Chapter 5 – Memory

Chapter summary

Memory and the process of remembering are central to oral history. Questions of reliability or veracity are now less important to oral historians than understanding how the memory works and why certain memories are recalled (and why others are not). Memory is an active process which springs into action in an oral history interview, often in unpredictable ways. The task of the oral historian is not only to understand the different kinds of memory at work in an interview – individual, collective, public, official, flashbulb and so on – but to engage with the relationship between what, how and why we remember. This chapter describes different forms of memory systems and the process of remembering or reconstructing past events and experiences. Autobiographical, collective, popular and public or official memory are explained as a range of factors that might impact what is remembered: age, gender, trauma.

Discussion points

  1. What is the impact of age/gender/trauma on memory?
  2. Are some activities or events more likely to be remembered in an interview than others?
  3. How effective is memory at recalling emotion?
  4. What is the function of misremembering?
  5. How do individuals use public events to cue their memories?
  6. Is the relationship between individual and collective memory productive or constraining?


A: Remembering everyday detail I

Mrs P3, born 1904, interviewed by the Stirling Women's Oral History Project in 1988

This extract from Mrs P3’s life history testimony illustrates the facility for remembering the detail of habitual activities – in this case a job in a woollen mill – even when they were many decades in the past.

Q. So the spinning, can you describe what you did when you did the spinning?

A. Describe what you did? Oh well the bobbins, <..pause..> the bobbins came to you with the wool wound round them, you see, and you put them up on the top, and you brought them down, put them through the eye, and they went onto another bobbin.

Q. This is on the machine?

A. On a machine, aye, onto another bobbin. And they went from there to the twisting, and they twisted with another, maybe another bobbin of wool, to make it a thicker one, maybe a two ply or three ply.

Q. Was that on another machine or was that still the same? <..pause..>

A. On another machine, aye. The spinning was a single thread, you see, and then it went to, maybe mixed with another two or three bobbins, to make it three ply or four ply, you see. And then that went on to a bigger thingmy. And then it went from there, on that twisting, and it went from there to the reeling, and it put on the reel and they made it into the hanks. This went round about on this big thing like a drum, and it went round about there; made it into hanks of wool. And they were tied up and weighed and then all put so many together. And then it went from there up to the second flat where I used to work. And you put it on a hook thing, and you pulled it out here, and twisted it round about, then put it like that, then. That was in a hank then, you see, made it into a hank of wool, like what you buy. You don't buy them in hanks now but it used to be in these days.

B: Remembering everyday detail II

In this second example from the Stirling Women's Oral History Project Mrs S3 (born 1902) describes in rich detail her memories of working in a biscuit factory where she started at the age of 14.

Q. So could you describe what you did?

A. It was a biscuit factory. We used to have trays, the biscuits were put in – made dough, and then the dough was taken out and it was taken and put through like a great big mangle, and on to a machine that slid along and then there was a cutter come down and cut the shape of the biscuit. And then a girl took it from there to there, and put it in an oven and girls worked at the back of the oven pulling the hot biscuits out on the trays, they were put in. They were taken away from there and taken to a table where there was six packers. And they each get a tray and they run them up with their hands and put them in and put them into tins, until they got, as time progressed they got machines to do all that. To pack up the biscuits and that, and all they had to do was lift them up and put them in, and then they put in packets, you'll have seen them likely being wrapped, the packet, a big roll of paper, and they went through and cut off, the biscuits came on and round and you just fold them up and sealed them at both ends, and that was it. That was all hand done until, <..pause..> the packing, and then to they got machines for to do it.

Q. What sort of biscuits were they called?

A. We made Rich Tea, Digestive, Thin Wine, and, <..pause..> I worked in the store and I had, from fourteen and then I done all the odd jobs up to about eighteen, I was in charge then, you know of the stores. Receiving raw materials, then dishing them out for to make the biscuits. But it was a big factory, least it was a fair sized factory, that kind of thing. And I remember the old man, it was Mr. Barr taking us up and telling us about the flooring; was that depth he told us and there wouldnae be any, bombs could do no harm at that time. Bombs did do you harm. Didnae do it to us, but the bombs came. I used to watch them, coming across, you saw the planes coming across, you knew they were German planes, that's where we lived. I knew every item that was in the biscuits. During the war with the bombing, I'd a case with the recipe books in it, in case we'd be bombed, the case would be destroyed, and they asked me to take it, I carried it home every night, and back. But I never ever looked at it. I knew what was in it because I could have taken out. Because I'd access to seeing all that went in, I'd to distribute, you know give out orders and that for to what there was to be done, like all the different fats, sugar and syrup, and condensed milk, and eggs, frozen eggs, liquid eggs, and eggs. I've broken a case of thirty dozen eggs, you know opened them to make Cracknels, Puff Cracknels, I don't know whether you still get Puff Cracknels. But Puff Cracknels, and they are eggs, just eggs, sugar and fat and flour, they were all and that was it. I stood and did that, you know, rattled them off, but you had to watch you didnae put in a bad one, you know what I mean, you'd the wee bit, that went off dropped it into a pint measure, and rattled away there, that was my job. That was one of my jobs, I had all different things. I used to, we used to have big bars that you cut the fat, and the bars and put it into tubs. Then you made icing sugar, you'd a machine for making sugar, icing sugar, machine for cleaning fruit, and all that kind of thing, you'd all these different things where I worked, in the store.

