About the Oxford Canal Oral Histories

What is oral history?

Oral history is the collecting and recording of peoples’ memories, experiences and opinions - in other words - what they say.  In many ways oral history is the first kind of history since all history was oral before it was recorded or written down in some way.  However not all history has been documented as we well know from history lessons which until relatively recently were primarily concerned with kings, noblemen and battles rather than ordinary peoples’ lives and there is now a strong tradition of hearing the voices of people who have often been hidden from history.


In all 24 people were interviewed who range from 14 to 84+ in age and recall canal memories from parents and grandparents from early 1900s to everyday lives in the 21st century. Most interviewees however focus on the modern era from 1945 onwards.

Of the 24 people interviewed for the Oxford Canal Heritage Project, 10 people live or have lived on narrow boats and one of these and 3 other interviewees have jobs which involve them in working with narrow boats. There are more interviews with men, particularly boaters, than women. However women boaters interviewed provide first-hand accounts of running a boat and bringing up children and also reflect on the challenges of doing this a century ago. Some interviewees had worked and/or lived near the canal in areas that border the canal at Wolvercote and Jericho and in the city centre. The remaining interviewees have other connections with the Oxford Canal through art, literature, conservation, or are involved in organisations that maintain the canal.

What do the oral histories tell us?

As shown by Philip, Bruce, Jenny and Michael our interviewees provided a wealth information that offer a range of different views of life and work on the Oxford Canal. The content has been edited into 20-30 minute audio files. Overall several themes emerge:

The importance of the canal to many people (and not just boaters).  The modern history of the canal which was threatened with being filled in shows how communities rebuffed attempts to dispose of what one interviewee called a ‘town treasure’.  Similarly the strength of feeling expressed by many interviewees about the closure of the Jericho Boatyard make clear that community interests should take priority over  commercially driven developments.

The nature of community on and around the canal. Historically the working boaters’ community had very close relationships often because of marriage and sharing the same trade. Although present day residential boaters come from different backgrounds, the bonds that develop through being ‘in the same boat’ and helping relationships one another are clearly heard in the interviews.

Hardship and pleasure of boating. Whilst life on the canal is easier with no coal deliveries to make and modern appliances taking the place of small ovens and dolly tubs, there are sufficient deterrents for most such as boat upkeep and getting coal onto the boat in winter. However being surrounded by nature and the view of being (relatively) far from the madding crowd were constantly cited as advantages of boat dwelling One boater interviewed threw open the wooden shutters on the canal side of her boat and pointed at the moon and stars softly reflected on the water remarking “you can’t see that in a house in the city".

Where can I hear the oral histories?

Hopefully you are now eager to learn more about the Oxford Canal through the oral histories. They will shortly be available in the Oxfordshire History Centre in Cowley in the Autumn (2014). The Centre is not open on Mondays.