Major national oral history projects and surveys

Black and white photograph of people standing on a cobbled road, called A Labour of Love. Image courtesy of the Hulton Deutch collection.
'A Labour of Love'. Image courtesy of the Hulton Deutch collection

We have large collections of oral history recordings that offer details about British life, work and families in the 20th century.

About the collection

These collections are national in scope and many are useful if you are researching political and social issues, health, disability, ethnicity and immigration, religion, food, art, and British heritage.

What is available online?

  • The George Ewart Evans Collection comprises around 250 recordings of interviews and songs made by writer, folklorist and oral history pioneer George Ewart Evans between 1956 and 1977. The principal subjects are rural life and agricultural work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, folk beliefs about animals, medicine and witchcraft, folk and popular songs, entertainment and education in rural communities (with some material on domestic service, transport and mining). Most of the recordings were made in Suffolk, with a smaller number in the Midlands, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
  • The Listening Project was initiated by BBC Radio in 2012. People are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative, to be recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and curated and archived in full by the British Library. These one-to-one conversations, lasting up to an hour and taking a topic of the speakers' choice, collectively form a picture of our lives and relationships today.Topics include health, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and belief. Edited excerpts from the collection are broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 4 and on local radio stations across the UK and Northern Ireland.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Millennium Memory Bank

  • The Millennium Memory Bank was created in 1998-99 by all BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, joining forces with the British Library Sound Archive to create the Millennium Memory Bank - a powerful record of the century just ending through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life. This joint BBC and British Library project, entitled ‘The Century Speaks: Millennium Oral History Project’ collected over 6000 interviews. 

    This was the largest project in the history of British radio. Between September and December 1999 each of the BBC's forty stations then used the recordings as the basis for its own series of sixteen programmes called The Century Speaks  in which local people reflected back across the 20th century. Each series showed how - in that part of the UK - different aspects of life have changed. Each radio station followed the same 16 themes: Where we Live and House and Home; Living Together; Who We Are and Belonging; Crime and the Law; Growing up and Getting Older; Technology; Eating and Drinking; Money; Playtime; Going Places; Life and Death; Beliefs and Fears; and What’s Next.

    Selected recordings from the Millennium Memory Bank are available online for the study of accents and dialects.

Family history

  • Family Life and Work Experience before 1918 is a pioneering collection of oral history interviews, also known as 'The Edwardians,' devised and recorded by Paul and Thea Thompson at Essex University between 1970 and 1973. It comprises structured interviews with a national sample of people born before 1918 in the UK.

    The interviews were conducted thematically, and included Meals, Domestic Routine, School, Weekend Activities and Religion. A quota sample of an initial 444 individuals was selected to be geographically representative of Britain, broken down by urban and rural district according to where the informants resided in 1911 (census data), and by occupation at time of interview. A further 65 interviews with middle and upper-class families were conducted later, also 7 interviews with black migrants, 3 with Irish men and women, and 6 with American men and women. From C 707/455 to C 707/518 the tapes have been given the collection title 'Middle and Upper Class Families'.

    This collection, the result of the first national oral history interview study to be carried out in Britain, also forms the basis for Paul Thompson's The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society.
  • Families, Social Mobility and Ageing: a multi-generational approach was carried out by a research team under Paul Thompson at Essex University between 1985 and 1988. Also known as '100 Families', this study gathered ethnographic data illustrative of family, ageing and social mobility. A sample of 110 families was taken from 200 wards in England, Wales and Scotland, based on a sub-sample of interviewees from the ESRC stagflation project (which concerned economic hardship in the 1970s). The initial focus was middle generation informants aged 33-55, married with children. Interviews typically covered family background, childhood, working life, marriage and childrearing.

BBC World Service and the National Trust

  • BBC Word Service: My Century is a collection of 251 five-minute recordings which cover a multitude of topics such as warfare, crime and mental illness, sporting achievements, economics and telecommunications. The recordings were broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4 throughout 2000.
  • National Trust Sound Archive is an ongoing collection of interviews that record the experiences of those that once owned, lived or worked in National Trust properties and gardens. It includes interviews with staff, archaeologists, architects and landscape gardeners.

Further information