Q. What were you paid?

A. Gosh I cannae remember, it was only about six or eight shillings a week. I ended up with eight pound after forty years, eight pound a week, that was the, <..pause..> I got a gold watch for twenty five years service, and then when the forty years, they told me I was due another present, like, for my service. I said I didnae want a present, and there were a whole lot of us, you know, and there were office staff and everything, I wasnae in the office I was out-with the office, but anyway there was the office staff, I said I didnae want a present, but the whole lot didnae want the present. I says, ‘It's work we want.’ We were being paid off. I says, ‘It's a job.’ I says, ‘You cannae eat a present.’ I says, ‘We've got to find a job.’ And so we did have to find a job. I was six months or something on the ‘Bureau’. And you got ‘Bureau’ money then, after I come off. But when I was leaving the manager spoke to me, it was him I told, I could talk plain to him, and then there was the man above that, maybe you couldnae talk so plain to him. Anyway, he come back and told me, he says, ‘If you care to wait for another three weeks, we'll give you cash,’ he says, ‘but’, he says, ‘if I give you it now’" he says, ‘it'll be taxed.’ ‘And,’ he says, ‘the gilt will be taken off the gingerbread.’ And he says, ‘If you can wait that time, we'll see.’ So that's what they did, and I think I got forty pound or something. That was for all these years’ service, however it was a lot of money then. And then I applied to the Home Help. And I remember going to see the, she was up in Glasgow, in Cochrane Street, she was the Sister Donald, and she says to me, ‘I don't see that you can be a Home Help.’ She says, ‘You've always been in business.’ I says, ‘But I still need a job.’ And I says, ‘I still had to look after my father and mother, and,’ I says, ‘I did housework and looked after them.’ She says, ‘I don't see why not.’ She says, ‘We'll give you a trial.’ I was there for ten years.

[This respondent also illustrates a mode of speaking often heard from older women whereby she includes quotations from direct speech in the narrative.]

The Stirling Women's Oral History Project interviewed 80 women in the Stirling area between 1987 and 1990. All the interview transcripts can be accessed on a CD ROM published by the Smith Museum and Art Gallery, Stirling.

C: Recalling emotion

1. Christine (born 1920) was interviewed by the author in 1996 for a project on looked-after children in Scotland. In this extract she tried to tell me how she felt at the age of eight upon arriving at an orphanage upon the death, in very quick succession, of both her parents. All identifying information has been removed.

I had a sister older and two sisters younger and my mother was expecting her fifth baby when my Dad took ill, I think he died of tuberculosis, he worked on the railway and I think he'd hurt himself on the railway too, but he worked on the railway in B. and I remember he died in Hospital and I heard it was TB and exactly a week after that my mother gave birth to the long awaited son, and er just an hour after that she died, so of course there was nobody really to look after us so um the Poor Law inspector came from H. to see us and of course I can't remember all that happened but I know an aunt adopted Hamish the baby because they don't take babies into orphanages I think until they are about 18 months old, and then the Poor Law officer took us in his car. I remember as though it was yesterday all those years ago – and he took us to the orphanage


At eight you really don’t – I remember [one of my cousins] coming up the stairs to me in the bedroom in the morning and saying ‘you haven’t got a mother or a father’, I says ‘I have got a mother, I haven’t got a father’, ‘oh but there was a policeman at the door just now and told me your mother’s died as well’ and that’s how I was told my mother was dead, isn’t it awful? However from then I got back to B. because, I don’t know how I got there but I remember seeing my Mum in her coffin, two pennies on her eyes so she must have, I just remember that … As I says I suppose you’re unhappy but you just don’t, you just don’t remember very much about it.

2. Robina (born 1907), also interviewed by the author, was placed in a children's home in the north of Scotland at the age of eight. In this extract her response to a question about her memories of being taken to the home contains little apparent emotion although her vivid or flashbulb memory of how she was dressed that day suggests some very strong emotions of a momentous event.

LA: Do you remember being taken to the home, to the Bethany home?

Yes and I remember what being dressed in.

LA: Oh tell me about that then.

It was blue costume, pleated skirts, I think I see it yet, pleated skirts, a double breasted jacket with brass buttons, and a black velour hat, black stockings and shoes, and we went into the home in that and I never saw it again. It was taken from us, and we just got a dress and a pinafore on.

LA: Were you upset by that?

You thought it was your life, you see. You just thought that's what's happening you see, we were all the same you see, there were some very nice girls in there.

LA: So did you all have the same clothes, was it like a uniform?

No, only time we had a uniform was the winter time when we had red dresses, red cloaks, and eh a tammy, and it used to irritate your skin, you know it was harsh, harsh, aye that was only time we had uniform, other times we just wore like what they give us, you see, it wasn't really a uniform but we always had a pinafore, but we didn't have a pinafore on at the school and the school was in the home and in fact if I remember outside the gate in the H. where Bethany Home is, there was an notice up, school, and that was where we had the school, and the nuns taught us, well but they must have been told that we would have to go to an outside school so we started off first of all at B. and we used to have to walk from the H. right near out to the B. four times a day. And then they shifted us to H.Street, H.Street school, you see.

