About the Oral History Project

The award of the grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund

The Suffolk Horse Society was successful with its application and received a grant of £9,800 in 2012 from the Heritage Lotteries Fund (HLF) as part of the nationwide “All Our Stories” project.

The Suffolk Punch is principally an agricultural horse, well suited to the heavy clay lands of much of East Anglia. In the late 1940s and 1950s it was superseded by the tractor and it is now recognised by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as being a critically endangered breed, rarer than the Giant Panda, with only about 480 left in the UK.

Even more endangered than the horse itself is the group of horsemen and other specialists who worked and looked after the Suffolk Punch.  We still have skilled and knowledgeable people handling our horses but the number of genuine horsemen who earned their living with the horses is rapidly diminishing.   It was customary for horsemen to guard their knowledge and folklore to protect their jobs and ensure their senior position in the agricultural and social scene.

Our project was named “Working Horses, Working Lives: sharing our stories of the Suffolk Punch”.   We collected the stories and reminiscences of the men and women who looked after and worked with Suffolk Punch horses while they were still the main power source in agriculture and transport.  We included younger horsemen who still earn their living with working horses.

The project was an urgent one to identify, interview and record as many experienced working horsemen as possible while they are still with us.

Commenting on the award, the leader of the project, Jeff Hallett, said “This new type of grant from the HLF has come at an ideal time when we want to explain the heritage and continuing importance of the Suffolk Punch breed of heavy horse to the public and especially children, so that our increasing success with breeding the horses is matched by the demand we need to find from new people keen to own and look after them.  We are very grateful to Cambridge Community Heritage for advising on our application to the HLF and for continuing support throughout our project.”

Robin Llewellyn, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, said: “Clearly the success of All Our Stories has reinforced the fact that we are indeed a nation of storytellers and we want to explore and dig deeper into our past and discover more about what really matters to us.  This is exactly what the grant will do for the Suffolk Horse Society as they embark on a real journey of discovery.”

The background to the “Working Horses, Working Lives” project.

The closure of the Suffolk Punch Heavy Horse Museum in Woodbridge focussed attention on the way we were losing not only the items in the collection but the memories associated with them.    The exhibits were returned to owners if on loan, and transferred to other museums or collections if donated or owned by the Suffolk Horse Society.    We realised that although the exhibits still existed, the memories of their use and the stories associated with them were disappearing as the last of the genuine working horsemen passed away.    At the same time we received news that the Heritage Lottery Fund were offering grants to make digital recordings of oral history projects.

With the help of the Cambridge Community Heritage group of the University of Cambridge we applied to the “All Our Stories” scheme of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).  We had estimated the cost of the project at just under £10,000 and we were successful in being awarded a grant of £9,800.  This meant that no funds would need to be diverted from the care and breeding programme of the Suffolk Horse Society.  As soon as we explained that we planned to capture the spoken memories and stories of horsemen and women before they disappeared for ever, people became very enthusiastic to see the project succeed.  We aimed for 20 recordings as this was the figure we thought we could cope with in the year that HLF set for completion of the project.

Managing the project.

Suffolk Horse Society members Hilary Cadman, Juliet Pennell and Peter Webb joined Jeff Hallett on the project team and we also received expert interview advice from Neil Lanham (who has published recordings of horsemen) and Lesley Dolphin (a well known presenter on BBC Radio Suffolk.  Dr Sarah Baylis from Cambridge Community Heritage was appointed our advisor and she also helped with several training sessions.  We decided to trace as many working horsemen and women as we could, including younger ones who still earn their living working with Suffolks or looking after them.  In just over a year we recorded the memories of 31 people consisting of 20 horsemen, 2 horsewomen, 1 vet, 1 auctioneer, 2 farriers, 4 farmers and 1 wheelwright.  We found them from our own knowledge, from recommendation and by publicity with BBC Radio Suffolk interviews on-air.

Using the HLF grant money we bought three broadcast-quality pocket-sized recorders and high capacity memory cards.  We shared the contacts we had made according to geographical area and we each recorded several people.  We each covered a surprisingly high mileage to do the recordings and to attend training and planning meetings.  We were pleased that we only had to re-record two or three sessions.  It is remarkably easy to fail to turn on the recorder properly or fail to notice obtrusive wind noise.  If you keep stopping to check that all is going well it tends to disrupt the flow of conversation.  Lesley Dolphin took on three major recording sessions using one of her on-air “sofa” sessions for a general interview and then a separate, more detailed, off-air session afterwards.

