Category Archives: History online

A trip to the Black Country Living Museum

A month ago, we packed the family into our ageing Megan, and travelled to the Black Country to see relatives and visit one of my favourite Museums, the Black Country Museum.  Sharing a hotel room with your tweenage family was, it turns out, a bit like sleeping in a busy badger set. Sighing, coughing, burping and breaking wind keeps us all awake as, outside, urban foxes voice the sleepless frustration that bubbles away inside.  In the morning we emerged blinking to breakfast next door at the brewer’s fayre – the idiopathic y adding little authenticity to the atmosphere of disinfectant and yesterday’s grease.

Then on to the Black Country Living Museum. I have been to the museum several times during my time teaching in Reading. That we were prepared to travel from Reading to Stourbridge with a coach full of kids to visit the museum year after year illustrates how highly we thought of the museum as a learning experience.  Put briefly, I loved that trip when I was teaching, and loved the way that the children learned from it.

One of the great things about the museum is the way it puts human scale against the Industrial. Maddy hates ‘ humanoids’ as she puts it – hating being at the bottom of the unhappy valley where ‘almost humans’ explain things that have emotional significance. All of us NT’s enjoyed the way that these helped us see the individual stories that in turn enabled us to see the bigger picture, and Maddy was able to listen to and later to recall with interest their stories of underground food and drink – ‘tack’ underground as well as the dangers of each of the different methods of digging out the coal.

Most memorable from their point of view was the young man sitting in the mine bottom, waiting for the pit pony and driver at a ventilation door, so unimportant that he was not allowed a candle. We imagined the stories that the child would tell itself in the dark – waiting for the sound of the hooves or the glimmer of a candle to disrupt the 12 hour shift, sitting on the floor of the tunnel in silence.

The museum covers industrial technical history – in the shape of the mine already discussed, but also using a working Newcomen EngineUntitled

This engine was used to pump water from mines – it is amazing in action – dramatic smoke and a swinging pump arm full of crashing power in a tall room full of heat. Underneath the machine is the weirdly hypnotic ash-pit. My young nephew spent a good 5 minutes watching the embers flitting down to the cooling ash pile.

UntitledAbove ground, the first houses you see are earlier than many of the other domestic settings, Pitt’s cottage, a one story self-built home, which contrasts with the back-to-backs further in to the museum, one of which is set slightly later in 1891 (and highly suggestive of overcrowding and poverty) and the other, set much more comfortably in 1924.

Where I think the museum is missing a trick is in not making more of the change over time (or perhaps even change over geography) aspects of the different houses and displays that they have gathered from around the black country. There is an element of this – many of the shops on the top row are more obviously from the 1930s – though the school is earlier – perhaps late 1800s.

UntitledOften however we’re just ‘in the past’. There’s a wealth of information on the website, but not much available as you wander around. It would take a strong guide to explain the transitions and contrasts between buildings and chronological periods, but I think this would be a worthwhile aim of the museum.

UntitledThere are very strong guides at the museum – the children particularly enjoyed the lady in the Chemist shop. Despite looking the model of idealised Victorian female propriety she was more than willing to delight in explaining the use of suppositories. She also showed the children how ‘the Victorians’ made pills, which they were enthralled by.

Untitled

It’s this handiness, the skill and often very hard labour involved in production that stays with me after a trip to the BCM. This is especially true of that the different kinds of metal work that the Black Country specialised in. Watching a man working in the Nail Shop not only shows the great skills involved in working metal and also in working metal so quickly that they could make a living out of it (there’s a great video on the page to show you how it was done), but the physical nature of the labour – the hardness of the work. The hammers, mangles, wash tubs, fire grates, carpet beaters, brushes, mops, files and other tools are on display in areas around the museum – in shops, in the hands of dummies, laid out on the floors of houses as if momentarily dropped or left. When you step back and consider how much of the work achieved by people using those tools is now achieved through the use of energy (in the form of fossil fuels, mostly) you realise how much the consumption of such energy has changed our lives.

