W R Mitchell

Bill MitchellHail to thee, Blithe Spirit

Bill Mitchell was born in Skipton in 1928 and began his journalistic career on the Craven Herald before joining The Dalesman in 1948. Initially called The Yorkshire Dalesman, the magazine was first published in 1939 by Harry J. Scott, a former Leeds journalist, who had moved to the Dales village of Clapham in 1935. His magazine, published from his own home in Clapham, soon became well-known for documenting the life of Dales folk. Bill remembers meeting ‘tweed-clad, pipe-smoking’ Scott in the offices of the Craven Herald in Skipton shortly before Bill joined The Yorkshire Dalesman. Scott’s unique greeting was ‘Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit.’

After that memorable meeting, Bill soon started commuting from Skipton to Clapham on the Pennine Bus service, a local service which today still runs from Skipton to Settle. Bill remembers vividly one journey when a lady asked the bus driver to drive carefully, her destination being the local hospital. Thinking she was ill, the bus driver drove carefully and when she alighted enquired if the journey had been smooth enough. He then discovered that her main concern had not been her health, but the jelly she carried in her wicker basket. ‘It hadn’t set properly when I got on,’ Bill recollects her saying.

People Not Things

When starting his career at The Dalesman, Bill was told by his editor Scott, ‘We are more interested in people than things,' which Bill says has ‘ruled my life as a journalist.’ Having mastered shorthand and typing at school in Keighley, Bill used these skills to record his initial interviews. As Bill says, ‘At first, I scribbled down what people told me using Mr Pitman’s type of shorthand. Words were made up of lines, dots and dashes—a tiring process.’ Then Bill discovered the taperecorder and thereafter recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the men and women of the Yorkshire Dales which formed the basis for his written work. As he says, ‘With a small tape recorder, I was able to concentrate entirely on the subject. My first tape-recorder was bulky and conspicuous. I eventually used a small recorder. The subject of my interview soon forgot about it.’ It is this approach which gives Bill’s recorded interviews their unique value—the lives of Dales folk told in their own words.

A Career in Journalism

From 1951 Bill also edited Cumbria, a magazine which focused on the Lake District, and of course recorded many Lakeland folk as a basis for his books on the area. After working with The Dalesman for over thirty years and editing it for most of that time single-handed, Bill retired from the magazine in 1986 and began his second career. He continued to record the lives of Dales folk on tape and published many books as well as articles for the Craven Herald, The Dalesman and Yorkshire Post. He also delivered several thousand talks to local groups and societies and still continues to do so.

After a lifetime of recording the lives of Dales folk in their own words, in 1996 Bill was awarded the MBE for his services to journalism in Yorkshire and Cumbria. He was also awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Bradford where a selection of Bill’s Archive is housed in Special Collections. In the same year Bill became an Honorary member of the Yorkshire Dales Society ‘in recognition of your services in protecting the environment of the Yorkshire Dales’, and is currently President of the Society.

The Consequences of Chatting

By 2010 Bill had amassed a wealth of material on the lives of local Dales folk, recorded in print, on cassette tape and video. But it was a cursory chat with Sita Brand, Director of Settle Stories Ltd, that kick-started the W.R. Mitchell Archive. Sita had invited Bill to give a talk at the ‘Tea and Tales’ event. Having a chat and a cup of tea in Bill’s kitchen in Giggleswick, talking about stories and storytelling, Bill said ‘Have you got a minute?’ and showed Sita the wealth of tapes, videos, journals and books that he has been collecting as part of his life’s work. And from this conversation an archive was established.

If you would like to find out more about the W.R. Mitchell Archive please contact Gillian Waters at wrmitchellarchive@gmail.com.