Historians of the old school often question the value of collecting personal memories of events that are almost always well documented in newspapers and journals of the time, and indeed, in some ways,they may be right to criticise the accuracy of oral history. Its truth and authenticity leans so heavily on the precision and reliability of seventy or eighty-year-old memories, and if we all have difficulty occasionally putting a name to a face or remembering what other people look like, how can anyone place much importance on personal accounts of events that took place so long ago, and may be coloured by age and experience?
In fact, the authenticity of events recounted in oral interviews is very easily verified by cross-checking with other elderly people, and for anybody doing that, one thing soon becomes clear. The memories of old people may fail them badly in trying to recall what happened last Wednesday, but are uncannily accurate delving back to childhood and early life. One of the most exciting things about collecting personal accounts of events in history is the colourful details that people are able to add to otherwise dry accounts: "I know, because I was there", they say. So this month, we look at a few events from the past, all well recorded somewhere in dusty archives, but this time seen directly through the eyes of people that were there and saw things first hand for themselves.
Anybody today able to remember the laying of the first Thirlmere pipeline would have to be aged at least 104, or more. It was a notable event in Lakeland history because it not only brought new machinery and technology to a quiet country backwater, but it imported miners from Gloucestershire to work the modern tools, many of whom stayed with local families. The history of the building of the acqueduct is well recorded in countless books and pamphlets - but what did it actually feel like for a young Ings schoolgirl who once met a stranger with a wet nose on the dark road home from school?
"I never saw anybody excepting people that you knew that worked on the farms, but one night, in front of me, there was a man. Well, I didn't know what to make of that and when I got up to him, it was a very cold winter and he had a drop at the end of his nose! I will never forget that, he was hammering in a peg by the roadside, and they were preparing for the Manchester Water works, there was the tunnel entrance there in our field and we had huts there for the men, and they also had there a small church."
Before the building of the chapel, a Captain Chapman used to come and hold a service for the men on fine Sunday afternoons on the rocks by the tunnel,which attracted plenty of attention from local people; and it wasn't long before everybody was caught up in the excitement of the Troutbeck section of the tunnel, and whether the two ends would actually meet in the middle:
"We had two of the men that worked in the tunnel, it was going through to Troutbeck and Troutbeck was coming through to us, and they took me one night up to the tunnel, one of these men, and there were tramways. Well, it got so long, they had had to put a thing up for air and the machinery was in a great big building, and it was very dirty. Well, the fellow picked me up and carried me - that was a few days before it went through and it was wonderful. They met, just like that!"
The Gloucestershire miners stayed with the farming family for two years, and enjoyed all the innocent fun of family life with the young girl and her unmarried aunts. After a visit home, the lodgers brought back three glass bowls as gifts for Grandmother, which were much coveted by the girls:
"Now on a Saturday morning, when Grandma and Grandpa went to Kendal shopping, my aunties were left at home doing all the work and polishing everything up - and they used to make their wills, they had great fun over this, and there was never any writing or anything, and they always said, What would I like? Well, I wanted these vases. I was the only one, excepting these aunties, that really ever knew these men. They used to come and meet me when I was coming home on a Friday night because it was dark long before we got up to the house, and they would come and meet me on the road. And then of course they went home, and got married."
The mischievous young aunts may even have had a hand in that match-making, once they realised what fun it was to help an illiterate young man pursue his Gloucestershire courtship by letter:
"One of them couldn't write, and he had a sweetheart and my auntie was a devil, you know. She used to write his love letters for him. She said, 'I'll get him married before I am finished with him!', but I don't know whether it came to anything. I didn't hear much about him afterwards but the other came to see us after, you know, a year or two after they had finished."
There was little celebration when that particular section of the tunnel was finished and had met successfully in the middle, because the actual work was by no means finished:
"There was no grand opening .... there was a big, open cutting and all these huts, and it was a big business taking it all down. But where that man with the drip on the end of his nose was putting in that stake, they built a stone room. It was their office and when they went away they left that, a good, well built stone building by the side of the road. It was very useful to horses and carts with all those hills - they took a big load to there, then there were two more hills to go up, and they took so much off the horse, you see, and left the load safe and dry. The hut is still there."
The exact years that the Gloucestershire miners lodged were difficult to recall and could only be roughly calculated by the 100-year-old lady, who recorded her interview before her death twelve years ago:
"I can't remember when it was, but I went to Ings School in 1882, and then on to Kendal and I would be about thirteen before it was finished, I should think. Well, I'm not very good at remembering those sort of things. I had other things to think about, I think!"