UntitledI’m reading (slowly, it’s very long!) Frank Trentmann’s ‘Empire of Things’, which alongside this trip has made me realise how much today’s consumption of ‘goods’ is based on the provision of things like water, energy and sanitation that allows us to operate them, but which also gives us the time to operate and enjoy them. This is the other thing that I think the BCLM is perhaps missing – it’s implicit in the gas lamps, the coal scuttles and the water pipes, and in the bridges, canals and trolley buses, but I think that it too could be brought out more.

I’ll end this rambling set of reflections with what was a real treat. I’m a wannabe baker (isn’t everyone these days) and as a family we really liked looking into the Victorian bakery. The heat (it was a cold day) was very welcome, the smells and the bread, basic human nourishment, alongside the excellent volunteer guide, made us think very carefully about how people lived, how they fed themselves, and enjoyed life despite the difficulties. Last week we watched the excellent ‘Victorian Bakers‘ on the BBC iplayer and recognised the bakery on the second episode of the show. We were really gripped by the way the programme explored the nature of bread production over time – how it changed, what stayed the same, how the meaning of bread itself changed over time.

Victorian England, and the Victorian Black Country in particular wasn’t one ‘thing’ or even a set of different class-based ‘things’ – it was a time of unprecedented change in almost every aspect of the way people lived, ate, socialised, organised, travelled, and how they voted and persuaded each other – which is what the Victorian Bakers and the Victorian Slum BBC programmes were so good at helping us to see. If I had one wish for the BCM it would be that they found ways to explain this in more depth – perhaps even to help us walk though, in and out of these changes and make explicit comparisons and contrasts.

5 great podcasts for history teachers*

man using antique listening deviceMy job means that I’m quite often in my car, and therefore listening to my radio.  Unfortunately, this often seems to coincide with ‘moneybox live’ or Chris Evans.  In response to this terrible conjunction, I’ve fallen back in love with podcasts.  My subscription list is all the best bits of radio 4, with added shows that radio 4 should commission, and without ‘quote-unquote’ or ‘the unbelievable truth’.  Recently I’ve heard some fantastic episodes which I think could be used in the history classroom – either as inspiration for lessons, as CPD for those wanting to improve their knowledge of a topic, or as something that could (with cuts and tweaks) be used directly with pupils.  I thought I could share these with you.

In Our Time

Of course I’m going to start with In Our Time.  Consistently brilliant and always challenging (especially when it’s about quantum physics), In Our Time occasionally serves up an episode which you immediately want to turn into a scheme of work.  I could talk about the ‘Lancashire Cotton Famine‘, as an example which could help us teach the history of industry and the end of slavery together – with a really global reach.  I might urge you instead to listen to the staples of ‘The Armada‘ or ‘Suffragism‘ if you wanted to learn more than the basics about these important events.  When I start some new teaching or writing on a history topic, often the first search I make is of the IOT archives.

History Extra

Until recently I didn’t listen to History Extra,  I didn’t like the early podcasts.  It felt to me like a marketing exercise, and there seemed to be a lot of military history.  Recently however I listened by chance to an episode about the dissolution of the monasteries, and a piece on Surinam, which was a really interesting explanation of the links between state, trade and colonialism in Stuart, Civil War and Restoration Britain.  This episode, which was excellent, earned the show a place in my podcast schedule.  The next episode on Charles II was even better.  Listening to Claire Jackson’s fascinating and nuanced views of the character of Charles II  (or even better, buying her book) would be a great first step for teachers of the Restoration British Depth Study from AQA’s 2016 GCSE and I urge you to give this a go.

History Pod

This well researched podcast is great, and produced by Scott Allsop, a proper history teacher.  Scott’s ‘on this day’ type podcast often reaches parts of history that the others cannot.  A recent favourite was the episode about the flying cow. Listen to it – you won’t be disappointed.

The London Review of Books

Just great for broadening one’s mind generally but also, every so often, there are great episodes with a history focus – like the recent one given by Colm Tóibín on the cultural and political run up to the 1916 Dublin uprising.  If you really want to know why ‘All changed, changed utterly’ then this is a good place to start.

The British History Podcast

This is another recent addition to my podcast list.  Its written and presented by a British ex-pat who lives in the US. It’s unashamedly narrative driven, but takes this as an opportunity to cover the stories of British history in an engaging way, as well as often from unusual perspectives.  I’m only a few episodes in, but already I’m hooked.

