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Oral history: food and drink

A number of collections at the British Library document the history of Britain through our attitudes to food and food production, and can help chart the revolutionary changes in the British food industry and food culture in the course of the twentieth century.

Food production, consumption, distribution and sale

  • Food: From Source to Salespoint (C821), a National Life Stories project, charts the revolutionary changes which have occurred within Britain's food industry in the course of the twentieth century; the interviews explore the technological and social changes which have affected the production, distribution and retailing of food, as well as documenting the history of Britain through our attitudes to food.
  • Tesco: An Oral History (C1087), a National Life Stories project funded by Tesco, recorded thirty-nine life story interviews with employees of Tesco between 2003 and 2007. It charts the rise of the supermarket retailer from an East End market stall to multinational giant. 
  • An Oral History of Neal's Yard (catalogue no. C1649) is a collection of five interviews with staff, customers and suppliers of Neal’s Yard Dairy. The interviews were conducted as a pilot project to examine the feasibility of a wider project which would examine the 35 years of trading history of both Neal’s Yard Dairy, Monmouth Coffee Company and their direct and indirect networks, including historical networks and those of the present day. The pilot project was supported by the European Research Council funded Food Futures proof of concept research grant at the University of Sheffield.
  • Collections covering the social history of food include the WRVS Eastbourne Heritage Project 2005 (catalogue no: C1243) which comprises 25 interviews on the social history of food and drink.

The wine trade

  • An Oral History of the Wine Trade (C1088), part of the National Life Stories Food programme, recorded life story interviews about the wine trade, both past and current. The project ran from 2003 until 2005 and was sponsored by the Vintners’ Company and the Institute of Masters of Wine.
  • An Oral History of the Wine Society (C1154) is a collection of four recordings commissioned by the Wine Society in 2005, of people who have worked for the Society.

Related recordings

  • For collections relating to business, see business and finance.
  • Attitudes towards food and drink will feature in many of the oral history collections held at the British Library particularly in collections which offer a survey of British life. Within the Millennium Memory Bank (C900) - the joint BBC and British Library project at the turn of the year 2000 - one of the themes of questions was 'Eating and Drinking'.
  • The Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918 (C707) collection contains life story interviews with a cross-national sample of people born before 1918 in the UK. The interviews were conducted thematically, and included Meals and Domestic Routine.

Food Stories

The British Library interactive Learning Resource Food Stories, aimed at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 geography and citizenship students, allows the exploration of the oral history collections in more depth through interview extracts and transcripts. The site helps to chart the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the consumption and production of food over the last century and covers a range of subjects including identity and ritual, food and community, cultural identity, the experience of the consumer and the changing face of the food industry. The recordings featured in Food Stories are taken from Food: From Source to Salespoint (C821) and the Millennium Memory Bank (C900).

Accessing the collections

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)