From News to History:
Researching Ealing in the 1960s
Ealing in the 1960s: Cultural ferment in local context (Tignarius Publications, 2013)
In September 2013 I gave a talk about Ealing in the 1960s in Ealing Central library’s Green Room. 78 people turned up: a capacity crowd! The book which formed the basis for the talk took about a year to research and write. In this post, I will reveal how I managed to turn the newspapers which formed the basis for my research into a history of 60s Ealing. It is a process which anyone can use. Images from my book accompany the text.
Haven Green, a stone's throw from the Ealing Club, 1964
Imagination is just as important as data in historical research. Unless we can imagine a period, how can we describe or analyse it? Thankfully, the 1960s have generated a mass of evidence and creative responses ranging from music and fashion to art and literature. Engaging with any of this is good preparation. Watching 1960s films for instance can help to give you a feel for the decade. The usual attitude to the past adopted by historians is ‘critical empathy’, or trying to see things ‘on their own terms’. This means reserving personal value or moral judgements, while trying to understand past people’s attitudes and actions. Imagination facilitates asking pertinent questions before beginning research, and making connections between phenomena during and after research. This makes the past come alive, as opposed to it seeming to be a series of dead names and dates.
Soft drinks bar, Elthorne Youth Centre, 1961
2. Choosing a subject
Why Ealing in the 1960s? Apart from it being a subject I knew little about, two circumstances coincided. First, the subject overlapped with my job (see below: Indexing), which made it feasible to research during working hours (and I would need many hours of research!). Second, the 1960s were pivotal to modern British history, yet the 1960s in Ealing had never been researched before. The fiftieth anniversary of the 60s was also likely to generate interest from the public. I thus hoped that my book and talk would capitalise on my normal work, would be original, and would be of interest to a wider audience in Ealing. If your project requires too much research, has already been researched, or is so peculiar as to be likely to bore others – you may have chosen the wrong subject!
Regalia of the London Borough of Ealing. The borough amalgamated the former boroughs of Ealing, Acton, and Southall, in 1965.
I would need to consult books on the 1960s, but these largely provided background context only, given the lack of research done up to that point on Ealing in the 1960s. How then was I to find out about the 1960s locally? Apart from the large selection of periodicals, parish magazines, and Council documents dating from c.1960-1970, I was fortunate that the Local History collection includes a comprehensive set of newspapers on microfilm for this period. The main papers for the 60s are: the Middlesex County Times (Ealing edition, and separate Southall edition), and the Acton Gazette, which came out in weekly editions. In these I could expect to find stories and images dealing with anything from Council policies, immigration, and music, to youth activities, religion, local politics, and housing; including much fodder for quotations and examples. How, though, was I to get to grips with these seemingly endless reams of newspaper stories? It was a daunting prospect, and would require a lot of hard work, yet it was not impossible…
Twist contest, Featherstone County Boys' Secondary School, 1963
As part of my job as Local History Assistant, I happened to be working on indexing newspaper stories from the 1960s. This catalysed my initial inspiration. Indexing involves carefully going through microfilms of newspapers on the microfilm reader, noting down on paper stories which may be of interest to future researchers, and later transcribing these (along with references) onto record cards. The stories may be cross-referenced and are filed in the Newspaper Card Index, which is regularly updated. It is a slow, painstaking task, but the only way of systematically recording past events from the papers. I got through over 1,000 editions of newspapers in this way (it took about a year) – and it wasn’t all so exciting, believe you me! (Flower shows and School speech days have a limited appeal after a while.) This ‘news’ becomes ‘history’ when researchers apply the data in the stories to their research topic through selection, analysis, and writing. Since I was going to be indexing the 1960s, I thought it I might as well go a step further and research a history of Ealing in the 1960s.
5. The Research Notebook
But having newspaper stories on a card index was not the handiest way of accessing information. In part, I resolved this by printing out useful stories from the microfilms. These prints were annotated with references to the paper, exact date and page of the story in question, and later collated into themes, and stored in folders. Another useful tool was my research notebook. This is an indispensable way of keeping information in one place. I wrote my notes here (on numbered pages), being sure to record the full bibliographical details of my sources, for example: Bloggs, Joe, The 1960s (London, 1978), including also relevant page numbers after each note or piece of information. While note-taking, it is usual to keep one’s personal thoughts and ideas contained within square brackets, to distinguish them from the information taken from other sources. The notebook was also used to take notes from sources such as periodicals, parish magazines, and Council minutes, of the period.
Ealing Technical College, 1964
Collation is the process of gathering together information concerning given themes and subjects. Having become familiar with the kind of information presented by the newspapers, I decided to write a book consisting of 10 chapters, in two parts.
In part one of the book, called The Swinging Sixties, I would deal with:
1. Youth culture, 2. Music, 3. Drugs, 4. The sexual revolution and women, and 5. Protest, internationalism, and counter-culture.
