A 1930's Childhood at Goddards, National Trust

Posted on 12 March 2013

My placement was an elective which I took as part of the MA in Early Modern History. I had already been volunteering with the National Trust, so I was able to build on this by turning it into a placement.

‌‌‌I really enjoyed being able to give more time this way, and it was great to be given more responsibility and the opportunity to work on a project from beginning to end.

Goddards was the former home of the Terry family, the makers of the famous chocolate orange. The obvious attraction of chocolate aside, the house is a beautiful example of Arts and Crafts architecture, with a fascinating family story at its heart. My brief was to research and create an exhibition about childhood in the 1930s, to add an extra layer of interpretation for visitors throughout the house. This included adding to a bedroom exhibit and opening a new room to house an art exhibition. My focus was on the four children that lived in the house, Peter, Kenneth, Richard and Betty. Most of my time was spent researching the children’s individual personalities, and how their experiences tied in with national events that affected all children, such as changes in schooling or the beginnings of war. Although my academic interest is in the eighteenth century, I enjoyed researching the 1930s as it got me out of my comfort zone and was a nice contrast to my university work.

My research involved traditional archives but also oral history, which I really enjoyed. I was lucky enough to be able to interview one of the Terry children who had lived in the house as a child. As a historian I usually only work with what people have left behind, so it was great to actually talk to someone about history in living memory. As part of this the National Trust gave me oral history training, which I will be able to use in future projects. Oral history recording requires a whole other set of skills, and also made me think about ethical responsibilities which you do not come across very often in undergraduate or masters research. I also had to find objects to help me communicate what I had learned through oral history to visitors, to act as ‘triggers’ to memories.

This was a particular challenge because the house was donated to the Trust without any furniture or objects in it, so I had to borrow or buy anything which I wanted to use in the exhibition. A lot of my time was spent researching and contacting potential lenders, or trying to find the best object for your money. I was able to find some 1930s school uniform and photographs from the childrens’ school, which I displayed in a suitcase to convey the emotions of going away to boarding school.

The practical placement was a great way to find out exactly how heritage works in the ‘real world’. Theoretical research can be interesting and rewarding, but ultimately it has to work in a physical space and be accessible to visitors, as well as delivered on time and on budget. I was involved in a lot of practical tasks, such as mounting art works on walls and creating displays that looked appealing and worked in the space. I was also given conservation training in textiles and metalwork, which was really interesting. As part of the process I had to pitch my ideas to National Trust curators as well as to volunteers who work in the property. Working with volunteers gave me the opportunity to develop my people skills, as you have to balance the opinions of a very diverse group of people. It was also useful to work in a property that is part of a major national organisation, and to learn how decisions are made at national and local property level. Overall I really enjoyed my placement and would recommend it to anyone looking to get some heritage experience.

Kate Gibson

MA History
MA Public History Placement