WHEN Bill Mitchell joined the Dalesman back in 1948, the magazine’s founder, Harry Scott, told him to “put people before things” – and it has been his guiding principle ever since.
So much so that he has spent more than 60 years recording and collecting the stories and memories of all manner of people from Yorkshire, Cumbria and Lancashire.
WR Mitchell, or Bill as he’s less formally known, went on to edit the Dalesman for many years and has written over 200 books on local history, including more than 20 on the Settle-Carlisle Railway alone, as well as biographies of well-known personalities such as James Herriot, Alfred Wainwright, Hannah Hauxwell and Kit Calvert.
He is widely regarded as the doyen of Dales writers and during his journalistic career he has amassed hundreds of taped interviews and thousands of slides and photographs documenting Dales life from bygone days as told by people in their own words.
The stories captured on tape range from tales of the local gentry, including the Dawsons of the Folly, in Settle, and the Yorkes of Halton Place, to ordinary folk scraping a living against the odds in remote communities. Together they also represent a unique archive of the different Dales accents and dialects, many of which are rarely heard today.
Many of these tapes were gathering dust at Mitchell’s house until a chance conversation with Sita Brand, director of arts charity Settle Stories, led to the creation of the WR Mitchell archive.
In January 2012, the organisation received a £50,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to begin creating a digital archive of Mitchell’s cassettes. The idea being that it would enable a new generation not only to read about this local history, but also to hear it.
The collection includes 600 audio tapes, up to 100 videos and some 15,000 images. The bulk of these are housed at the University of Leeds and the University of Bradford, as well as at the Museum of North Craven Life at The Folly, in Settle, while others are scattered around the region in private collections.
So far just 16 tapes have been transcribed and available to listen to online. Settle Stories, which runs the archive, had two subsequent Lottery funding bids turned down but is preparing a fresh bid, due to be submitted later next month. If this is successful it will allow the organisation to digitise the Yorkshire material and transcribe 50 more audio tapes.
Sita Brand says it’s painstaking work. “I don’t think people realise that digitising material from old analogue tapes is a long process that has to be done in real time. It’s incredibly labour intensive. The tapes degrade and they can break easily so they have to be handled very carefully and be properly cleaned, digitised and catalogued.”
As well as the new Lottery bid, Settle Stories is also planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign later this year to help raise money for the project, with the long-term aim of bringing the entire collection together.
“We want to have much more of the archive online so that schools, university students, local history groups, dialect coaches, or anyone else interested in Yorkshire heritage can access it,” adds Brand.
She believes it’s vital that the archive is saved and maintained. “We constantly hear in the media about urban life but we hear very little about what’s happening in rural communities. Rural life is changing and a lot of the old traditions are disappearing, or have already disappeared. Bill’s tapes and photographs captured a lot of this old way of life, but if we don’t save them then they will be lost forever so it’s critical that we do act.”
Mitchell, who lives in Settle, has been closely involved and when I went to interview him for The Yorkshire Post a couple of years ago it was like listening to a walking encyclopaedia on the Dales.
“There’s been a tremendous change in the Dales over the years, the landscape is nothing like it used to be,” he told me. “The hills are still there and it’s a green and pleasant land but it wasn’t altogether green in days gone by. The meadows were all multicoloured with all kinds of flowers, there was a range of vegetation and now it’s all green.”
The people have inevitably changed, too. “At one time about 98 per cent of the population was made up of local people. They were born there, went to school there and lived there, whereas nowadays the majority of people have moved in. I’m not being derogatory, these offcomers have an interest in the Dales and its heritage but on the other hand they’re not truly Dales folk.”
Mitchell said there was a wit about people from the Dales. “Humour is contrived, wit just occurs and there is a witticism about Dales folk. There’s a story about this old chap who’s dying who was 94. He’s in bed and his wife comes in and says ‘are you all right, love?’ and he said ‘yes, would you light a candle to brighten my last hours?’ And she said ‘oh no, you know the price of candles’. Anyway, she left and came back a minute later and said ‘you can have a candle but if you feel yourself going, blow it out’.”
He met plenty of fascinating characters down the years like “Big” Bill Alderson from Swaledale. “He was called William Alderson JP, but he was known as Gurt Bill up t’Steps’ and if you go from Muker up the valley you will see a barn on the left with steps leading up to the door and that is where I used to go and chat with Bill. He was a wonderful person, you could sit down with him and he would talk and talk and pictures of Dales life just formed in your mind. He told me how, as a small boy, when he went to school at Muker he had to walk down the valley and he used to go into the barns and fodder the cattle on his way.
“One particular night at home he left the window open as usual in his bedroom and there was a blizzard during the night and he woke up to find the whole room was covered with snow. I asked him what he did and he said, ‘well, I pulled sheets back and louped [leapt] out of bed into t’passage’. What I was picking up was the way people spoke in the Dales which gave you an idea of what they said and how they said it years ago.”
It’s stories like this that make the archive invaluable. “History tells us who we are and how we got to where we are now, and what makes this so unique is it’s mostly working-class stories,” says Brand. “Yes, he met some important people, but there’s also the cyclist, the maid and the blacksmith, and we don’t tend to hear these kind of stories. Also, Bill is a journalist by trade and the quality of his interviews is second to none.”
For Mitchell, who is now well into his 80s, his interest has always been in the people and their stories.
“If you go through life thinking just about what you are doing at the moment, you lead a very limited life. History has always been thought of as battles. But it’s just as important to record the everyday lives of ordinary people.”
For more information about the project and to find the digitised stories go to www.wrmitchellarchive.org.uk. People can also make donations by visiting www.settlestories.org.uk/donate
When Bill met James Herriot
Among those Bill interviewed during his long career was Alf White, or James Herriot, to use his nom de plume.
“I knocked on the door and he opened it with his little dog, Bodie. We went upstairs and for over an hour I had this tape recorder running and we just chatted about his life, he was an extremely nice man, one of the nicest chaps I’ve ever met. He didn’t brag, he just talked about his career and how it started in Yorkshire when he was earning £4 a week, how he had this little old car with holes in the floor and how he got his feet wet every time he went through a puddle.
“I checked every now and then just to make sure the tape recorder was working because it would have been a tragedy if it had stopped.”