Making History: the story of the British Video History Trust Collection

MariaJose de Esteban (Learning on Screen-BUFVC)

21 May 2024

Any ideas are welcome, whether from a group of enthusiasts wanting to film a day in the life of a bookie or people collecting memories of the early days of Women’s Institutes. Historic moments are of particular interest such as the launch of a new business or the dying of an ancient craft…we will lend video equipment free to any group with a worthwhile film project AND teach them how to use it.[i]

The above paragraph comes from a 1987 press release announcing the launch of the British Video History project. Set up jointly by the BBC and the British Universities Film & Video Council- now Learning on Screen- the initiative hoped, that by encouraging people to film their pet projects, it would build up an archive which accurately reflected life in Britain as it was then and “provide unique rare material for filmmakers and historians in the future”.

Figure 1: Marketing pamphlet.

Something Ought to Be Done

Five years earlier, the BBC was making the documentary series, All Our Working Lives. As the series was being completed, producer, Peter Pagnarnenta, and Head of Documentary Features, Will Wyatt, realised that, despite the vast archive of material at their disposal, there was very little footage of the type they needed. Oral history, personal testimony and interviews using film or video had not been collected in an organised manner. This left enormous gaps in the historical record of industries and ordinary working lives. It is true that the oral history movement was then well established with its own society, but much of its work was carried out using audio recording equipment. Video recording was also used by some groups and there was increasing interest in this area, but unfortunately, much of the material recorded on video by enthusiast groups was on non-broadcast video formats and only a small proportion of it could be incorporated into broadcast television programmes. Pagnarnenta and Wyatt concluded that ‘something ought to be done’ and so it was that he British Video History Trust was formed to provide the solution.

Figure 2: Working the Land (All Our Working Lives, BBC4, 2009). Note: If your school, college, university subscribes to BoB (Box of Broadcasts) you can watch the All Our Working Lives series here.

It Will Depend on Enthusiasms

The Trust decided to loan cameras and accessories to groups and individuals who had focussed projects suitable for recording and preservation. Sony Broadcast had donated a Betacam camera/recorder, W. Vinten had supplied the camera support, and so the basic necessary equipment was ready for the first recording project. Projects could range from “a day in the life of a racecourse bookie” to “scenes showing how people spent a Saturday night out”, to “recollections of the first VAT inspectors, to “farm-workers who ploughed by horse”, or “the experiences of the first male secretaries”.

In the first instance, applications for the pilot were welcomed from the Nottingham, Aberdeen and Reading areas, but the Trust were hoping to widen the scheme in the near future. Successful applications depended on the “enthusiasms and interests of those applying”. Two well-known historians, Angus Calder, author of ‘A People’s War’ on which a BBC series had been based, and John Roberts, who wrote and presented the BBC’s ‘The Triumph of the West’ were called in to advise on which projects would go ahead.

Clip from BBC1 News, 7 June 1988

The BUFVC Should Come Clean

Over the following seven years the Trust enabled around 70 individual projects to be realised. The material was taken in by Learning on Screen, who have guarded it with extreme care ever since. The tapes are accompanied by a small paper collection which includes meetings, minutes, applications and correspondence, both related to the running of the Trust, and from individuals. One such individual was not impressed by the initiative, and on the 6th of July 1991, wrote:

Dear Sir

Surely ‘make history’ is a cockup for starters. Presumably what is meant is a recorder of events, that in time become history. In any case for the BBC to find the money for any enterprise, indicates that somewhere along the line, a buck is in the offing…The BUFVC wants to make it clear what exactly they are trying to achieve. If it is a cheap extension of the normal News gathering brigade, they should come clean…My recordings are done for pure fun. On the 18th of July, the Launceston one day horse show is held. This is in fact a major one-day agricultural show. If the weather holds- I’m no glutton for getting wet, and the Panasonic MS2 has a disliking for the damp- then I will be there. The coverage on tape, with a single camera, will be- I suppose- three hours…If Mrs B’s little daughter comes a purler in the pony event, and I happen to be pointing the camera in that direction, will this be of interest?

