An oral history study
by Dr Richard Harding
I am a retired GP interested in the history of medicine, and acquired an MA in history from the Open University. At the beginning of Lockdown, The Friends of Ludlow Museum asked me to do an oral history of the pandemic, and kindly funded a digital recorder.
Oral witness is, like a medical consultation, confidential, and requires the written permission of the witness. Written transcripts are crucial in case the recording becomes corrupted.
I selected 34 witnesses from various sources. Each gave a pair of interviews six months apart. The first set of interviews was between June and August 2020 and the second between November 2020 and February 2021.
Here are some quotations which illustrate certain themes.
Care of the very old
One witness’s mother in law, aged 99, lives on her own on the other side of the country, and contact was maintained by daily phone calls. By November she had fallen repeatedly and was about to become 100. “We were going to spend a week with her, and can’t do that now, and she went into hospital last week and caught Covid-19. We cannot get to see her because it’s too far to go in one day and we can’t stay on the way. She is resigned and says ‘well, I was in London during the Blitz…’.
Another witness reported her aunt, aged 90, saying: “We’ve never known anything like this before. I was a youngster in the War and in many ways that wasn’t as bad, because at least there was an enemy.”
One witness reported that her maternal grandmother, aged 88, died at home. Though living very close to the old lady, no one had been able to see her for eight weeks and the lady died alone.
One witness who lives alone has a neighbour with an autistic son. They sent each other shopping lists by text, shared the back gate, and put the money through the letter box. She said “it worked well and we’ve become much closer” (June 1st). In her second interview she said: “she cut my hair a couple of times, ‘cos she’s a hairdresser. Our relationship’s really improved, we didn’t have a bad one, we just didn’t know each other before” (Nov 16th).
Holidays were serially cancelled, but returning to the UK from abroad before March 23rd 2020 did not appear to present difficulties. One witness and her family returned to the UK from Gran Canaria, where there were several cases of Covid-19, in late February, but they had no checks at the airports, either leaving the UK or arriving home. Another returned to the UK from the Caribbean in mid-March through Birmingham without checks. One witness, a woman in her sixties, when asked about holidays, said: “Oh gosh, what’s one of those?” (13th July).
Zoom became a frequent agent for communication. One witness, aged 55, who was frequently called to meetings in London said: “I think people have realised you don’t have to be there physically”, and relished the time freed up by not having to travel and stay in London overnight (6th November).
New grandchildren: “Before we can see [our new grandchild] we had to go through an isolation routine for a couple of weeks, to reassure them [our son and daughter in law] we haven’t done anything [we shouldn’t have]” (30th October).
“Family visits were a part of our lives. That’s all finished of course” (10th November).
One witness reported that at her husband’s workplace people were feeling “downtrodden, grumpy, totally fed up, because there’s not the interaction at work any more and 80% of the staff are working from home, people are becoming very aggressive… they’re sitting behind a keyboard firing out their demands…” (3rd December).
A female witness aged 51 said “I was intimidated by a neighbour [at her workplace] early on, so I chose to back off as I wasn’t sure about the rules… and stayed away for about six weeks till Boris changed the rules.” But she said later in the interview, “weeks in the workshop are a guilty pleasure that came true, to be with my own thoughts” (June 1st).
Gardens were a refuge and a solace. “I think one of my key achievements over the summer is getting a robin to feed from my hand, and now I’ve got two…” (November 6th).
One family realised that the car park at the Leisure Centre would be a good place to teach cycling confidence to their 8-year-old son, as it was empty and unused, but with lanes marked on the tarmac. This family also dug up a lawn in the garden to turn it into a vegetable patch, and the family swam at Dinham Weir early in the day before it became busy (12th June).
This mother described her daughter leaving school at 18: “Her biggest regret is that she was really enjoying College and she was preparing for that gradual wind-down, and being able to say goodbye to everybody… No parties. Or anything. Just, sort of, OK, ‘bye then, good luck.” (July 2020).
Another mother described her 6-year-old child returning to school after the first lockdown: “The school has done a fantastic job. Each child has his own pop-up gazebo on the playing field with their own equipment, so all their learning is outdoors, they are having a great time.” (June 2020). “Some of the children had been home for six months, they were playing too roughly and were not respectful of each other’s space. The teachers had to teach them how to play again.” (December 2020).
