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A home, two acres and the vote

In 1849 Chartists built Rosedene cottage as part of a plan to give the urban poor a decent life and put working people on the electoral register, reports Frances Farrer.

Welcome to the vernacular school visit, a new departure for the National Trust. They are opening Rosedene, a tiny, three-roomed Warwickshire cottage with a small dairy and two acres of land.

It is a marvellous departure - the preservation and celebration of ordinary buildings for the nation. Later this year there will be a Nottinghamshire workhouse, and in a couple of years a courtyard of back-to-backs. Rosedene will be used exclusively for school visits. It was built in 1849 as part of a Chartist scheme which brought people out of the slums to a self-sufficient life in the country, gave each household two acres and thus created voters.

Five settlements of small, single-storey houses were built on land bought in the Midlands and south of England by the maverick Irish politician Feargus O'Connor.

In the 273-acre Warwickshire settlement, only Rosedene survives in a more or less unaltered state. It is small and neat, with stone-flagged floors, a practical kitchen range and a proper kitchen dresser. The fine rag rugs were pegged by Florence Crane, who was born there in 1914 and is a consultant for the household appointments. Furniture, sanitation arrangements, tools, and the outhouses for brewing and washing are authentic.

Pupils will be intrigued by the Spartan living conditions. In these disillusioned times they may be even more intrigued by the concern over voting rights.

The house was allotment No. 29 of the Great Dodford settlement, 12 miles from both Worcester and Birmingham. The proximity of these towns was expected to provide markets for crops. But the clay soil gave a poor yield and the cottagers had nothing to sell. Eventually the stubborn clay responded to the specially designed Dodford digging fork, and the settlers turned to fruit growing with more success.

O'Connor was a Utopian, with strong leanings to co-operation and manual labour. At first he distributed the properties by lottery, as the Bible said the ancient Hebrews sometimes did, but this was declared illegal. There were other snags: the Warwickshire Chartists came from the towns with few or no rural skills. When the settlement began there were no water pumps and no well covers.

The People's Charter made six points - a vote for every man regardless of property, vote by ballot, payment of MPs, no property qualification for MPs, equal electoral districts and annual parliaments. All but the annual parliaments were eventually won. But long before these reforms, the strong stand made by the Chartists' Settlements movement had petered out. The cottagers of Great Dodford who could not make a living from their allocated acreage, or could not afford to buy their cottages, left or were evicted.

All this provides rich soil for schools. How extraordinary, one might say, for Feargus O'Connor to spend so much of his time and personal fortune trying to extend the franchise to working people. How remarkable that despite the early problems some of the earliest settlers in this unpromising little place were so optimistic that one wrote, "With diligence and labour my labour-field will become a paradise".

Teachers on a pre-visit session thought the house had potential. "With key stage 1, the real interest is how did they live - no television, etc. The hands-on experience is worth so much more. I've taken children to museums for just viewing. But I've also had five-year-olds making a model timber-frame house, and they really remember it," said Ms Brown of Catshill school.

Sessions for KS1 and 2 include laundry (dolly-tubs, pegs, mangles) bread-making (using the kitchen range) spinning and carding and planting. There are curriculum-linked schemes of work. How did life change in our locality in Victorian times? And what was it like for children in Victorian Britain?

Visiting groups will have the use of the pony-shed for school work. Sunny days may even make it tempting to sow crops and till soil with the Dodford fork.

Contact Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire B60 4JR. Tel: 01527 831363. Email: avoncrofteducation@compuserve.comCost: pound;100 for groups of up to 35. Outreach sessions for schools within 30 milesSimilar attractionsKillerton House, Devon. Tel: 01392 881 345. Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex. Tel: 01243 811363.

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