Costume drama;Consumer

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Sue Hubberstey takes a step back in time to visit some historical re - enactments. Photographs by Craig Knowes.

In Tudor halls, Victorian follies and ancient monuments up and down the country the past is being brought to life. Children can visit these prime historical sites to get first-hand experience of what it must have been like to live as a Roman soldier, a 19th-century Welsh slate mine owner or a servant at a medieval castle. At St Luke's primary school in Cambridge, Year 5 and 6 pupils, suitably garbed, are setting out by coach to spend a day being Elizabethans at Kentwell Hall, a 16th-century manor house in Suffolk.

Kentwell Hall claims to have been one of the first places to provide historical re-enactments for schoolchildren, starting them in the 1970s. The Great Annual Recreations of Tudor Life rolls out over three weeks in the summer term and two days in autumn.Penny Todman, head of St Luke's, says the day out is always a huge success.

"These enactments are invaluable in helping children to relate to different events in history," she says.

John Moore, headteacher at Newbrough School in Hexham, Northumberland, is also enthusiastic about the value of such experiences. With Hadrian's Wall and a number of castles within easy reach, history trips are possible for even the youngest at his school. Pupils from Reception to Y4 recently undertook an English Heritage Roman Day workshop held on the wall itself where they could dress as Romans and make Roman artefacts, giving them insight into their "wonderful heritage," he says.

Such events - covering the whole sweep of the primary history curriculum - are now commonplace. In most cases they reinforce the teaching of social history, with a strong emphasis on the cultural chasm existing between rich and poor. Sometimes the costumed characters are based on real people. At Killerton House, near Exeter, the children can make the acquaintance of Mrs Craggs, the housekeeper, and Isabella, who was the lowly laundry maid in 1851. Through their eyes pupils can see what life was like above and below stairs and discover how it felt to be the lowest ranking member of the domestic staff, kept separate from everyone else.

For most children, dressing up is the most thrilling part. Putting on the clothes of a Victorian instantly converts them into that character. At Kentwell Hall school parties are encouraged to arrive already kitted out in costumes made from simple instructions sent to the school before the visit. But it is more usual for child-size clothing to be awaiting school parties.

At Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire there are replicas of all types of clothes worn by Victorian adults, from the gardeners and scullery maids to the lord and lady of the house. The staff here also organise sessions where the children unpack tin chests containing intriguing household objects such as a hat and glove stretcher and stone hot water bottles. At Penrhyn Castle in Gwynedd, Wales, children are invited to compare their own schooling with the type of education given to the children of local farm labourers and servants at the turn of the century. Desks, easels and toys are all authentic.

A further aspect of Victorian life is portrayed at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. This has an original 19th-century courthouse and county jail where children can participate in the mock trial of Victorian children.

"All the class voted this visit the best they have been on and wefollowed it up in school with an assembly on the retrial of twocases on which the jury couldn't agree," says Jennifer Drury, Y6 teacher at Bispham Drive Junior School in Nottingham.

At Bodiam Castle in East Sussex children can learn what it was like to live in a medieval castle. In the domestic room they are shown how people worked and played, and the type of food they ate. They can have hands-on experience of replica musical instruments and toys, and once again there are plenty of opportunities to dress up.

A range of battle suits, reflecting changes in battlewear worn by fighting men from archers to knights from the late 14th to 16th century, always attracts a lot of interest.

At the National Trust's Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent, there is an Elizabethan programme designed for children with special needs. Before the visit teachers are sent a sensory box to help prepare pupils for their experience. The contents include raised line diagrams of the front of the house and intricate ceiling designs for children with visual impairments, herbs and spices from the garden and a selection of implements in materials ranging from wood to pewter. During their visit the children dress in period costumes, one of which is a copy of a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I, and are taught how to curtsy before royalty.

For children at the opposite end of the spectrum, Leicestershire County Council has been piloting a history summer school. Headteachers across the county were invited to nominate their most able children to participate in more challenging historical interaction. For example, one day was spent at Woolsthorpe, the home of Isaac Newton, discussing scientific and mathematical theories with the man himself.

Of course, the location of your school will determine how many, if any, such trips you can undertake. A journey of more than one and a half hours each way is impractical for most primary pupils. They can also be too costly for many schools; admission per child ranges between about pound;4 and pound;7, plus the cost of transport. A cheaper option may be to invite an "enactor" to the school.

Peter Cornwell is a former primary head teacher who now runs History Off the Page, a nationwide service directed at junior children. He teaches history with stories and practical activities - the best way into history for primary schoolchildren, he says. His Tudor days were very popular last year. "In the morning we have activities such as candle dipping and I tell them stories about Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Then in the afternoon we have a banquet to celebrate the birth of Prince Edward, but while the celebrations are in full swing, the children have to learn that Jane Seymour has died." The Victorians, Greeks and Romans receive similar treatment.

Chatterbox is the name of a company run by Philip and Nadine Carr who call themselves "costumed historial educators". They operate in schools throughout Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Worcestershire. They like first to visit the school to talk with the teachers about any special requirements, then on the day, the appropriate character arrives suitably attired and often unannounced.

Once they have overcome their surprise, the children are encouraged to interact with the character, quizzing him or her about their lives. The Chatterbox range of historical packages covers Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Celts and Romans, Aztecs, Tudors and Elizabethans, and Victorians.

Once again these are considered most suitable for key stage 2 but there are also special Victorian and medieval life packages available for KS1.

A number of theatre groups will visit schools to support history education. One is the Legend Theatre, which is based in London but will travel to schools throughout the country. This consists of a team of professional actors whose programme includes the Tudors, Victorians, Invaders, Egyptians and the Adventures of Theseus.

* Battle dress

There are many re-enactmentsocieties around the country offering programmes of events (such as battle re-enactments and recreated village sites) and some offer educational information and links to other sites of interest.

Website addresses

For details of Viking and otherre-enactment societies, visit

For details of English Civil War Re-enactments, visit www.sealedknot.orgsealed.htm

For Dark Ages information, visit

For details of re-enactment societies near you, visit

To see historical buildings and find out more about how they were constructed, visit the WestSussex-based Weald and Downland Museum at

* Contact Information

Kentwell Hall 01787 310207 Workshops at Hadrian's Wall 0191 269 12278 Killerton House 01392 881345 Wimpole Hall 01223 207801 Penrhyn Castle 01248 353084 Bodiam Castle 01580 830436 Knole House 01732 462100 Off the Page 01954 212281 Chatterbox 01594 516077 Legend Theatre 0171 819 1720 English Heritage 0171 973 3399 The National Trust 0171 447 6756 (for education pack details call 0181 315 1111)

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