One witness was concerned that he would contract the virus at work and infect his wife and children: “I moved out in September, so we could make sure the children stayed in school… in the end I spent 19 weeks away from home. One of my customers has a second home in Ludlow so I did some house-sitting for him” (9th Feb 2021).
The owner of a store: “We are trying to focus on our online presence”. “We have got to find new ways of selling our products”. “When people came to the shop they had looked at the website beforehand, so [when they came] they were on a mission.” (July 2020).
The owner of a cafe said: “Financially it has been an absolute nightmare. It costs money to stay open, in spite of government support schemes” (22nd June).
Another said that they had invested time and effort in the website and online sales had quadrupled, and the furlough and grant schemes had worked smoothly and well. (13th July).
A fourth said that the opportunity of enforced closure allowed a shop redesign which he had been intending for four years (17th July).
One witness’s partner had a chronic illness and was being visited by care staff. In March 2020 “The carer turned up at the door, and when she realised we all had temperatures she was not allowed across the threshold. She wanted to…, but she wasn’t allowed.” (13th July). There was delay, a shortage of appropriate protective clothing, and a gap in essential care for about a week, meanwhile the whole family, suffering Corona virus, struggled. Eventually her partner was admitted to hospital, but the family was not allowed to visit. He was discharged home after 11 days but died shortly after. His partner and their sons recovered.
One man, aged 46, had an operation on his knee prior to Lockdown. “I’ve needed physiotherapy throughout Lockdown, I’ve had to do it via Skype and phone calls, which hasn’t been very helpful” (9th June).
On 9th June one witness said that her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer one week prior to the first lockdown on March 23rd, and treatment was delayed. He eventually started radiotherapy in November, completing it on Christmas Eve (second interview 18th January).
One witness’s daughter, a child psychiatrist, had already noted a dramatic rise in the numbers of children presenting with eating disorders within three months of the first shutdown (June 2020). By November, he continued, “She said that the younger generation are in much more difficulty than the old… family function has deteriorated considerably in the past thirty years and the Lockdown has increased that pressure and made it a lot worse. Where she had three inpatients with anorexia nervosa she now has seven… There really is a problem that needs to be understood.” (November 2020).
“It’s brought us closer together, it’s been like the maternity leave I never had.” (Woman aged 37, June 2020).
“I can’t remember the last person I touched, but I haven’t touched anyone for weeks” (woman aged 51, June 1st).
On 3rd December this witness said: “We saw a huge improvement when she (the witness’s mother) could start going out again, she was back to being ‘old Mum’, and then the last four weeks have been horrendous. She has been angry, argumentative, and she and Dad haven’t been getting on, they’ve had lots of quarrels. Today (the day the lockdown lifted) she has been to have her hair done, she’s back to being positive, like nothing’s happened.”
Another witness, a woman in her sixties, said, “on Christmas Day we met Carol, she’s on her own, and she’s 70-something, we met up at the bottom of Caer Caradoc, walked to the top and had a sherry, walked back down again and went on our way” (29th December). This action supported the friend who was not allowed to meet her family, whilst observing the rules about meeting up in the open air.
A woman living on her own said: “(The pandemic) gives me permission to live in a fairly solitary way, which is what I did anyway, but I feel a bit more OK about it…” (November 16th).
One witness, a 60-year-old woman, concerning the family’s cat, told me: “my daughter knew the cat from childhood. The vet was only seeing urgent cases, and diagnosed heart failure. ‘You wait in the car park’. The vet said the cat had to be put down, so D had to say goodbye to the cat in the car park, sobbing, with the boys on FaceTime. It was horrible. She was made redundant the next day” (June 2nd).
A man aged 82 said: “he did wrong, he doesn’t suffer from the virtue of doubt, nor self-doubt nor self-criticism.” (24th June 2020).
Many others reflected concerns over Cummings’ widely publicised behaviour, for example: “I’m neither shocked nor surprised, but I am surprised they defend him, it’s laughable.” (27th May). “His behaviour and its management was a slap in the face” (3rd June).
A record for the future
The stories recounted here give a flavour of people’s experiences over the past year, some mundane, some extraordinary. There are countless other stories that shed light on people’s humanity, frustrations, and, yes, goodness. The entire set now resides in the Shropshire Archive, as a resource for the future.
Share your own Ludlow Lockdown story by contacting Dr. Richard Harding at email@example.com