The recent Covid lockdowns and self-isolation have left many of us to re-evaluate how we work on a day to day basis, needing to work from home I was lucky enough to become involved with the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ (UOSH) project at the National Library of Wales.
The British Library led project is a UK-wide exercise that aims to preserve, digitise, and provide public access to a large part of the nation’s sound heritage, with my involvement focusing on the oral histories of Tiger Bay collected by the Butetown History and Arts Centre during the 1980s and 90s.
Whenever I discuss my work at the Library with people unfamiliar with our archives, their perception is often that our collections are focused on primarily academic, staid and quite dry material. The Tiger Bay oral histories definitively prove that idea wrong by giving a voice to the ‘ordinary’ people of a Welsh community that has developed over time to become perhaps one of the most interesting and unique communities in Wales.
The Tiger Bay oral history collection viewed as a whole offers much more than just a snapshot of a community throughout the twentieth century. Through first-hand accounts of residents, we learn how the area developed through migration and immigration to become what is regarded as one of the most multi-cultural and ethnically diverse in the United Kingdom, continually showing the social dynamics of different migrant communities melding to become one, whilst at the same time striving to retain their own distinct identity. Tied together through ongoing sociological and anthropological threads within the discussions the main thing that shines through is the individuality, the identity and the pride of the locals whose histories are recorded.
Subject areas covered by the collection are wonderfully diverse, and the recollections and reminiscences of the day to day lives of the interviewees document clearly a period in history that saw dramatic changes within society. Alongside stories from the Cardiff Docks, of the sea-farers and shipping industry, we hear discussed in exacting detail the impact of wartime on the area, evacuees tell of their time in the Welsh Valleys, whilst those left behind in The Bay speak vividly of air raids, with heartfelt tales of family and friends lost at sea or in bombing raids. We hear how the domestic role of women changed dramatically with wartime opportunities in munitions factories, and perhaps more importantly, how they never looked back once the war was over. More recent times are covered with the redevelopment of Tiger Bay as it became the place that we know today, the unease and reluctance of many to accept sweeping changes and re-structuring of the community and a way of life in the place that they call home is laid bare at public meetings and in discussion groups.
Everything is there, the gossip and chatter as locals reminisce, laugh and cry together, the music and the song as the sea-farers give us shanties and Victor Parker lights up the Quebec Hotel with his jazz standards, the pride and the passion, the anger and the fight as the Cardiff Three recount their story of wrongful conviction. This is the life of a community laid out in its entirety, the good times, and the bad.
There are many things that make a nation, the history, and the geography both play a major role, but what really gives a nation an identity is the people, all of the people. Yes, our academics, our poets and authors, our politicians and protesters, our musicians and our sports stars, they all bring awareness and leadership; but the beating heart of a nation is the people whose lives are inextricably entwined with the place on a day to day basis. These are the people who have openly, freely spoken up on these recordings, their life stories showing us where they came from, where they are now and where they are going. An absolute inspiration.
John McMahon, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Cataloguer