Every Peterborough-dwelling history fan knows who Stephen Perry is: the diligent and hugely knowledgeable history expert who gives regular talks at the John Clare Theatre about all things historical Peterborough. The Moment magazine online caught up with him to find out a bit more…
Tell me a bit about yourself
I was born in Peterborough in 1947 – which seems a long time ago! I’ve lived in the area all my life, and for 32 years I was an accountant at Perkins engineers. I retired five years ago – and when I’m not doing history stuff I do gardening, bowling and family stuff!
How did giving the talks come about?
As well as having an interest in the Baptist church here in Peterborough, which I’ve researched a bit and which goes back to 1553, I volunteered at the archive, and it turns out that as a volunteer I could do some public speaking, and it’s grown from there – in January I gave a talk on Victorian Peterborough at the John Clare Library, which seats 145, and we had to turn 45 people away! I do about 20 different talks and they all seem very popular, with perhaps the most popular being Before Queensgate, which examines what was on the site of what is now Queensgate shopping centre; and Peterborough in the 1960s, which looks at the town before the development. This year is the centenary of the start of World War I, so there will be talks focusing on what life was like in Peterborough in 1914.
It seems as though, with all the lectures and activities – not to mention the Heritage Festival – Peterborough can’t get enough of history and heritage!
Yes, there is a lot of keen interest but a lot of it does come from people with hair the same colour as mine – which is white!
What is your favourite part of the city, which part for you has the most interesting history?
I guess my favourite parts are places long gone away, from the 1950s – it was pre-development, it was a market town with a population of around 50,000. Now it has a population of nearly 200,000. One of my other favourite areas is Broadway, with its places of entertainment, which I do a talk on.
Which aspect do you enjoy most, is it the research, the public speaking…?
I’m very content to research! I go across to the Northampton Record Office quite frequently, I’m looking at more detail into the workhouse. And I really enjoy standing up in front of hundreds of people and telling them the story of Peterborough!
As a historian, you must get a real thrill from handling and viewing authentic, first-hand documents and records
Yes, some are very valuable and some it’s clear that I’m the first person to have looked at them in a good number of years.
You must get to talk to some interesting people, perhaps coming up to you after a talk to tell you you’ve just been speaking about a relative, or similar?
I just did a talk on Peterborough before Queensgate, and a gentleman came up after to tell me that his mother had a shop in the road where Queensgate now stands. From that, he sent me a photograph of the street with his mother standing in the shop doorway. Some people tell me things that I’m then able to incorporate into another talk, too.
So, an obvious question maybe, for an historian, but I’d love to know: if you could go back in time, to what year or period would you go?
I would like to go back and see how the city coped with the arrival of the railway station!
For more on Stephen’s talks throughout 2014, click here