Anyone who is a ‘proper’ Oral Historian will no doubt read this and chortle at my naivety. Previous readers of this blog will know that I am trying to record the stories of women in engineering history. Of course history is now too, not just the dead and buried, so I am working with others in the Women’s Engineering Society to try to record the recollections of living women engineers as well as those people who knew women engineers who have now died.
I have been most fortunate to be included as a participant in a project being run by Professor Katherine Kirk, of the University of the West of Scotland: “A Car for Women – and other stories”. Using the ever-fascinating story of the life of Dorothee Pullinger (Later Mrs Martin), and her work in engineering and entrepreneurship, as a basis the project will work to enhance the story-telling skills of today’s younger engineers for when they tell their own stories to schools etc.
My role is to provide the historical facts of Dorothee’s life. I have known of her for over 15 years and have researched more parts of her life from time to time, largely based on what has become available online and in one or two archive sources, such that I thought we had a fairly accurate picture of her life in the the period between the 2 world wars.
Oh dear. More naivety on my part. More rigorous archive work has turned some more information but the biggest step-change in our knowledge has come courtesy of this project which funded a research trip for 4 of us to Guernsey. Dorothee got around a lot in her life: born in France, educated in England, trained and worked in Scotland, opened an industrial laundry in London and then another in Guernsey, with lots of cruises abroad in between. She and her family moved to Guernsey in 1947 and most of them are still there today. Amazingly her daughter and son, aged 92 and 88 respectively, are still alive and full of beans, and their children share their pride in Dorothee’s achievements and recent fame.
The plan was to make oral history recordings of family members and any members of the public who might have recollections of Dorothee to share. I went on the one-day oral history training at the Scottish Oral History Centre and we planned our trip, from which we have recently returned. In my case somewhat chastened.
Everyone was more than willing to talk. Some honestly seem to think they would have nothing of interest to contribute but often had the most interesting snippets to share. Others would talk at VERY considerable length, totally ignoring my efforts to get them to answer my particular research queries. Others again were more focussed and provided valuable insights into Dorothee’s life and character.
We have come home with megabytes of photographed/scanned documents from the family’s own extensive archives, more megabytes of sound recordings and probably gigabytes of film. My original intention was to lodge the full original sound recordings with complete transcripts with an engineering archive for posterity but I am now wondering whether this is reasonable. An hour or more of recording or film may only include a few minutes of recollection directly relating to our story about Dorothee. We won’t be able to go back to Guernsey and it would in any case perhaps be too much to ask of elderly interviewees to have another go at my list of questions.
Still we know a lot more about her and I have learnt some lessons of my own about the process. I have also learnt, both from this and other researches in the past year, that there are a lot of very durable but not necessarily true myths around certain people. Certain ‘facts’ once in print somewhere become fixed in the story even though other information suggests that they are not necessarily true. It is clear that many organisations’ journals did no fact checking at the time and printed whatever came their way and this too fixes the story even if not quite true. Families of course do the same, with stories being passed on down the generations. Very early experiences are not always personally directly remembered by the person in whose childhood they occurred but are imprinted and reinforced by the retelling by older relatives until the person is honestly sure they are in fact reporting direct memories, which may have been coloured by their relatives’ retelling.
Unpicking all this, finding corroborative evidence and telling a ‘truer’ story whilst not distressing the family or friends of the research subject is also something of a balancing act that I need to get my head around.
But still the Pullinger tale generates its now-familiar magic and Borders TV have just done a wonderful piece Arrol-Johnstons and the Galloway car and her part in its design, the Guernsey Press did a full page article just before our trip and BBC Guernsey look likely to do a radio piece soon.
Meanwhile, I need to up my game on the oral history practice so that I can do some other recordings of living engineers for the WES Centenary project.