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Dead fascinating

David Bocking looks at a cemetery database that offers challenging and evocative ways of investigating the past

Rachel Boole of Broomhall Street died of diarrhoea in August 1854, along with her twin sister Ruth. They were 17 weeks old. The girls were buried in Sheffield General Cemetery by their mother Elizabeth Boole and father George Liddon, who was a joiner. Why did the Boole sisters die of something as trivial as diarrhoea? Why both of them? Did children often die so young in the 19th century? Were their parents unmarried?

You won't find anyone called Phoebe, Ross or Monica in the burial database of Sheffield General Cemetery, and the only Chandlers are candle makers.

But if you type in "Joe" there will be a new set of questions. How many children like three-year-old Joe Cantrill died of Asiatic cholera in 1849? And what were the "convulsions" that killed babies Joe Hanson and Joe Hague?

The database contains 5,783 burial records dating from 1836 to 1856. They were carefully copied from original dusty tomes in the Sheffield city archive by a team of volunteers from the Friends of the General Cemetery and are now available free on the internet.

Type in a name and you will get a digital transcription showing date and cause of death, age, address, name, job, and, for a child, parents' names and occupation. A handful of answers and a host of questions. "This is what history should be about," says Mark Fuller, head of history at Sheffield High School. "Students should be constantly seeing something different and asking different questions. They should be confused.

"When you haven't been able to answer all your questions from the burial database, you then ask what else might you need to look at to get the sort of information you want."

The raw primary resource of the General Cemetery database is now an important part of Sheffield High School's Year 9 history syllabus. "These are real people. This is what they went through," says Mark Fuller.

One of his lessons starts by introducing the 94 Smiths who died between 1836 and 1856. Questions are asked about the number and causes of infant deaths, the number of paupers and where they lived. A search on "cholera" leads to an examination of death dates, and the addresses and jobs of victims. Students then form their own questions to investigate 19th-century Sheffield.

Gary Clemitshaw is PGCE history tutor at the University of Sheffield School of Education. He has developed his own five-lesson sequence (available on the General Cemetery website) using the location and history of the cemetery as a resource for history, citizenship, and ICT.

"The database on its own gives an insight into how the past leaves traces, but it only becomes evidence and knowledge when we ask questions of it and see how far it can provide answers," he says.

"If the database can be set up so that users can readily understand the functions it offers, and can be guided into using those functions creatively, then the data is potentially very useful in education. It would give teachers the chance to ask some basic questions, drawing on children's prior knowledge of urban conditions in the 19th century, such as causes of death, life expectancy, extent of pauperism, social mobility and the population profile of communities."

Such a resource, he adds, serves the historical enquiry aspects of the curriculum well.

Primary students from Porter Croft C of E Aided Primary School, which is only 100 metres from the cemetery, have looked up children from nearby streets on the database.

"What struck them was the number of children who died, and their ages," says amateur historian Yvonne Colverson, a school clerk who assisted with the project.

"They enjoyed having control over what they looked at," says Porter Croft head Jayne Middleton. "It was making that period of time feel real."

"I once had to teach the Industrial Revolution in a school on the fringes of London, where the children really struggled with the idea of mills up in the north," says Mark Fuller. "It was too alien for them. If I could have given them this database and said 'this is Sheffield, these are real people who really existed in the mid 19th-century', it would have been exactly what we needed."

The 1836-56 burial database is available free of charge at www.gencem.orgburialrecordsrecords.php

* Lesson plans and other information are on the website's Resources page.

* Records are being made available on computer disc (pound;3.75 each) and in common formats that are readable by most database programs. Different sets can be consolidated to form a larger database as required. For more information contact the Friends of the General Cemetery

Tel: 0114 2683486

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