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George Ewart Evans (1909 - 1988)

George Ewart Evans is regarded by many as one of the founding fathers of oral history. Originally from a mining village in Wales, he came to Blaxhall, East Suffolk, in 1947, when his wife was appointed headmistress of the local school. Evans enjoyed conversing with his neighbours, many of whom had been born in the previous century and whose memories stretched back to a very different time. He developed a passionate interest in their stories and in the Suffolk dialect.

Evans began to record friends and neighbours at Blaxhall, but he gradually expanded his range. With the assistance of a tape recorder, he painstakingly and sympathetically collected oral evidence of dialect, rural customs, traditions and folklore relating to East Anglia. He gathered anecdotes about living and working in the pre-modern rural world which still lingered in East Suffolk in the early twentieth century. This work was reinforced by documentary research providing the background for his East Anglian books. After many rejections, his first book, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, was published by Faber & Faber in 1956. They went on to publish ten further books of a similar kind written by Evans over the next three decades.

The memories of the older generation stretched back to a time before mechanisation. The work was hard and their lives were often harsh, with low wages and little food. In Where Beards Wag All (Faber & Faber) Evans writes, ‘That was the time when we saw more dinner times than dinners’ (1970: 99). They depended greatly on the goodwill of the farmer for whom they worked: the whole family was employed on the farm. One man recalled, ‘At that time o’ day you dussn’t get wrong with your master. If you did you got the sack and you were finished’.  ‘You were right under and you couldn’t move; and there was no one to protect you. If a farmer knew you had joined a union you’d get the sack’ (1970: 101). Many workers lived in cottages that were owned by their employer, getting the sack meant losing the family home. 

Evans argued that the mass education movement of the nineteenth century had little impact on the rural population of East Anglia, which had shown a resistance to book learning. Labouring children worked in the fields from a young age, often missing school. School attendance registers showed large numbers of children, particularly boys, missing from school at certain important agricultural periods. Children provided cheap labour for the farmers and much needed income for the family. They left school early, often at twelve, and subsequently lived their lives in ‘a culture that was almost entirely oral’, which Evans suggested might account for ‘the fullness of their memories, trained unconsciously to forgo a reliance on written or printed aids’ (1970: 206).  

The people he recorded rarely, if ever, ventured beyond their own locality. Unlike many workers now, they had a sense of being part of the place, of belonging to a community, and dependent on the land for their survival. They worked with the seasons, the vagaries of the weather, the level of daylight and, in the days before mechanisation, were very conscious of the welfare of the horses with whom they worked closely. The working day ended with dusk, so there was time to engage in pastimes. Evans was a sympathetic listener and respected his subjects, letting them follow their thoughts without interruption. His use of a tape recorder allowed the conversation to flow freely so that they revealed much more than his questions could have uncovered. He captured and transcribed old usage of language in a way that had not been done previously and he uncovered a way of life was coming to an end. The fruits of his work remain in his books and in the oral recordings which can be accessed at the British Library and at the BBC.

Evans’ depiction of a past Suffolk chimes with my own childhood memories, growing up on a farm in County Cork. The countryside bustled with life at that time. My father worked in the fields in all weathers, alongside the farm workers, male and female. The work was hard but they shared the labour and they relished each other’s company; there was much talk, many tall stories and frequent gales of laughter. There was a bond of friendship and common experience. The East Anglian countryside is different now: it is less populated and many of the residents commute to work in London and elsewhere. They respond to the countryside in a different way. George Ewart Evans captured a rural way of life in East Anglia that was already disappearing, and which has now vanished completely.

Dymphna Crowe

Editor’s note: 

You may have seen the list of authors welcomed by the Suffolk Book League over the past forty years in #184, our previous edition of BookTalk. You will see there that, in November 1983, George Ewart Evans launched his memoir, The Strength of the Hills: an Autobiography, at the monthly SBL meeting. 


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