The local country show used to be held on the land where the estates now stand. All images courtesy of Godalming Museum.
Two modern housing estates on the outskirts of Godalming would not at first glance seem the most promising site for a local history project. But delve a little deeper and even the most unassuming of locations can reveal a fascinating past.
Keeping Memories Alive, an oral history project launched in March 2006 by residents of the Ockford Ridge and Araon’s Hill estates, aims to unearth and preserve the area’s forgotten history for generations to come.
The project has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund in conjunction with local councils and Godalming Museum. A coordinator, Vanessa Barton, has been appointed to guide the project for the first 18 months, training a core of volunteers in oral history gathering techniques so that the project can be continued indefinitely.
According to Vanessa, the residents established the project “to give a clearer sense of identity for the estates. The hope is to reinstate pride in the area. The residents wanted to know more about local history, get people involved and celebrate their past.”
The street 'Bargate Rise' on Aaron's Hill now stands in the place of 'Ockford Wood', built in 1870 and later burned to the ground
“There’s a handful of enthusiastic volunteers who have tapped into the stories that are out there," said Vanessa. "One man said he knows 70 people in their eighties who have lived on the estate their entire lives. It would be so sad if their stories were never recorded.”
Very little is known about the history of Ockford Ridge and Aaron’s Hill, which are separated from Godalming by a railway track. But details are gradually being gleaned by residents that suggest a fascinating social history.
“There was a prisoner of war camp locally, and after the end of the Second World War, some of the prisoners settled on the estates," added Vanessa. "And people from Italy and Poland invited to work in the newly-founded NHS were housed on the site too. It’s becoming apparent that there was very good integration of the newcomers, and one of the bonding tools was the local football team!”
Interestingly, it’s also becoming apparent that much older history is evident on the estate. The houses were built on agricultural land, and antique maps demonstrate that the current street names echo much older field markings.
In 1869 the Ockford Estate was auctioned. Lot 5 was the plot of land which is now Aaron's Hill estate.
The land itself was once owned by General Oglethorpe, a famous Surrey figure who left England to found the American state of Georgia. But, as Vanessa explains, “the estates really aren’t represented in the town’s history and all sorts of stories are yet to be discovered.”
One of the aims of Keeping Memories Alive is to be as inter-generational as possible. The local primary and secondary school have been involved, and classes will be carrying out their own mini oral history project in June. Vanessa will provide training and the children will interview neighbours or relatives.
“The primary school children will be responding quite creatively, with painting and singing. For the secondary school, we can tap into the National Curriculum, and explore things like migration, employment, and at the way a previously rural area becomes urban.”
The Oglethorpe family owned the land where both Ockford Ridge & Aaron's Hill now stand until 1790. General Oglethorpe was the last owner; he was famous for founding and being the first governor of the American State of Georgia.
As well as working with children, the project aims to involve as many of the estates’ residents as possible. There are 1100 homes on the estates and Vanessa hopes to encourage as many people as possible either to share their stories or to become involved as an interviewer or researcher.
New technology is a vital part of the project. A website has been established which will eventually host some of the recorded stories and archive images, as well as providing training in interview and research techniques. Residents can also set up micro-sites of their own family history, as well as using the on-line forum to discover and discuss their forgotten past.
The project organisers are also determined that the estates’ history will not be forgotten again. All the oral history interviews will be recorded and a booklet and educational CD-Rom are planned, which can later be used by schools as an educational resource. Everything collected will also be archived at Godalming Museum, where it will stand as a permanent record to the recent past.
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council