All the recordings then came to Jeff Hallett for editing and conversion to the standard MP3 files that can be used by any computer or personal listening device such as an iPod.   The editor’s main job was to take out extraneous noises such as coughs, sneezes and doors opening.  Atmospheric noises such as a nice clock chiming were left in as part of the experience.

The full recordings are too long for ordinary listening but are essential as archive material for anyone studying in the future. The recordings are easy to listen to but not always easy to understand, even now.  In several years time many of the words used and processes described will have been forgotten.  This is why a vital part of the project has been to transcribe the recordings into text.  We could not do this ourselves but HLF funding allowed us to employ professional help to do the transcription accurately and efficiently.  We had excellent co-operation from Academic Transcriptions Secretarial Services in Cambridge.

The recordings have all been typed and returned to us as Word© documents.  We have checked them against the recordings and corrected any misinterpretation of dialect or specialist words.  We plan to add footnotes to explain what is being described for the benefit of  future audiences.

Preserving the recorded interviews.

The sound files are all on computer with separate hard disc and “Cloud” backup.   They are now available for anyone to download on the Suffolk Horse Society website. Archive copies will be lodged for permanent preservation with bodies such as the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL), Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum and the local record office.

The full set of recordings totals over 18 hours but extracts have been compiled to make the content more easily accessible.  Even these total over five hours.  They are not yet on the website.

Celebration of completion of the project.

One of the original requirements set by the HLF was that the project should be completed within one year.  We almost achieved this even with exceeding our original target number of recordings.   Another requirement was that there should be a “Celebration” at the end of the project to show the community what has been achieved.  We obtained permission to delay our “Celebration” until the Spring so that our, mostly elderly, horsemen would not have to turn out in dark winter weather to attend our event.   As it turned out we had a perfect Spring day for our “Celebration” at the Suffolk Food Hall below the Orwell Bridge on Saturday 22nd March 2014.

A large proportion of our interviewees were able to attend but some were not fit enough or could not travel.  Unfortunately one had died.  Members of Council of the Suffolk Horse Society supported the event as did various presenters from the media.  Over 70 people attended.  Hazel Chapman and John Latham brought their Suffolk Punches, Violet and Hector who were beautifully braided and behaved impeccably as the arriving guests and members of the public admired them.  They made an attractive sight as they grazed on the grass below the restaurant with the full width of the Orwell Bridge in the background.  Inside the venue there was a display of harness and horse brasses.  Display boards carried accounts and photographs of the horsemen and women, including examples of the transcriptions.

The presentations were introduced by Paul Heiney, the well-known author and broadcaster, who spoke eloquently about the importance of the project with knowledge born from his experience of learning horse-craft and then working his small farm with Suffolk Punch horses.  Juliet Pennell used her teaching expertise to good effect as she gave a talk on the timeline of the Suffolk Horse from the middle ages to the present day.   Jeff Hallett described the origin, development and progress of our project called “Working horses, working lives: sharing our stories of the Suffolk Punch”.  The talk was illustrated by slides and photographs as well as audio extracts for the recordings.  Cherry Grover then drew on her lifetime memories of working with heavy horses and illustrated this from her large collection of photographs.   We were then served with an excellent buffet meal and had the bar open in the room.  The evening was brought to an end with songs by horsemen Bill Smith, John Barker and Gus Kitson.  Gus also told us some stories and Bill sang his new song about the horse in wartime.  Most appropriately the finale was provided by Bill Smith with his ever-popular song “The Suffolk Horse”.

Sharing the results of the project.

Articles about this oral history project were submitted and accepted by the Suffolk Horse Magazine and by Heavy Horse World.   The first of an occasional series of articles featuring one of the storytellers was published in Heavy Horse World, featuring Tom and Sandy Walne.

Audio-visual presentations with extracts from several of the interviews have been given  and well received by local groups and communities.   In this way the digital sound system and projector purchased for the project are still being put to good use.

An important feature of some of the recordings is the inclusion of some of the horsemen’s traditional music.  When this is played at presentations or displays for schools it is remarkable how the children, usually of primary school age, spontaneously start dancing to the music.

Any local schools, community groups, clubs or residential facilities that would like to arrange a presentation from one of the project members should contact the Administrative Secretary of the Suffolk Horse Society.  (See Contacts on this website)