Reading the Collections, Week 40: Tullis Russell Oral History Collection

Over the past few weeks there’s been a series of letters to the London Review of Books discussing the phenomenon of ‘cross generational vaulting’ – anecdotes passed down through generations that make the past seem unexpectedly immediate and familiar.

Working in Special Collections, I come in to contact with lots of original historical materials which create a similar sense of connection to distant events – though you can become numb to this effect over time. Fortunately, however, I have recently been lucky enough to work on an oral history collection that has this quality in spades.

The collection in question came to us following the shock closure of the Tullis Russell paper mill at Markinch back in June. The remaining business archives at the mill were brought to Special Collections here at St Andrews, since the Russell family have a longstanding connection with the University and we already hold their extensive family archive.

Examples of boxes made by the Tullis Russell paper mill

Examples of boxes made by the Tullis Russell paper mill

Tullis Russell Business Papers

Tullis Russell Business Papers

The material arrived in an array of boxes, bags and bubble wrapped packages. The listing of this material is ongoing – I’ve personally been tasked with reviewing and listing any audio visual material present. One exciting find has been a box of audio cassette recordings of oral history interviews conducted in the early 1990s with long-serving members of staff.

Tullis Russell 3_1

Oral history recordings

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the tapes – I didn’t know how well they were recorded in the first place, or what kinds of conditions they had been kept in over the past 25 years. But as soon as I started to play them, I was relieved to hear that the sound was clear, and I was reminded of the power of oral histories in making the distant or obscure past seem present and familiar.

I had previously only known Dr David Russell as a name related to the Russell Papers, or to Tullis Russell, but when you hear his measured, avuncular voice, he suddenly becomes real. In this clip he discusses how, as a Russell living more or less next door to the mill, he was aware of his destiny from a young age:

(Dr David Russel)

David Russell was born in 1915, the son of Sir David Russell, managing director of Tullis Russell . He succeeded his father as head of the business, which had been in the family since 1809. He was a student at St Andrews and maintained close links with us, becoming Chancellor’s Assessor in 1963 and Finance Convenor in 1964. He died in 1993. Here he introduces himself:

(Dr David Russell)

Photo of the new buildings at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell 1935 [ID 2-23-1].

Photo of the new buildings at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell 1935 [ID 2-23-1].

Despite Tullis Russell being a family firm, his role at the company was not assured:

(Dr David Russell)

In the interview, Russell discusses how his plans for a round the world trip in the late 1930s were never fulfilled on account of the war, modestly not mentioning that he served with the 7th Battalion of the Black Watch in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy, winning an MC for conspicuous gallantry at El Alamein.

(Dr David Russell)

Another key recording in the collection is an interview with James Rae, who started at Tullis Russell aged 15 in 1923 as an office apprentice, eventually becoming Managing Director of the company. In this clip, he discusses his early life and education:

(James Rae)

Photo of men sorting timber boards at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell, 1935 [ID 2-23-7].

Photo of men sorting timber boards at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell, 1935 [ID 2-23-7].

On why he and others chose to work at Tullis Russell:

(James Rae)

One of the big themes in the interviews is the role of Tullis Russell in the local community. Although Tullis Russell was not quite a paternalistic employer in the vein of Cadbury’s or Lever Brothers, it was the biggest employer in Markinch along with Haig’s Distillery and always took its responsibilities to the community seriously. Indeed, it was owned by its employees, from 1994.

(James Rae)

(Dr David Russell)

(Dr David Russell)

And there was also a multi-generational aspect to the Tullis Russell workforce, and a relatively high proportion of women employees.

 

The collection includes an interview with the Reverend Professor Robert Davidson, born in Markinch in 1927, he studied Theology at St Andrews and later became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Here he discusses his background and the close-knit local communities in Fife:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

As a Markinch native he was familiar with Tullis Russell from an early age:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

He recalls that as part of their commitment to the welfare of their staff, Tullis Russell were one of the first employers of an industrial chaplain, though the experiment faltered when the incumbent failed to toe the company line:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

He never worked at the mill himself, instead being fortunate enough to attend St Andrews on a scholarship. He recalls the perception that the University was for wealthier people such as the Russell family, rather than for people of his own background, and way that it broadened his horizons:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

These are just snippets from a much larger collection – I continue to work through the rest of the oral history tapes and the wider Tullis Russell audio-visual collection which includes VHS, Betamax and vinyl recordings. Other members of the team are working on the more voluminous paper collection – in time we hope to have the entirety catalogued and will make as much available to the public as possible. I hope also to increase the accessibility of our AV material across other collections in recognition of their value to historical research.

Sean Rippington

Digital Archives Officer

One response to “Reading the Collections, Week 40: Tullis Russell Oral History Collection

  1. Pingback: Reading the Collections, Week 40: Tullis Russell Oral History Collection | EticaProfesionalInformacion·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s