Englishhistory

15th December 2006 at 00:00
Ages 11 to 12

There is a particular activity that my Year 7 boys enjoy while we are studying the dramatised version of Oliver Twist. As part of studying the Victorian context of the play, I have copies of contemporary accounts of the lives and sufferings of climbing boys - chimney sweeps.

Before reading the material, I ask for a volunteer. The boy comes to the front where there is, simply, a chair.

I challenge him to crawl underneath the chair - which he inevitably manages, but with contact with the legs. Another volunteer is called for and challenged to make it through without touching anything, and, if he does, the rest of the class is to make hissing sounds, the relevance of this soon to be made clear. Usually, there is hissing.

I make it clear that the chair was actually a chimney, red hot, and the class volunteers were Victorian climbing boys trying to clean the chimney, but would have needed to grip on to the sides of the chimney in order to climb up it.

Initially, pupils have a slightly romanticised notion of this aspect of child labour. However, when they see the small space, the inevitability of contact and then read the brutal accounts, cheeky cockney Victorian rapscallions seem no longer to have had such a carefree life

Chris Bond teaches English at the Warwick School in Redhill, Surrey

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