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The importance of Life Stories to local history

This week I wanted to write about the importance of writing your life story.

This is me!

Not just because I run Life Stories Writers Groups at Ashburton and Balwyn Community Centres (enrolments for term 2 are open now, we’d love to have you!).

OK, so maybe a little bit. But there’s a broader argument, I promise.

To write this post, I started off as I do with every blog post: Googling. It turns out that lots of people have already written about the importance of writing your memories down.

They’ve documented the great benefits to your mental health.

How it provides a keepsake for your family and friends to remember you by.

And how it provides a creative outlet by stimulating your brain and memory.

So there goes that idea.

But when I delved a little further, I discovered that nobody has mentioned that your life story can be an important and unique historical record. As time marches on at its unrelenting pace, people are going to forget what things were like back in the day.

Here’s an example.

Kind of like this

One day in one of my classes, a student read out a story about her grandmother's shop in Footscray. We then had a 15 minute discussion on what the name was for those systems you used to find in departments stores where the cashier would put a canister full of cash in a tube at the till and it would shoot up with a shwooping noise through a system of other tubes to some mysterious location. Then another canister would return, empty.

I can't find a proper photo of it. I barely remember them and I am … not that young. So without our recording our recollections of it, was it real?

Then, as I pointed out to my student, we not only need to explain to today’s readers what that system was but also how significant cash was to businesses back then.

The point is that you may think that your memories and experiences are not very interesting. Maybe you think that nobody wants to read about ordinary things from the past. But the thing is, recollections of the past can be a very interesting historical anecdote today. Or, at the very least, prompt a robust discussion among a group of people genuinely interested in your life story.

In the end we decided it was a “cash carrying system”. This seemed a very inadequate name for the exciting shwooping sound it made as it sucked up the canister.

The memories of Neil Wright

For another example, I’m going to turn the blog over to the memories of Mr Neil Wright.

Win and Neil Wright, c. 2005 courtesy Burwood Bulletin

Mr Wright died on 31 May 2014 at the age of 98; more proof of Ashburton residents’ claim to longevity. By his own admission, he lived in Fakenham Road for 83 years; the last 60 in the same house.

His recollections of growing up in Ashburton are an important supplementary piece of local history. Sometimes he gets dates wrong but a good historian knows to verify these elsewhere.

When Neil Wright arrived in 1922 he did not know until many years later that he was about to witness the area’s move from rural to suburban. His family played an important part in this transition because they moved their business interests from hay and grain for horses, to petrol for vehicles and cars. Mr Wright was also a crucial source of information on the early years of the Ashburton Cricket Club when no records from the club have survived. To help with his story, he asked among his acquaintances for their recollections too. This is a very important aspect of writing about your life.

If he had never written this down, how would we know what he knew? As it happens, the only reason we do is because some of his recollections were published in the September 2005 issue of Burwood Bulletin, one of the very few local newspaper resources left to us. Mr Wright's article helps us learn more about:

The origins of street names

Frederick Vear (undated)

In the article, Mr Wright mentions some of the prominent families of the area in the 1920s, some of whom lend their names to streets: Vears (who owned the orchard off Fakenham Road), Wilson, Hunt (who were florists in the area), Dunscombe, Stone, Fisher, Buckland, Rankin, Stocks (who owned the Ashburton Dairy), Gallus, Billings, Holloway and Poulter (both those last two families were also local florists). For those researching these families, this information provides a helpful chronology to their time here.

Ashburton's commercial development

Mr Wright also remembered the development of the High Street shops: ‘In the mid to late 1920s, Ashburton started to come alive with a number of essential services becoming available, grocery, butcher, estate agents, newsagents, hairdresser and several other supporting shops.’

Ashburton Primary School

Mr Wright was also one of the first students at Ashburton State School, now Ashburton Primary. Although it opened in 1928, the School’s records date much later. He remembered ‘the original Head Master was Mr Long, and if my memory serves me well, I think the teachers were Mrs Grey, Miss Miller and Mr Young. Mr Holyoak came in 1929.’ This is not information the School has in its records so will be very useful as it moves towards its centenary.

Like most people of his generation, Mr Wright’s recollections are very factual and short on emotion. He only alludes to difficult times during World War II, when he states, ‘from 1934 onwards, the service station business grew with the growth in the district. Despite the War we overcame the difficulties and kept the business going. I had been manpowered to a factory during the War and my father, Albert kept running the business on his own. I returned in 1945.'

The Wrights Garage on the corner of Norwich (now gone) and Boundary Roads

There is nothing wrong with this approach of course. But … here comes the plug… what we do in the Life Stories Writers Groups is help you find ways to inject your writing with emotion and context. Facts are great but how you felt about them is even more interesting.

So if you think you have nothing much to write about, I can 100% guarantee you’re wrong. If you think you aren't a very good writer, you're wrong about that too. Maybe all you need to get started is the support of your peers, some stimulating discussion about cash-carrying systems and some ideas for putting pen to paper.

Or fingers to keyboard.

Or pressing the red dot on your smartphone camera.

Whatever suits you best.

My classes run:

Thursdays at Ashburton Community Centre: 11 am to 12.30 pm and 1.30 pm to 3 pm (currently full)

Tuesdays at Balwyn Community Centre: 1 pm to 3 pm.

Check out my life story writing videos for tips!

The full version of Neil’s Burwood Bulletin article is not available digitally so drop me an email if you’d like to read the whole thing. I don’t want to breach copyright laws by repeating it here. My thanks to Ian S for thinking of me when he saw it and sending it along!

I'm on hiatus for school holidays and working on a new train line (Flinders to Oakleigh) video with my son. You can check out our other videos on the Alamein Line and Glen Waverley line too!

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