*and a bonus episode- More or Less

Strictly speaking this great podcast isn’t really a history show.  A few episodes ago however there was a great piece about the ‘story of average‘. Average, as a human construct, has a history and therefore a story of development which is not only interesting, but which I think helps us to understand why average is the way it is (and how it is used) today.  I wonder how much more successful my own mathematics education could have been if it had taken a more historical approach.

Distance – Paris, Syria and ‘us’.

I’m writing a section of a GCSE text book at the moment, for Edexcel’s recently approved spec (for teaching next year!).  The section is about London in the Second World War, and it’s part of their warfare through time unit.  This summer also I wrote a book about the Restoration for AQA’s new spec GCSE.  Both periods involve a fair amount of  bad fortune, evil intent and death, as do many periods of history.  After a summer of counting victims of the Plague in 1665 I thought I was immune to the tragedy that history presents, especially as I’m often the person who scoffs at the celebs mourning the passing of long-dead, far-distant relatives on ‘Who do you think you are’.

However, recently I’ve had to question the extent to which I can remain detached from the people I’m studying, and also to question why events such as the recent attacks in Paris seem more real, more shocking than those arguably much worse atrocities being carried out much more frequently across the middle east.

So, here’s what happened.  Whilst researching for the book, I surprised myself by sniffing back tears when I read these notices in the Register of Civilian Deaths on Ancestry.com:

notice1 notice2

I had been following a gang of unofficial volunteer firefighters called ‘the Dead End Kids’ who operated out of a warehouse in Wapping at Watson’s Warf.   But, it wasn’t words that brought me to the kids, it was a picture of the face of a young lad called Shamus O’Brien. This photo (below) was taken by the amazing Bert Hardy,  for publication in the London Picture Post (though I’m not sure that it ever was printed).  Shamus immediately grabbed my attention; his frayed coat, chipped teeth and man’s-hat-on-a-small-head made me think of a young person signing up for something that he didn’t really understand. Looking at the date made me think again – by April 1941 the Blitz had been going on for more than 7 months – so Shamus and the other ‘kids’ had seen real action – perhaps that might explain the wear and tear to his coat, and his dentistry.

The Dead End Kids took their name from a group of Holywood child actors who starred in films about rough kids with hearts of gold. They were led by Patsy Duggan the eldest lad in the gang. It didn’t take me long to learn more about the Duggans, as they were a big family in Wapping (in every sense), and because they’d been the subject of a long piece for the New Yorker Magazine by Mollie Painter Downes. She tells stories of the Kids rushing into buildings, rescuing people, dragging incendiary bombs into rivers and earning heroic status. This piece is a fascinating presentation of life in London during the blitz tailored for an American Audience, and it was this article that had sent me to the record of civilian deaths on Ancestry.com. Painter Downes wrote of the deaths of two of the kids, on the night of the 29th December, a raid that focused on the City of London and the East end. The fires that night were so bad that the event became known as ‘The Second Great Fire of London’. I wanted to corroborate the New Yorker piece, and to find out whether the Kids really did lose two members that night.

Painter Downes writes of ‘two of the [Dead End] Kids, Ronnie Ayres and Bert Eden [being] killed during the raids while tackling blazes with the gang’. Checking the records told me that she was right, other than the spelling of names. But the record told me more. Ronnie was killed on Thomas More Street (marked in yellow), where Bert lived with his parents, and Bert died across the other side of St Katharine’s Dock on St Katharine’s Way.  Both these streets were a short walk from the relative safety of the shelter. map

I suppose my mind went back to the other pictures I’d looked through on the Getty image bank that had the Kids showing off for Bert Hardy’s camera.  Running up ladders, pulling carts filled with buckets and tin helmets, all this looked like great fun – but I realised that not all the kids were in that picture, because Ronnie and Bert had already died by the time they were taken. That’s when their deaths became real to me, and when the kids’ story became more than just a story.

This research was all happening in November 2015, when the Paris attacks took place. Like most people I was horrified by these events, and like most people I knew on an intellectual level that there was something terribly and awfully normal about them, taking into account what is happening across north Africa and in the Middle East, where terrorists kill civilians, and military forces kill terrorists, and civilians. Some of my friends questioned online our feelings, and posted details of equally dreadful attacks in other places, which hadn’t affected me at all. They pointed out that the Syrian refugees who exercise the attention of so many journalists were fleeing the kinds of terror that happened just once in Paris, but happened every day where they had been living. I saw that they were right, of course, but wondered why I felt so differently about the Paris attacks.