Part two, called The Other Sixties, would focus on:
6. Work and consumerism, 7. Protest as local politics, 8. Religion, 9. Immigration and race, and 10. Housing.
Labelling my notebook with a highlighter provided a clear visual summary of subjects on each page of the notebook. I then made lists of subjects (one subject to an A4 page, e.g. ‘Immigration’ or ‘Amphetamines’), and used the highlighted notes to list the page number(s) of my notebook they appeared on. I now had a list of subjects along with the pages on which information about them could be found. I could now find information in my notes about any subject at will – much faster than by leafing through the research notebook every time I wanted to find a piece of information.
The Mad Hatters, an Ealing Beat group, 1964
Making a chronological list of the key events in a given period always repays the effort. Usually the notes provide the data for this. Knowing the sequence of events clarifies the cause and effect historians can discern from the past. A chronology is also a useful tool to refer to when writing up one’s research.
Jimi Hendrix in Hanwell, 1967.
Everyone has their own way of writing. I wrote Ealing in the 1960s at home (it took up much of my spare time for 3-4 months). Whilst writing, it is good to have a structure within which to work. Chapter headings are ways of doing this. Each chapter has one main topic, consisting of a number of themes; each theme needs facts (to provide substance) and examples (to provide illustration). The more systematically notes are organized, the easier and more effective the process of writing. The core and substance of the text, however, is the underlying argument or overarching narrative which actually makes sense of the past for the reader: done well, this elevates a ‘series of words’ to the status of ‘history’.
Anecdotes and personal stories are important to any history, often being the best way of illustrating general trends under discussion. For example, the chapter on music in my book discusses various genres and local artists; revealing that Blues artist Jimi Hendrix spent time in Hanwell because one of his bandmates in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell, lived locally, and the Marshall shop was a local hotspot for budding electric guitarists. Mitch Mitchell’s girlfriend, Carolyn Kinsey, later became Hanwell Carnival Queen in 1967. In the chapter on the sexual revolution and women, I contrasted Honour Blackman, the well-known actress, who had attended Ealing County Girls’ School, and went on to star as Pussy Galore in the James Bond film, with the activism of Mrs Ann Cheetham, a civil-rights campaigner and Christian. Both were in a sense ‘typical’ of 1960s women. Thus real people come to life and also help make any analysis concrete rather than abstract.
Carnival Queen with entourage, Hanwell Carnival, 1967. Queen, Carolyn Kinsey, is second from left.
Why bother with footnotes? Historians are obliged to reference their information: first, to verify that it is not invented (yet it still has to be assessed and analysed); second, to enhance the usefulness of their work for others; and third, to make the research and writing process easier for themselves. Writing Ealing in the 1960s would have been impossible without consistent footnoting. As the text is written, there is much chopping and changing. The result may be chaotic unless each nugget of information (usually distinguished by quotation marks) is referenced.
Ealing Bunny girls, 1966
10. Images and Copyright
A good book usually needs good images. I selected and used 30 in my book (a few been used in this post). Local History has a large photo-archive (physical photographs), which provided me with some of my images of 1960s Ealing. Other images were sourced directly from the newspapers I was working with (printed from microfilms). Regardless of source, I would scan them, crop them using a computer, and insert them where I needed them in the manuscript of the book. Copyright permission was sought and obtained from the Ealing Gazette, and certain individuals.
Bentalls department store, Ealing Broadway, 1963
Although I have published in magazines, journals, and with established publishers, I decided to go down the self-publishing route for Ealing in the 1960s. The advantages are several. The process is much faster, cost effective, and does not involve interference from third parties such as editors and marketing departments. Using an online publishing platform, I designed my own cover, chose the size and quality of paper, and stipulated the number of copies of the book I wanted. I settled for 50 copies, though there is no minimum or maximum. Once ordered, the book arrives in a few days’ time. The book is a paperback and I set the price at £10.
Asian businesses, The Green, Southall, c. 1960
12. The Talk
So I had researched, written, and published my book. Now I had to deliver it as a talk. The book was long (over 70,000 words). My talk had to be about 4,500 words to fit in with the 45 minutes allocated. Having the book helped: I more or less extracted the 4,500 words from the salient topics and examples in my book. Images from the internet were used along with the photographs from the book in a Powerpoint presentation. Overall, it was a successful event, and I sold 15 books on the night. I later sold the remaining books, and ordered some more. Ealing in the 1960s is still available at Local History – to consult, or purchase.
Ealing Town Hall, c. 1959
The process of turning ‘news’ into ‘history’ can be daunting for the inexperienced researcher. With a manageable topic, good organisation, and an open mind, however, it is certainly possible to do so. Jonathan and I have both completed numerous research projects, and are happy to advise anyone who may be interested in undertaking some historical research – particularly if relevant to the Ealing borough area. Turning ‘news’ into ‘history’ is ultimately about having the imagination and perseverance to make the past come alive for others. Which, come to think of it, is what Local History is all about.