‘Looking after people’s valuable memories’

A couple of weeks ago I shared with you our brand new oral history page on the website. I immediately wanted to hear and know more of these wonderful stories, and asked Sarah, our Oral History Intern, to compile some of her favourite stories to share with you all.

There is a secret treasure in the archives at Quarry Bank that any historic site would be jealous of – Quarry Bank Mill has an incredible collection of Oral History interviews. There are recordings with mill workers, Greg descendants, and villagers who have seen Styal and Quarry Bank Mill develop over the decades. There are over 7000 minutes of recordings, and the oldest interviewee was born in 1882, so when interviewees refer to ‘the war’ they could mean not only the First or Second World War, but the Boer War as well! As one of the Oral History volunteers brilliantly put it, the National Trust is looking after people’s valuable memories in the same way that it conserves historic buildings.

As the Oral History Intern I am fortunate enough to be looking after these gems for a few months, and I make the most of it, listening to their incredible stories almost every day. Listening to enough of the recordings turns you into a human encyclopaedia of Styal and Quarry Bank Mill, and I frequently annoy colleagues and housemates with the stories and tit bits of information that I come across. The recordings have also made me feel a lot more personally involved with the village and mill, and the fantastic volunteers who have been summarising some of the recordings have told me that they have become just as attached.

Some of the stories that stick with me the most are not necessarily the most historically significant; they are the ones that make me smile, and remind me that history is about real people. These are my personal favourites:

  • I’m sure that like a parent, I shouldn’t have a favourite interviewee, but I do – Alice Brown (nee Venables). Alice went to Styal School, worked in the Mill, and she covers just about everything you would want to know about Quarry Bank. She tells stories about an abandoned baby found on a doorstep, meeting her husband when he was a signalman and chivalrously saved her from a fine, and getting the decorator to secretly paint a man’s face into the marbling on her parents’ mantelpiece. She even sings skipping rhymes – ‘Raspberry, strawberry, apple jam tart; tell me the name of your sweetheart.’
Styal School in the early 20th century
Styal School in the early 20th century, where Alice went to school
  • Alice also taught me that the back row of Oak Cottages was known as Bug Row. Another villager, Reg Worthington, added that the front row was called Sunshine Row. Mary Wolstenholme, one of the last mill workers, describes the alternative names for the cottages at Farm Fold at one time her uncle grew lots of pansies at their house, next door was Jean’s auntie Anna whose husband grew dahlias, in the next house was his sister, Nurse Potts, and the last was the post office, so the row was known as Pansy Villa, Dahlia View, Star of Peace and General Post Office. These lovely names for the streets and houses seem a lot more personal than the current numbers.
Mary Wolstenholme
Mary Wolstenholme
  • Several of the villagers remember Beatrice Greg, who used to live in the Apprentice House. She was stone deaf and carried an ear-trumpet and rode around the village on a trap pulled by her donkey, Jinny, much to the village children’s amusement. Jinny also used to be the unofficial weather forecaster in Styal, as she used to ‘eeh-aww’ whenever it was about to rain.
The Apprentice House, once home to Beatrice Greg
The Apprentice House, once home to Beatrice Greg and her donkey, Jinny
  • Mrs Slater talks about how cold the cottages in Styal were before central heating, particularly upstairs where there were no fires. As well as her hot water bottle, they used to wrap the shelf from the oven in a blanket and take that to bed too.
  • Bertha Brown’s mother worked in Wilmslow, so Bertha was trusted to look after herself after school. One day, she decided that she was going to make potato cakes for her and her friends, despite never attempting any cooking before. The potato cakes themselves were a ‘soggy mess’, but the worst came when Bertha put them on the fire – something went wrong with the fat dripping into the fire, and the flames jumped up, setting Bertha’s beautiful long hair on fire! She ran outside, in a panic, and her next door neighbour had to throw a rug over her to put the blaze out.
The fireplace at 13 Oak Cottages
The fireplace at 13 Oak Cottages
  • Joe Carberry worked at the Greg mill in Reddish. One Christmas, one of the women who worked in the mill had one drink too many and ended up throwing up in the toilet. In the process, however, she lost her false teeth down the toilet! What I think is particularly impressive/concerning is that she actually went to the sewage works afterwards to retrieve them.
  • Another amusing Christmas party anecdote comes from Emily Lyons, who had her first experience of whisky when working as a weaver at the Mill. The women she worked with clubbed together for a bottle, but the whisky proved too much for Emily and she fell into the barrel of bobbins! Suffice to say, she didn’t get any more work done that afternoon.
  • Margaret Fowler is the daughter of Helen Greg, and granddaughter of Ernest William Greg. One afternoon she was playing in the attic of Norcliffe Hall and decided to have a sword fight with her ancestors (or their portraits, at least) She took the fight a little too seriously and stabbed one portrait of a lady through the neck with a dagger. Years later her uncle, Alec, remarked how strange it was that one of the paintings was damaged in such an unusual way…
Norcliffe Hall, the setting for Margaret's triumph over the portrait
Norcliffe Hall, the setting for Margaret’s triumph over the portrait

These stories are a fraction of the amazing recordings in the Oral History archive. We are also in the process of conducting a new round of Oral History interviews, so if you or someone you know would be interested to share their stories of Quarry Bank, please email me at sarah.hollingdale@nationaltrust.org.uk or contact Quarry Bank Mill directly. I always love to hear from anyone who has stories to tell about Quarry Bank Mill or Styal – who knows what other wonderful stories are out there, just waiting to be shared!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Fantastic work Sarah!! Looking forward to hearing more on the website!

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