The answer is obviously distance – spatial, cultural; and insulation – we are insulated from the world as many people experience it by the distances between us, and by the way that modern media presents stories quickly – a video, a stat, a vox-pop and then onto the next item.

History isn’t the only, or even the most effective way of helping us widen our knowledge of the lives of other people.  However, the experience that I had this autumn, and the experiences that I have had in the classroom suggest that helping students to pause over the study of someone different from the past, well this pause might help them get the right kind, and perhaps the right amount of distance.

The “Writing Lives” project*

*(or why following twitter historians can be as rewarding as following history teachers)

I 11372417_1456795201306836_1653475993_nwas thinking about teaching A level coursework the other day, specifically OCR’s interpretations and investigations coursework. For years the examiner’s reports have emphasised that students should not be taught to label historians as ‘orthodox’ or ‘revisionist’, and that instead they should be focussing on the different approaches and evidence that historians use when addressing the validity of their judgements.

The tendency of some history teaching resources (and perhaps also of some history teachers) to present the interaction of historians as one of conflict is troubling.  Often historiography is shown as an unfolding development of orthodox historians being challenged by revisionists who then find themselves challenged in turn by post-revisionists.  At worst history is presented as a series of battles between antagonistic titans – the example of Hugh Trevor-Roper -v- AJP Taylor springs to mind.

Is this how historians really work?  Is the current generation always to be found stripping the gilding from and digging out the foundations of the previous generation’s work?  Do historians really have professional enemies with whom they engage in Pokémon type battles, aggressively lobbing interpretations tipped with evidential explosives?

Reading about the Writing Lives project being run by Helen Rogers makes me think that this isn’t how historians really work – and that there are lessons we can learn from the project about how we set exams as well as how we teach our students about the discipline.   Students on Helen’s Writing Lives final year module at Liverpool John Moores University have each taken responsibility for blogging about one of the people whose memoirs have been given to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.  This is a great idea on its own, made more meaningful by the end goal of publishing an ebook which draws on the research the students make as a group, but innovative as it is, this is not why I’m drawn to blog about it.

What I found so interesting (so much that I nearly missed my bus home tonight as I read the ‘about’ page) was the way that Helen explained the context to the project.  The about page explains the historiography of working class memoirs, describing several books that you want to go and read straight away.  It then goes on to explain the way that the field has changed and grown, some of the directions that Helen and others want to take it, and the great opportunity offered by the sample represented in the Burnett archive, which is very different from those used by a previous generation of writers.  This isn’t a dismissal of the previous work, in fact the insights and patterns of that work are presented as jumping off points for future work, not something to be ‘revised’ or explained away.

I’d really like to think about ways that we might get school students, and especially those working at A level on independent study to consider the ways that different historians’  viewpoints can be used to spark enquiries, and to help them see that this needn’t always involve deciding which ‘interpretation’ is better than the others.

Great History spotted on the Web

I  have read such great history around the web this week, that I thought I’d compile some of it into a post.  Most of what I’ve spotted here should be directly relevant to teachers at KS3-5.  A good example of that is the fascinating life and views of John Lilburne, described by Michael Braddick over at Sheffiled University’s History Matters blog.  Lilburne provides the kind of life and example that we can use to great effect in the classroom, in order to ask questions like ‘why did he spend most of his life in prison’, or perhaps considering his historical significance (or lack of it!).  We might instead compare his treatement to that of Henry Vane or John Lambert in asking whether the Restored Monarchy was really as reconcilatory as the Declaration of Breda might suggest.

I have also been listening to the amazing podcasts at Alex Ford’s Meet the Historians.  This is a really exciting and ambitious project to enable students to access the thinking of historians through an interview with their history teacher.  Alex asks some really interesting questions, and the historians are given the time and space to answer. What I like most about the series is the example that Alex sets to us and his students.  What I take from this is that history is not only something that we have learned, it is something that we do, and something that we can keep on doing.   Secondly,  I think about the times we might vaguely exort our students to ‘interact’ or ‘engage’ with the sources. From this podcast students can hear, and perhaps understand what interaction with a historian might really mean.

