Campus close-up: University of Hertfordshire

An oral history project seeks to collect the memories of the ‘Ten Pound Poms’ and those they left behind

September 4, 2014

Source: Getty

Outward bound: many British families were encouraged to head for Australia

Producing oral histories – whereby researchers and students make audio recordings of the personal stories and eyewitness accounts of people with a common interest or experience – is something in which the University of Hertfordshire specialises.

For its current project, Full Circle, the institution has teamed up with the University of Western Australia in Perth. They will produce an audio archive of personal accounts of families who emigrated from the UK to Australia after the Second World War (including the “Ten Pound Poms”, so called because of the government-subsidised cost of travel to Oceania during a post-war assisted-passage scheme).

The project will also speak with some of the relatives who were left behind.

A local call by the UK university has already yielded results. Hertfordshire resident Roger Gochin, for example, has a compelling tale to tell: “My uncle was sent by his orphanage to live in Western Australia,” he recalled.

“He was told that his parents and his sister were dead, which was completely untrue. Only when he retired did he start exploring his background. It was absolutely amazing for him to find in the UK not only his sister but an extended family.”

It is just one example of the type of story that the two universities hope to unearth during the course of the project.

Andrew Green, visiting senior research fellow in the history department at Hertfordshire, is leading the project. He has already been involved in collating audio histories of employees of the De Havilland Aircraft Company, which was based in Hatfield on what is now part of the university campus, and of the players and employees of nearby Stevenage Football Club.

“We also have a project called WorldStory, where we interview our international students to find out their stories – where they came from, their journey to the UK, and how it changed their outlook. It is something that I think all universities should be doing.”

For the Full Circle project, a team of three students from Hertfordshire will travel to Perth this month to join UWA students in conducting interviews, tracking down emigrants in locations as diverse as St George’s Cathedral, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and a “British” pub.

“We want to hear stories of recent emigration as well as those from the more distant past,” said Dr Green. “How were lives changed by the new opportunities that opened up in Australia, and what adjustments did those remaining in the UK have to make?”

The project promises to reveal many fascinating tales. In Australia, for example, Perth resident David Cotgreave has already told his story – recalling the excitement of travelling to Australia in his early teens, around 40 years ago.

“As a kid I couldn’t wait to go – what excitement,” he said. “We travelled out by ship on the Australis, which was a terrible experience. Gastroenteritis went right through the passenger list – me included. I think it was something like nine people that died.”

Dr Green described the collation of oral histories as “a growth area”, but said there were still many scholars who question its merits.

“Quite a number of people in the academy are suspicious about interviewing people with such subjective slants on their stories,” he said. “But there are plenty of universities now doing it. The problem is that it can often sit on a shelf hidden away somewhere. The easy bit is setting up the interviews, but converting the results into a user-friendly form, or transcribing the interviews so that they can be put up online, is more of a challenge.”

He said Hertfordshire was planning an online portal where scholars and members of the public would be able to access the recordings made not only as part of the Full Circle project, but also during the institution’s other oral history activities. It is expected to go online within the next year.

In numbers

1.28m of the 5 million Britons living abroad are in Australia, according to United Nations data

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