had briefly lived in Tottenham when her parents moved there from the East End in 1906. They stayed for a year, living in the Tottenham Hale area, before returning to the East End the following year.


Along with the interviews, the group volunteers had already started to conduct research into their specialist areas. My chapter was to be that on education, and the first task was to read the background to the landmark Elementary Education Act of 1870, whereby the School Boards were to be set up throughout the country, and schools built to offer elementary education to all.

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This was not free at the beginning but within a few years, such schooling became not only free but compulsory. Tottenham’s first Board school was Coleraine Park, opened in 1881. Even further reform came in 1902, when elementary education was placed under the control of a Tottenham District Council Education Committee, which oversaw the construction of several new schools, including my own, Crowland Road, in South Tottenham, opened in 1905
The London Borough of Haringey archive had been established in Bruce Castle Museum, and contained a veritable treasure trove of stored material relating to the early days of the Board schools. The staff at the museum, particularly Ian Murray and Jean Peagrum, were unfailingly helpful to all the group members who visited the archive. Of particular interest to me were the Headmistresses’ log books, in which were recorded the notable events of the school on a daily basis. These ranged from the marked absences owing to pupils retained to help out at home, during a harsh winter or during a bout of infectious disease, to the cases of children coming to school without adequate clothing. Reading these log books seemed to take me back a hundred years, and I could readily imagine life in the schools at that time.



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Also in the archives were many school register attendance records, and it was in the one for Earlsmead School in 1907 that I suddenly came across my aunt – a familiar name reaching across a span of 70 years.


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The museum also maintains an extensive collection of back copies of the Tottenham Weekly Herald, and I regularly browsed through these for the early years of the century just to see what might turn up. While looking up the events of the “Tottenham Outrage” in 1909, when two Latvian anarchists tried to stage an armed robbery, and were chased all the way to Chingford, killing two people on the way, I read about one of them being in the Prince of Wales’s Hospital, seriously wounded by a gunshot (the other had committed suicide). On the same page it was announced that a former cavalry trooper had just passed way in the hospital, the last survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Just out of interest, I looked at the edition of the newspaper for the first week in August 1914. There was indeed an article stating that England was now at war with Germany, but the headline was of the same size as that of the next article, which described measures the police had introduced to catch speeding motorists!

Finally, the time came when we felt that we had enough interview material and background information to begin writing. Over the intervening period, several members had left the group and others had joined, so the book’s material was divided among six of the current membership, most of whom had been involved with the detailed research. Jerry White, with his already wide knowledge of London history, provided an introductory chapter, setting Tottenham within the context of the city as a whole, showing how, by the end of the 19th century, it had become firmly established as a respectable working class suburb. One of the main catalysts to this development was the building of a branch of the Great Eastern Railway, opened in 1871, which brought the possibility for workers to travel into the city each day, while enjoying the benefits of living close to the countryside. The subsequent chapters dealt with home life and early childhood, school days, time out of school, and the lives of young men and women as they set up their own families and entered the world of work
Some of our interviewees, like Harry Saunders and others, had proved to be such a marvellous store of recollections, that it was tempting to help them write their autobiographies and let them stand alone. However, there was so much else that we had discovered in the interviews that it was felt better to combine all the material we had collected into a grand description of life in the early part of the century.

Despite this, an irresistible opportunity arose when Chris Protz came across a remarkable family containing several generations still living in the area, with the oldest, Amelia Scott, born in 1872, almost certainly the oldest person still alive in Tottenham, and quite possibly one of the oldest in the whole country. Unfortunately, Amelia was totally deaf by this time, and interviewing her was not possible, but over the course of many talks with her children, themselves well into their 70s, Chris was able to put together a history of the family, and it seemed only natural to have this as a concluding chapter to the book, forming a case study. Sadly, Amelia died two years later, at the grand age of 107, but aspects of her life have been recorded for future generations to read about

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Apart from Jerry White, few of us had had much experience of writing since we left school, and we each had to follow our own steep learning curves, making many mistakes privately before we dared show the completed draft chapters to the rest of the group. Sometimes we would need to return to our interviewees to clarify some point or other, and they were always happy to talk to us again.

In my case, I also had to learn to manage a borrowed portable typewriter, quickly learning how to amend the many mistakes with a either a correcting tape or fluid. Looking back, with the hindsight of having used a word processor for all my writing for the last twenty-five years or so, I shudder to think how I struggled with the many drafts, sometimes giving up on a page with too many corrections and retyping the whole thing. The group sessions were meant to be constructive, and I tried, as I am sure that we all did, to take the many comments of others in good heart. However, this wasn’t always easy, even when faced with the clearly valid criticism of a paragraph which had taken a long time, and many reworkings, to complete.

At last, the drafts of all the chapters were finally ready, and Jerry White made the editor’s decision to change the surnames of all the people interviewed in the main text to protect their privacy, although they were acknowledged under their real names in the introduction. Curiously, in the case of my aunt, Jerry chose a surname which was her actual maiden name. By the time I noticed it, the text was on the way to the printers, but I didn’t think that she would mind, even if she knew.

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The final task was to put together a collection of old photographs. Early in my researches at Bruce Castle I discovered that it contained a huge photo archive, and the curator was kind enough to allow copies to be made on the premises. A local amateur photographer, Ed Spring, volunteered to make the copies, and when they were ready, I sifted through them, choosing the best to accompany the text. For each, I tried to provide as much information on the subject matter as possible.


In some cases this was easy, but for others it was necessary to search through business directories to find out, for instance, which companies occupied a certain address shown in a photograph. The end result, I think, was a fitting complement to the written text, and ended with a gallery of photos of the Scott family, which Chris Protz had managed to have copied from the family album.

While we were in the throes of writing, we had also begun to think about how the book would be published. The cost would be beyond the means of the group’s personal resources, so we looked at a variety of sources for funding. The WEA, Haringey Council and several individuals, including our local MP, all made generous contributions, sufficient in total to allow production by the council’s printing department, who made an excellent job of combining the text and photographs into a professional looking publication, even adding a map of Tottenham at the time to complete the picture.

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The book appeared finally in 1982, by which time I had gone abroad to live. A copy was brought to me by a visiting friend, and I was very gratified by the way it had turned out. As far as I know, most of the copies were sold within a reasonably short period, and I hope that many people have enjoyed reading about our not too distant past, and possibly have been inspired to take the work further to cover the inter-war and WWII years.

      Melvin Hurst

    Kuwait. November 2010

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