I was drawn to this post by Scott Allsop‘s tweet.  The article itself is bit rambling, but it gets interesting right about where it discusses using diagrams to show relationships between countries, and in its central idea that devices such as these can ‘force us to expand our conception[s]’.  I often use diagrams and simplified maps to try to explain complex things. As always the devil is in the detail, but figuring out the detail can help students to understand where the limits of their knowledge are, and to put the detail back into the big picture.  As an example I asked my own students to update their diagrams of the feudal system last week.   They came up with some interesting ideas, including a feudal donut, with the king in the middle.  One really interested me.  It showed a house with a small dank cellar in which slaves worked, and two lower floors for Villeins and Freemen.  These floors were connected with stairs, which also led to the upper knightly and aristocratic floors, and finally to the attic where the King resided.  Crucially some of the stairs had baby gates installed, to make it harder for people to move upwards. This made it nearly impossible to become ennobled, but relatively easy to slip between free and unfree status depending on whether you could afford to rent land.  I can’t claim that this is a finished or full understanding of the feudal system, and I think that what’s going on here is the replacement of weaker for stronger misconceptions. It’s certainly better than the boring old Feudal pyramid that in the past I have taught in one lesson, and which then they forget.

Thinking about how history is done, over on Gaby Mahlberg‘s blog there is a really interesting post in which she reviews Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration by Philip Major.  The book itself deals with the culture of Royalists at home and those exiled beyond England and seems to offer a glimpse into the way Royalists dealt with the dislocation and loss that comes of exile.  However, what grabbed me was the way that Mahlberg describes these topics as a “newish and still only patchily explored field”, and her judgement that the book “posed many important questions, successfully answered some, but also left enough for the rest of us to puzzle over”.  Mahlberg’s review is not a question of whether Major’s ‘interpretation’ of exile was ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’, rather she seems to suggest that history is a joint-venture between countless eyes and hands, all of which build on each others’ work.  Not only that but, as there will always be new fields to be explored, the work of history cannot be finished.  I’d add that old fields can often contain new surprises.

 

A Cup of Tea from the History Resource Cupboard #28daysofwriting

HistoryResourceCupboardSo, yesterday was the end of a long week (even for a part timer like me), and I was stuck for something to do with my year 9 class.  It was the end of the half term, they’d just done an assessment, and we’re planning on starting the First World War next term.  All in all I was stuck, with only a vague idea of what to do.  I fired up my onedrive and typed ’empire’ into the search engine, as I hoped to find a link between what we’d been studying and the coming war.

A brilliant lesson that I’d seen described at my first SHP conference flashed up. The files must have been sitting on my drive since then, and I punched the air as I realised that the wonderful people at History Resource Cupboard had saved my bacon.  I’d hit upon the first lesson in the great scheme of work about Britain, the Empire and the Industrial revolution, which you can find here.  I can’t recommend it enough, as it starts by asking students to consider the link between tea, coffee, cheap clothes, and other commodities, encourages them to make close but fun analysis of a piece of evidence and ends with some well supported writing.  If you’ve never taken a look at the site, please do – it’s great.

Using Political Cartoons in the Classroom – a web-bibliography

As part of the writing of our book (Enquiring History: Italian Unification 1815-1871
£) I’ve been looking into how teachers, and historians, use cartoons.  I’m blogging about this for AS students on the Italy Podcast site, and I thought I’d share the links I used.

Ian Dawson is on Twitter.

Ian Dawson is on twitter, and is also promising a re-vamp of his website. If you’re a history teacher, you’ll want to follow him!

1913: The Year Before on Radio 4.

I missed almost all of this, but caught the conclusion.  Portillo’s point seems to be that the Great War eclipses the social and political upheaval that was happening in the years before, and in some cases the War inhibited change.  This is in direct contradiction with one of the popular views of this war, that 1914 was a watershed between an idyllic Edwardian past, and brutal future.  I really like Portillo on TV and Radio, wish he’d decided on that career when he left university!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b030l0kg/episodes/guide