‘On a dark and lonely night, an old peasant woman was walking her dog along the banks of the River Lune…’
In Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, there is a Devil’s Bridge. Built in 1370, it is to this day a popular meeting spot, motorcycle hub, and occasional dangerous diving location. It holds a particularly prominent position in the hearts and minds of the people of Kirkby. It also holds a legend, about a woman, a dog, and the devil.
My oral history project would be to find out what that myth is to different inhabitants of the town, using a specific idea approach (rather than asking for life histories). I would interview people of different generations, genders, and social class in order to ensure an oral history of a broad cross=section of Kirkby Lonsdale’s society. In particular, I would ask how long individuals have lived in Kirkby and when they learned the myth, as well as from whom. The way they tell the myth could also tell me a lot about their relationship with it, whether they know it well or badly, were proud of it and told it regularly or had merely heard it in passing. In such a way, this project would be a case study for how myths diffuse, and what they become, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
‘Devil’s Bridge’ is a moniker given to many bridges, mostly in Europe, and all have a similar myth. All, interestingly, are reasonably important bridges for their communities, albeit for a range of reasons. By investigating the Kirkby Lonsdale legend, I would also hope to provide insight into the importance of particular myths and locations which hold communities together. I would ask people about their relationship with the bridge, whether they go there often, and how they feel about the legend. It might also be interesting to talk to younger people who ‘tombstone’ (high dive) from the bridge, to see if they feel a specific connection to it. The history of the bridge would also be available from local historians, which would provide a view into how much the history of the community is held dear. Altogether, I would explore the place of the bridge and the legend as a part of peoples’ lives in order to comprehend the nature of the community and its distinctiveness.
‘… and a figure arose from the gloomy darkness’
A question that is often posed to me is, ‘But, what kind of history do you do?’ I used to not have an answer to that question, because I don’t have a specific area that I am particularly enthralled with. However, when I got that question the other day, my friend piped up and answered if for me, ‘You do, like, history around here, right? Like, local history.’ Finally, it was put into words. Over the past few years every time I’ve gone to study in a new place, I immediately throw myself into learning about the history of that location and here in Egham it’s no different. My Skills project last term was on life in Surrey in the Edwardian period based on postcards and the programme I am making for ‘The Public Communication’ is on the ‘hidden’ history of Royal Holloway. I thus want to continue in this tradition and learn about why Royal Holloway College and Bedford College went co-ed in the 1960s. I would like to explore the ‘death’ of women-only education in those two institutions and perhaps across Britain.
I come from a place that is known for its higher education institutions. When I describe where I’m from, I’ll say Western Mass, you know, the Five College Area? UMass Amherst, maybe? UMass is usually the landmark people identify with, but of the other four schools of the ‘Five Colleges’, two of them are well-known female only institutions: Mount Holyoke College and Smith College. Both of these schools take great pride in being just for women (for undergrad, at least) and strive to stay that way. Interestingly enough when I was applying to schools for my undergrad degree, three of the four schools I applied to where originally female only: Endicott College, Lesley University, and Lasell College. I chose to go to Lasell, where I learned that they didn’t go co-ed until the late 1990s. Coming from that background, I am particularly interested in why Royal Holloway and Bedford went co-ed so early compared to schools in the United States.
I hope to interview Professor Caroline Barron, a former History professor of both Bedford College and Royal Holloway Bedford New College. She also recommended that I get in touch with Dr John Prebble who was vice-principal of Bedford at the time of the merger of the two schools in 1985 and to look at the book Bedford College, University of London edited by J Mordaunt Crook.
The significance of this topic to public oral history will be that it will explore how the dynamic changed in higher education from just having females on campus to having both sexes. Both Bedford and Royal Holloway were founded to provide women with an education equal to that of men, so why was it that they then let men join them? As the topic is still within living memory and also coincides with the greater movement for women’s rights, I would like to understand how going co-ed changed the legacies of both schools.