Meet the volunteers: Nancy Jones

The more interviews I work on, the bigger my picture of Lewes gets and the more I find threads of the stories interweaving

Nancy Jones, 2019

When I contacted the email address to volunteer at The Keep I wasn’t sure what I would end up doing. A paragraph in The Keep’s newsletter mentioned the start of a new project digitising archived sounds. There would be a small team based in Brighton, part of a larger national project, and they were asking for volunteers. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage was set up to secure the future of analogue audio recordings in archives throughout the country before the means to listen to them is lost. I thought it would be an interesting way to find out more about The Keep and what goes on behind the scenes.

Six months later: I am sitting in a small room, with a high window, on the first floor of The Keep. I’ve been coming to the same room for a few hours every week since the beginning of February. I’m listening to a conversation recorded in the 1990s. The elderly speaker is giggling as she describes eating Welsh rarebit in The Odeon café in Lewes, ‘it would have been the highlight of our evening’ she says, gently making fun of her childhood self. This tape forms part of a project organised in the 1990s by the Lewes U3A History Group who recorded over 200 oral histories; the personal stories of Lewes residents and the changes they saw during their lifetimes. Together the interviews form a detailed portrait of the town over the previous hundred years.

Nancy Jones during her time volunteering at Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

I am helping prepare the information which is supplied with these recordings when they are sent off to the British Library. It’s a big job and in doing it I get to read about every interview in the collection. Each week, the more interviews I work on, the bigger my picture of Lewes gets and the more I find threads of the stories interweaving. In one interview a man talks about serving in the voluntary Fire Brigade in 1943, the night a bomb fell on New Road; he explains how he helped evacuate people and move them to temporary accommodation. In another, a woman describes having to leave her house as a child after a bomb fell in her street, going to stay with her grandmother whilst damage to her house was repaired. It’s only towards the end of her story that I realise she is talking about the same bomb on the same night, these two people were in the same street one night nearly eighty years ago. Perhaps they met. Perhaps they didn’t.

There are anecdotes which stand out from every interview. Some stories reach back to the early years of the last century. I was surprised to learn how important horse racing had been to the town, which seems to have been dotted with racing stables. Many people talk about their memories from that time. In one of the interviews, I learned to my surprise that Lewes trained a Grand National winner. The horse, Shaun Spadah, was the only one not to fall in the event in 1921 – that must have made for quite a race. At a time when horses were transported by rail, local mood was so jubilant following the win that the town band came out to welcome the horse home, marching with him from the train up the High Street to his stables in Spital Road. His jockey, Fred Rees, was a Lewes resident too. I imagine some money was made in Lewes on that win, it was certainly an event for all the local schoolchildren who were each given a shilling to celebrate.

Shaun Spadah’s Grand National victory, reported in the Sussex Daily News the day after the race

On a sunny afternoon early in May I take a walk around Lewes. Streets I’ve passed many times before are now filled with the stories I’ve heard and read. Down a terraced street behind the Castle, two children are playing at the front of a house, watched over by a woman who stands at the doorway. A little further on I spot what I’ve been looking for. There is a subtle difference in the shade of the bricks, the architecture doesn’t quite match; two more recent houses built here fill a gap made one night in 1943. I hadn’t noticed it before.

Volunteer With Us!

Are you interested in taking on something new?

We are looking for people who are:

  • Interested in working with sound recordings
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research
  • Curious listeners with a sharp ear for detail
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research

Email us at UOSH@sussex.ac.uk to find out more information.

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