Parliament Week 2012

Big Ben

Stories of democracy at the Museum of London

Curator Sarah Gudgin introduces just a few of the amazing stories of political activists, parliamentarians, campaigners and others that live on in the Museum of London's rich oral history collections.

The Museum of London is the world's largest urban history museum telling the story of the capital from pre-history to the present day.

Among its many thousands of objects, the Museum holds significant recorded media collections, comprising some 3,500 hours of oral history life story interviews with Londoners from all walks of life.

The value of oral history

This is unparalleled resource details the lives and individual perspectives of people in the capital, including those whose stories may have been hidden or neglected and whose voices may otherwise not be represented in the mainstream historical record. These narratives reveal the complexity and plurality of London’s history and the diversity of experience.

The Oral History Collection reflects London’s past and present, both in terms of the governance of the capital, such as descriptions of events surrounding former general elections, or a recent interview with Kit Malthouse Deputy Mayor for Police recorded as part of a recent exhibition Freedom From about modern day slavery in the capital.

The collection also reveals London’s long and colourful history of resistance, protests movements, civil rights campaigns, demonstrations and riots.

London's people power

Examples of people power take many forms. The collection includes turbulent periods in London’s history, such as the General Strike of 1926, when in a move of solidarity over the treatment of the miners, workers came out in the first ever general strike in Britain.

There are accounts of the Cable Street riots of 1936, when anti-fascist protestors fought against the Blackshirts, chanting the slogan 'They shall not pass!'

Memories of the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill, and the Brixton riots in 1981, record how tensions in these communities spilled over into the streets. Eyewitness reports allow us to glimpse the past, adding layers and meaning, creating differing and contrasting perspectives.

First hand accounts of direct action campaigns provide further understanding and insights into environmental protests, such as those who opposed the M11 Link road in east London during the 1990s, where a chestnut tree on George Green became a focal point and a symbol for the protest against the building of the motorway. This major anti-road campaign seeded a ground roots movement for numerous other protests which would follow.

Understanding motivations

Oral history also helps us to engage with diverse groups in our work, representing their stories and helping us understand people and their motivations.

It connects us with human experiences which may be similar or different from our own, creating opportunities for debate which can challenge and inform the listener. 

For example, in interviews focusing on the memories of individuals who were actively involved in the women’s liberation movement and/or the campaigns for LGBT rights from the 1960s, speakers describe the struggles, internal conflicts and the opposition that they faced, as well as the achievements of these movements, but also the personal cost of following their political conscience.

Some of these recordings can be seen in an interactive in the new Galleries of Modern London.

Often, the struggles of the past still resonate with concerns in the present day:

'I’m what they call a gut communist – I came in through my stomach, being hungry and unemployed, and poor, and being intelligent, I wanted to know why I was hungry and why should there be a shortage when there’s so much being created around me. Why is it that the workers manufacture everything in Britain, or in the world, and then after they’ve made  it, they can’t afford to buy it?'

                                                                             - Jack Dash, born 1907

Among the stories of political activists are asylum seekers, Communists, Marxists, parliamentarians, campaigners against modern slavery and trades unionists.

In listening to multiple points of view, we can create a platform for refection, debate and understanding, giving a voice to the oppressed, allowing and exploring differences of opinion and supporting freedom of expression.

Further information

For more information about the Museum of London's oral history collection, contact:

Sarah Gudgin
Curator Oral History and Contemporary Collecting

Image courtesy of the Henry Grant Collection, Museum of London.

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From other sites: Living Heritage

The Living Heritage section of the UK Parliament website offers an insight into Parliament’s history and its role in the development of British society over nearly a thousand years.

UK Parliament: Living Heritage