Born in 1935, Paul Thompson was educated at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1958 with First Class Honours in Modern History. He obtained a D. Phil, (also at the University of Oxford), in 1964. This was entitled London Working Class Politics and the Formation of the London Labour Party, 1885-1914. In 1964, having spent three years as a Junior Research Fellow at Queen's College, Oxford, Thompson was appointed Lecturer in Sociology (Social History), at the newly established University of Essex. He was to continue his research and teaching in sociology and social history at Essex, being appointed Research Professor in Sociology, in 1988. Thompson is regarded as one of the pioneers of oral history as a research methodology. He is founding editor of the journal Oral History and founder of the National Life Story Collection at the British Library National Sound Archive, London. Between 1994 and 2001, as Director of Qualidata, University of Essex, Thompson actively pursued his interest in the preservation of qualitative research materials for secondary use, depositing his own datasets and overseeing the development of this archival service.
Paul Thompson's, The Edwardians: Family Life and Work Experience before 1918, carried out between 1970 and 1973, was the first national oral history interview study to be carried out in Britain. Thompson had first become aware of the need for a project of this kind in the late 1960s, while in the process of writing a book about the social history of Britain between 1900 and 1918 (see Publications field for details). There was little direct evidence from the working class perspective of life during this period and, recognizing the value of oral testimonies, Thompson recognized that such evidence must be gathered immediately, while members of the Edwardian generation were still alive.
Receiving funding from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Thompson and a team of part-time interviewers were subsequently to carry out a series of life history interviews with c450 men and women who had lived in Edwardian Britain (all were born before 1906, the earliest in 1872). Thompson had wanted to select a group representative, as far as was possible at the time, of the Edwardian population as a whole. He therefore used a 'quota sample' based upon the 1911 census. (A sampling method in which the sample population is divided up into categories of various proportions. The researcher then selects persons matching these criteria until the quota for each category is filled). Thompson's sample totalled 444 people and categories included six major occupational groups and three classifications of location, gender and regional distribution. The respondents were chosen by a variety of means, including through social workers, care homes, personal contact and advertisement. The final total of interviews eventually numbered in excess of 444, partly because some people belonged to a different occupational group than that anticipated and because some interviews were not sufficiently complete.
The interviews were carried out by a number of part-time interviewers. They followed a detailed interview schedule to ensure that the data collected were appropriate for comparison and to facilitate the collection of the most complete story possible. At the same time, the interviewers were encouraged to keep the interview 'open' and, where appropriate, to follow the flow of the interviewee-in other words departing from the schedule and expressing questions listed in the schedule in different ways. Consequently, the results are examples of 'loosely structured' interviews.
The topics in the interview schedule included: domestic routine, including the roles of husbands and children; meals; the upbringing of children; emotional relationships and values in the family; leisure; religion; politics; school; courtship and marriage; the wider family; relationships with neighbours and perception of the community structure; experience of work and the occupational history of the whole family.
Two or three sessions per interview were normally required in order to complete the schedule, with the average length of interview being four hours. The interviews were recorded on open-reel tapes, resulting in usually two or three 5 inch spools for each interview, but in the longer, more exceptional cases, this could amount to six or seven spools.
Thompson continued to work with the materials collected in the project over much of the decade. His experiences with the Edwardians were important in pioneering the methodology of oral history, and the research contributed to his later publication on method, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1988) .
For further background information to this collection see Qualidata's Edwardians Online and also the online user guide, which contains copies of the original grant proposals, project progress reports, notes on the interview schedule and methodology, provisional findings.