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Hidden Memories - the Archives' Oral History Project

Michele Losse
3 June 2011
Michele blogs about her work on the Oral History Project and how she is capturing the memories of Kew staff.

What is oral history?

Oral history is fast becoming a means of recording past memories which would otherwise be lost forever. Many people have led interesting lives, professional and personal, often intertwined, and whereas Kew staff have often published papers on their work, or spoken casually about it, many have memories which they do not think of sharing with others. Oral history can also supplement the written historical record or fill in the gaps of the archive.

Oral historians largely use a set of interviewing techniques to elicit and record people talking about their memories of past experiences. This is not a new practice; we should never forget that long before the term ‘oral history’ was used, people in various cultures and societies have used and perpetuated oral traditions and oral histories as a part of their daily lives.

Diana and Roger Polhill, retired Herbarium Botanists, recount their experiences of an African Expedition.

The history of Kew's project

In 1975, a series of ad hoc audio interviews of ex members of staff and prominent botanists was started. The very first was Eric Court’s ‘Reminiscences of the buildings of Kew for which he worked as a carpenter for 42 years’, as interviewed by John Simmons. Others followed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Since 2007, I have continued this project of interviewing ex-members of staff across the Gardens, from as varied a background as possible, but this time switching to film as opposed to sound recordings. Our photographer, Andrew McRobb, looks after the technical side of the project, carrying out filming, editing and taking care of sound issues.

The aim of the project is not just historical; I wish to make the public aware of the variety of tasks carried out by the staff at Kew, as well as the work carried out behind-the-scenes, in a way that is easily understood by all. 

Researching interview questions

Any interview always involves a certain amount of research, and I rely on a variety of sources such as the Kew Guild Journal, a publication created by the Kew Guild, which is an association for staff and students, established in 1893. This records trips and publications of staff throughout the years, as well as other items of news. I also rely on other members of staff; many will remember facts and anecdotes about their colleagues which they themselves might have forgotten, or are too modest to relate! Another good source of information are the Archives themselves, which sometimes contain papers deposited by the interviewee providing a good insight into their past activities, as well as the Library catalogue for publications. 

An example of interviewees

Interviewees have come from varied backgrounds and include retired botanists from the Herbarium, who have recounted a number of fascinating stories. For instance, there is the story of the husband and wife team, who whilst on a botanical expedition to Africa in the 1970s were held at gunpoint and in their interview they explain the stratagem they used to get themselves out of this delicate situation. There is also the story of one of our retired Gardeners, now a Volunteer Guide, who left his homeland in France to come and work at Kew in 1964 aged 17 and spent the next 43 years looking after the Arboretum.

Pat Smallcombe, retired Gardens Supervisor, and now Volunteer Guide, tells how he left his French homeland to become a Kew Gardener in the 1960s.

If you are interested in coming to view these fascinating stories and many others, or would simply like more information on the project, please contact the Archives.

- Michele -

Further Information


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