D: Public events framing memory

Mrs J2 (born 1905) was interviewed for the Stirling Women’s Oral History Project. She was asked ‘Have you any memories of the First World War?’ and her response, as might be expected given she was quite young at the time, recalls two key moments hooked into a public framework – one local and one national:

Well eh, that would be 1918 eh, 1914 to 18. Well, I would be nine years old when it started because I was born in 1905. I remember it, the first Zeppelin. I was at school, the German Zeppelin flew over Cambusbarron. The first plane that flew over, we got, we all got out of school to go and watch it landing down at a farm, a big field in a farm and it was great. It was exciting because the pilot just seemed to be sitting, was just like straps of wood, you know, and he was sitting outside, I can remember that as plain, <..pause..> and eh, then on Armistice Day, we, that would be four years after, eh, we all got a holiday at school and had great celebrations, you know.

When Mrs J2 was asked about her memories of World War Two, on the other hand, she is able to speak in detail about her family's specific experiences:

Q. Do you have any memories of the Second World War?

A. Eh, the Second World War, well, I would eh, I would be married then and I'd two, my eldest boy was in the Army, he was in Egypt stationed. And I remember him, <..pause..> I used to send him his comics out of the shop, you know, (laugh) ‘The Adventure’ and all these things. Then my other boy Jim, they had all to do their service and eh, he was really looking forward to it because when his dad died he had to take over the cobbling. He learned the trade too, and looked after the newspapers, he had a lot to do. And then he was going into the Army and he was really looking forward to it because he was going abroad. No, it must have been before his dad died because his dad was ill at the time, that was it. And, eh, I'd to get him home to help in the shop and he wasn't pleased about it at all because he was looking forward to getting away abroad, you know. So he'd to eh, he got off the Army, he got out of the Army to look after the business and help me and eh, after that, a year after his dad died he went away to Australia. I said no wonder he went away, he had too much to do. (chuckle) And then my oldest boy, he was in the Army for his time in Egypt, he'd a trade, wood cutter machinist and eh, then he went abroad too, to Australia.

E: Public memory and autobiographical memory

This memory from Mr Pilott was contributed as a written account to the BBC People's War website which incorporates aspects of public memory regarding the Blitz, evacuation, rationing and so on. Many of the stories are personal recollections within a public framework, in this case reminiscent of the more light-hearted filmic representations of the war:

The day the war broke out my family were sitting out in the garden sunshine awaiting Chamberlain’s broadcast. The actual declaration was somewhat of an anticlimax and accepted as inevitable. Hardly had his closing words sunk in when the air raid warning sounded all over London, which brought us all back to reality. We looked skywards in the expectation of seeing vast fleets of enemy bombers but the sky was empty and an eerie silence pervaded because all the traffic had stopped and people had rushed to the nearest air raid shelter. The Government had been issuing Anderson shelters to householders with gardens but ours had not been delivered. We therefore had nowhere to run. We all began to speak in subdued tones as if the enemy might hear or neighbours might realise our unspoken fears. After a short time, which seemed to be ages the ‘Allclear’ sounded and we all were relieved.


In May 1940 when the Germans broke through, I remember looking with apprehension at a map of France and the destruction of our army. With the debacle of Dunkirk we were prepared by the Government controlled radio with the idea that we might be invaded. All road signs were removed and anybody asking directions was automatically suspect. Tales of spies and German parachutists dressed up in nun’s clothes abounded. I with my friends joined in the hunt and followed anyone who looked suspicious. Nuns were not frequently seen in Plumstead but any we met were subjected to being tailed. Although we were often sure we had uncovered nests of spies, we never got up sufficient pluck to report our misgivings to the local coppers.

F: Forbidden memory

In Soviet Russia there were many elements of private life which were a ‘forbidden zone of memory’. Orlando Figes’ study of private life in the Soviet Union offers an insight into what happens when personal and family memories conflicted with the values of the regime. Between 2003 and 2006 researchers interviewed family members about events in their families’ pasts which were recorded in documents but never spoken about. The website contains a selection of the interviews and transcripts and some English translations.

Further reading

  • C.G. Brown and J.D. Stephenson, ‘The view from the workplace: women’s memories of work in Stirling c.1910-c.1950’, in E. Gordon and E. Breitenbach (eds), The World is Ill-Divided: Women’s Work in Scotland in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Edinburgh, 1990), pp.7–28
  • M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (London, 1992)
  • Popular Memory Group, ‘Popular memory: theory, politics, method’, in R. Perks and A. Thomson, The Oral History Reader (2nd edition, London, 2006), pp.43–53
  • A. Portelli, ‘The Death of Luigi Trastulli: memory and the event’ in A. Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (New York, 1991)
  • P. Thompson et al, Memory and History: Essays on Recalling and Interpreting Experience (London, 1994)