One of the most significant most recent changes in British historiography has been an increasing emphasis on the experience of ordinary men and women.
This has taken many forms. In his classic The Making of the English Working-Class, E.P. Thompson sought to illustrate how the creativity of individuals and groups of working –class militants contributed to the development of British labour institutions and thus to the evolution of British democracy.
Between them, the historian, Samuel Raphael, and the sociologist, Paul Thompson, invented ‘oral history’ as a means of exploring the lives of those who have made little, if any, impact on documentary archives. Their interest was in the dynamics of those areas of social change which are largely inaccessible from documentary sources or to which oral history offers a different and more intimate perspective – the family, for example, the ethnic minority group, women history, the Gay experience and social nonconformity. Their underlying belief, derived from their Socialist ideals, was that ordinary people should be seen as the agents of change rather than as its passive recipients.
The influence of these pioneers has long since effectively challenged the ingrained elitism of public libraries, museums and archives, transforming their collecting policies and their programs of talks, events and exhibitions.
The days when history was largely a record of the influential and the powerful are well and truly over.
HISTORYFRAGMENTS.COM is an attempt to add a new dimension to these changes by recreating fragments of ordinary people’s lives from the fragmentary documentary evidence that they typically leave behind them on their death.
Few ordinary people are survived by personal archives which record a substantial part of their own lives or their family histories. As most an ordinary person might accumulate a photograph album, an autograph book, a scrap book, two or three pocket diaries, together with such ‘ephemera’ as driving licenses, insurance certificates, tickets, concert programmes and club membership cards.
And the chances are high that most of these will find their way, sooner rather than later, to the flames, the bin, to the house-clearance man, or to flea markets and professional car-booters, many of whom will then offer them to ‘collectors’, and none of whom will care a jot about their provenance or their subjects. Family photographs are on sale at every flea market at 50p a piece, family albums for anything up to £100 each. In the case of the few which survive in private hands, and this includes family photographs, the passage of time and the eradication of memory will render them anonymous.
Other surviving fragments are what collectors and archivists class as ‘ephemera’: short-lived magazines, advertising broadsheets, political and religious fly-sheets, lists of births, deaths, and marriages on the inside covers of Bibles and Books of Common Prayer, travel documents and so on: all equally vulnerable to loss, destruction and sale.
HISTORYFRAGMENTS.COM is an assertion that not all is lost. The fragments which remain in private hands or which can be purchased at a moderate price from the stalls of flea markets and car boot sales may still be used for the reconstruction of meaningful and sometimes significant fragments or ordinary people’s lives, which, places in context, may serve as evidence of aspects of British social, cultural or economic history.