I know that sometimes somebody had done a tape and would play it, and then we’d all discuss it. And basically, the older members of the group would then become the experts and we would ask them about, ‘What did that mean?’ or, ‘Do you remember that too?’ or, ‘Where was that?’ from the tape that we listened to. And sometimes the person interviewed would be, would be there as well. So that was one way. I think sometimes it was more thematic, we might be trying to explore work or some theme, and pulling things together both from the memories of people there and from whatever interviewing had been happening.
Anna Davin was involved with ‘A People’s Autobiography of Hackney’, from 1972 to 1974. This was an oral history initiative based at Centerprise, organised through the Hackney Workers’ Educational Association.
At the time Anna was writing a PhD and was involved with the History Workshop movement. There was, she says, ‘a lot of collecting happening’ and she saw Centerprise as part of ‘that general spread’ of radical history activity. As a mature student, having taken time out from her own education to have her children, Anna was naturally drawn to adult education and ‘was thinking class and gender very strongly’.
Anna liked the fact the group’s members had different backgrounds and were different ages, although she would have liked there to have been more women, who never made up more than a quarter of the group and more ethnic diversity. She describes how the group worked collectively to interview local people and edit their interviews into books such as the ‘Working Lives’ series, and ‘Dr Jelley: The Threepenny Doctor of Hackney’. Dr Jelley was a well-known local legend who kept ‘cropping up in interviews’. The group were ‘struck when we came to realise that he had performed abortions and how tolerantly that was referred to. He used to help women when they were ‘in trouble’. And nobody spoke with anything but sympathy for Dr Jelley as far as I remember. So we just took snippets out of different tapes and made a collage of them.’
Anna also discusses other community history groups she was involved in, including the S.E.1 People’s History Group, the History Workshop, Exploring Living Memory, the London Sound and Video Archive and TV History Workshop; and makes comparisons between the Centerprise and Agitprop bookshops. Anna is an academic and community historian and editor of the History Workshop Journal.
Interviewed by Bea Moyes