Judging by the number of tapes the project produced, many people considered the initiative a great idea. The result was certainly unique. Here’s the list of titles so you can judge for yourselves:

Albic Bush and Tom Lawrence -Retired Quarrymen (7 Tapes) Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham (6 Tapes)
Alfred Frost – Tailor (5 Tapes) John Perry and Co. Ltd. Wallpaper (5 Tapes)
Animal Hospital (30 Tapes) Life on the River Crouch (10 Tapes)
BACUP Video Project (15 Tapes) Lighthouse Keepers of Lundy (9 Tapes)
Bailies (5 Tapes) Locksmiths (26 Tapes)
Best Career Moves (2 Tapes) London’s Docklands (2 Tapes)
Blacksmiths, Quarrymen and Sculptures Marine Ices, London
Born To Rule (12 Tapes) Martin Waldron – Coalman (5 Tapes)
British Newsreel Cameramen Interviews Memories of Hoover (15 Tapes)
Animal Hospital – Tape 1 Military Embroiderers (3 Tapes)
Divers – Tape 2 Milton Keynes Witness Seminar (5 Tapes)
Camponology (10 Tapes) Montague Street (14 Tapes)
Charles Cooper Interview (3 Tapes) Morcambe Bay (2 Tapes)
Chinese in Britain (10 Tapes) New Age Travellers (16 Tapes)
Comyns – The Silversmith (43 Tapes) Notts (15 Tapes)
Deptford Coal Power Station (2 Tapes) Pearl Assurance Plant Room
Divers (6 Tapes) Pie and Mash (4 Tapes)
Docklands People (17 Tapes) Pioneer Health, Peckham (3 Tapes)
Dunbar Wharf (4 Tapes) Portland Foundry (6 Tapes)
Duncan Douglas – Tailor (7 Tapes) Rag and Bone Men, Chiselhurst (3 Tapes)
East Meon 200: A Video Diary in 7 Parts Ralph Bond (5 Tapes)
England’s Oldest Town, Barnstable (11 Tapes) Slipping of ‘Peter P’ (1 Tape)
Englehard – Bullion Dealers (6 Tapes) Stone Walling (16 Tapes)
English National Opera (8 Tapes) Street Sports (8 Tapes)
Exmouth Health Care (9 Tapes) Surrey Street Market, Croydon (5 Tapes)
George Payne and Co. Ltd. (2 Tapes) Sylvia Dale School of Dance (16 Tapes)
Hampshire Coalman (3 Tapes) The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker
Hedge Laying (2 Tapes) The Folkstone Riots: We’re Still here (24 Tapes)
Hillsborough (5 Tapes) The Story of Ridge & Furrow (4 Tapes)
Hillview Estate (8 Tapes) The Village Shop (8 Tapes)
Hobson’s (3 Tapes) Toughy’s Boatyard – Teddington (3 Tapes)
International Brigade (32 Tapes) Ways of Working in Publishing (15 Tapes)
Irish Community Arts – Freddy McKay (15 Tapes) Well Dressings, Derbyshire (6 Tapes)
Irish Community NW London (6 Tapes) Wigan (5 Tapes)
Jazz Dance (4 Tapes)

Present and Future of the Past

Both the paper and film collections are currently kept at our storage facility in Woolwich. Unfortunately, neither collection is digitised or catalogued. In keeping with the spirit in which the project was started, we would love to hear from anyone with suggestions for how best to bring new life to the materials.

For any questions or comments email

Thanks for reading!

Learning on Screen are a charity and membership organisation who firmly believe that multimedia (including moving image and sound) is a cornerstone of engaging, dynamic learning and teaching. With a focus on ensuring post-16 students excel and thrive in their educational journey, they are on a mission to help shape the future of education.

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[i] All the quotes and sources mentioned in the blog (eg marketing materials, correspondence, clip) originate from the BVHT Collection.

MariaJose de Esteban holds an MA in History of Film and Visual Media from Birkbeck College and an MA in Information Services Management from London Metropolitan University. She is the Collaborations Coordinator at Learning on Screen-BUFVC.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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