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Catch 22’s Becontree Stories Project

By Anna K Sexton, on 12 August 2013

We have thoroughly enjoyed our involvement with Catch 22’s ‘Becontree Stories’ project; where a group of young people have used the collections at Valence House to explore the history of the Becontree Estate in preparation for meeting and filming older Becontree residents about their lives, connections, stories and experiences of living in the area.

On 29 July, Anna Sexton spent time with the group using the archive collections held by the Local Studies and Archives Centre at Valence House following on from an introduction to the history of the estate from the borough Archivist Tahlia Coombs.  The young people were encouraged to find documents that they found interesting, surprising or inspiring or that helped them understand more about the history of the area.

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Hearing the feedback from the group on what they had found out from the archives was the best part.  Some had looked at memoirs and reminiscences already in the archives and picked out funny or surprising stories from them.  Others had used parts of the council archive to look at the early history of the area.  Others had focused on particular buildings that had resonated with them personally and that they hoped the older residents might have memories of.

On 31 July, Anna went back to talk to the group about oral history interviewing – this tied in with film training that had been delivered to the young people the day before by another project partner.  The young people paired up with each other to get some practice on good interviewing techniques using positive body language and open questions.  Feedback from the group was that it was good to find out more about other people in the group as well as practice technique which came naturally once the conversations started.

Tina also visited Valence House on the 31st to observe and photograph the reminiscences of the older participants and the pairing up of younger interviewers and older interviewees. Tina says:

The morning started with participants offering key words they associate with Becontree, followed by each of the older participants giving a brief background to themselves, often with the aid of photographs or objects they felt captured an aspect of their life on the Estate and in the Dagenham area. It was truly wonderful to hear such fascinating stories of the War, work and domestic and family life in the area in the 1930s-1980s, and to see participants discussing all of these together, prompting long-forgotten memories. After a break (with delicious carrot cake made by Ioannis), the younger participants met those they would interview. The room was full of chatter, and this again was great to see. Before we finished for lunch, the younger participants were asked again what words they would associate with Becontree and Dagenham after talking with their interviewees: many now said ‘pride,’ ‘community spirit’ and ‘friendliness,’ showing how different peoples’ histories can make you think differently and more positively about the place you live in. Ioannis, Catch-22 volunteers and Tahlia at Valence House are all to be congratulated on such a fantastic morning, and I would like to thank both the younger and older participants for such and enjoyable morning!

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All in all – being involved with Becontree Stories has been a very rewarding experience for us as a team.  For more information on this project check out their ‘Becontree Stories’ facebook page and the website at www.storiesofbecontree.com.