Val Hall and Chris Davis report on a history project that provides a fascinating insight into crime in Victorian Britain
Ello, 'ello, 'ello, what's going on 'ere then? I have to report that, contrary to popular belief, the cosy world of the community policeman and the village bobby has not yet disappeared. Both in the news and the ubiquitous television cop shows, the police are often seen aggressively quelling riots and beating up suspects.
But in Cambridgeshire, at least, they are regarded as friends, not foes, after a project in which they worked with schoolchildren on a key stage 2 history and information technology data-handling package, Victorian Crime and Punishment.
The children were given access to data from the Huntingdon County Gaol Habitual Criminals Register 1869-78 transferred on to a Junior Pinpoint database by Cambridgeshire Centre of Information Technology in Education. It includes mug shots of around 370 prisoners and details of why they were convicted, together with other vital statistics.
The project attracted a government grant for educational science and technology, and schools were invited to make bids to help develop the package.
According to Vicky Hayes, information technology co-ordinator at one of the two successful schools, Godmanchester Community Primary, the police gave constant support.
Schools' liaison officer PC Richard Carter, for instance, was filmed and interviewed by some of the children at the original site: "He is so tall at six foot five that they had to stand on a milk crate to get him in shot," she recalls.
Also helping the children with their enquiries, was his colleague, Sue Gilliland, who gave a talk on identifying criminals. Vicky Hayes said: "The children were fascinated, because most of the criminals on the datafile are scarred in some way, have boils, fingers missing, a damaged leg, or are blind in one eye. This triggered off discussion on the working conditions, health and hygiene ofthe time."
The accompanying pupils' worksheets cover data-handling in stages from sorting, searching and graphing to hypothesising and can be used by children of all abilities. A binder contains information about the Victorian prison system, extracts from contemporary documents and historical photographs.
According to Ms Hayes's partner in crime, Sheila Macdonald, deputy head and information technology co-ordinator of Steeple Morden Primary School, "the children suggested how to make the layout and wording of the worksheets easier to understand".
They were particularly interested, she says, "when the police visited to talk about how they use databases nowadays, and in what Victorian society was like for ordinary people, not just ladies in crinolines."
PC David Casey, the former schools liaison officer in Cambridgeshire, says his fellow officers "came away saying what a brilliant project it was. It introduced the real world into the classroom.
He said: "The pupils learnt that the computer gives them a range of options to make a decision on. It's the same for a police officer."
This excellent package is what data-handling is all about. The disc, designed for use with Pinpoint or Junior Pinpoint, databases from the same publisher, contains 378 records of prisoners held in the Huntingdon County Gaol in the 1870s. Fascinating reading it is, too.
Why do so many prisoners have grey eyes? Was the population really much shorter, on average, than it is today or are short criminals easier to catch? If this many people bear the marks of surviving smallpox, how many died from it?
The crimes, items stolen and sentences all tell us much about the lives of working people in this decade. David Haynes (age 13) was sentenced to a month in prison for "throwing stones at a railway train", while Johann Schmidt, born in Rabich, Prussia, got nine months for "fraudulently converting a coat to his own use" and a 28-year-old single servant got 12 months for "concealment of birth".
The CD-Rom has a more comprehensive version of the database, including numerous photographs of the prisoners, along with an archive file for teachers. This has a wealth of pictorial and textual information about all aspects of Victorian prisons, the buildings, staff, inmates and routines.
The teacher's booklet is a most valuable collection of ideas for exploring and exploiting the data in the classroom, including numerous photocopiable worksheets.
Working through this package will enable children to cover a great deal of the data-handling requirements of the national curriculum while fully satisfying the information technology elements of history, within the Victorians theme.
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