UNLOCKING THE PAST: How one man kept so much local history alive

A LOOK AT THE PAST: This undated picture shows grape pickers, young and old, at Keinbah. Picture courtesy Coalfields Heritage Group.
A LOOK AT THE PAST: This undated picture shows grape pickers, young and old, at Keinbah. Picture courtesy Coalfields Heritage Group.

Local resident turned historian, Jack Delaney, undertook a remarkable project in the 1970s and 1980s. Realising that so many of our local stories went unrecorded and that when many elderly residents passed away they took not only their stories, but our regions history with them - he decided to act.

Jack began interviewing as many people as he could, particularly from the coalfields area, deliberately seeking out ordinary people whose lives often went undocumented. The result is an astounding oral history collection containing hundreds of interviews, which he deposited for safe keeping with the Coalfields Heritage Group.

These interviews were recorded on audio cassette tapes, a vulnerable medium as the tape itself deteriorates over time. In a wonderful example of historical organisations working together, the Coalfields Heritage Group gave the University of Newcastle access to Jacks tapes so they could be saved in a digital format.

Digitisation is essential for oral history projects, as it makes these precious recordings accessible to everyone. But digitisation has a sting in the tail, its fiendishly expensive. A generous grant from the Coal & Allied Community Development Fund allowed the project to go ahead.

The interviews themselves are pure gold, with my favourite being Jacks conversation with barber Mick Morris. Jack chats with Mick while having a haircut and the natural informality between them, as Mick snips away while answering Jacks questions, is utterly delightful. Their discussion ranges across a working life in Bellbird and Aberdare Collieries and his memories of the coalfields old barber shops.

Jack Delaney

Jack Delaney

Many of Jack Delaneys interviewees have passed away, as has Jack himself, but because his interviews have been digitised the extraordinary recordings he created are available to everyone.

This Thursday morning Cessnock Library will welcome a member of the University team which undertook this project. Well be shown how to engage with these oral histories online and best of all we will be playing some of the interviews, hearing Hunter voices again for the first time since they were recorded decades ago.

Hundreds of Jacks interviews are now available with more being added every week.

You can hear them on SoundCloud, a public audio platform: soundcloud.com/uoncc/sets/voth. The Voices of the Hunter project can be found at: livinghistories.newcastle.edu.au. Voices of the Hunter, 10am-12pm, March 9, Cessnock Library, free.

Kimberly O‚ÄôSullivan is the Local Studies Librarian, Cessnock Library. 

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