Fresh interest raised in dusty old records

14th October 2005 at 01:00
The archive awareness campaign puts a new spin on studying the Victorians. Douglas Blane reports.

When the UK-wide Archive Awareness Campaign was launched last year, the typical participant was a woman in her 50s who was doing research for the first time, enjoying the experience so much that she would definitely come back for more.

This year, the campaign, co-ordinated by the National Council on Archives, aims to appeal to the young too. So this term every UK primary school has been invited to participate in Victorian Voices, a short story competition inspired by a surprising, absorbing and often deeply moving collection of archive material about life in Victorian Britain.

The resource pack materials, posted on a special website, were submitted by a selection of Britain's 2,000 archives, including Scottish ones. They feature a mix of handwritten text, with transcripts where necessary, and black and white photographs of serious Victorians posing self-consciously.

Against a bare, brick wall, four rows of infants at Hitchin school in Hertfordshire stare obediently, unsmilingly at the camera; the lads are in jackets, long trousers and throat-pinching collars, the little girls are wearing clean, white smocks. It is 1890.

In a Highland drawing room at the turn of the century, Mrs Baylies and her mother sit stiffly on either side of the smartly-suited son of the house, overlooked by a painting of a great white hunter. The old lady's black crinoline harks back to an earlier era, but Mrs Baylies, in white blouse, glossy boots and belted long skirt, could easily step into the pages of a modern monthly.

The particulars of a prisoner in Greenock jail in 1872 state that John Logan, sentenced for an unspecified crime, has brown hair, hazel eyes, a fresh complexion and a scar on his right cheek. In the accompanying photograph, the convict looks perplexed but compliant, eyes wide, mouth open, curly hair temporarily tamed for the camera. Logan was 12 at the time.

"Materials have been collected from all over Britain, so teachers and children can use resources relevant to their own area, which they really enjoy. It gives them a feeling of ownership," says Margaret McBride, the education officer at the National Archives of Scotland.

The archive materials are designed to be a lasting resource for schools, says Lucy Fulton, the archive awareness campaign officer for the National Archives, based at Kew, which is organising the competition.

"Hundreds of schools have already expressed an interest. If asked, we will send the resources in hard copy or on CD-Rom."

The resource pack includes advice for using the archives in history, environmental studies, art, information technology or citizenship lessons.

The "handy hints" actually run to 21 detailed pages of learning objectives, differentiated lesson plans and suggestions for further activities.

For the competition - which has two age categories, for P4-P5s and P6-P7s - pupils are asked to write stories of up to 600 words, inspired by any of the texts and photographs gathered under the website's seven topic areas: work, school; religion; family and leisure time; illness, death and disaster; crime, punishment and the law; and beyond Britain.

Pupils will have their own preferences among the eye-opening archives from a time when discipline was strict, punishments were severe, children were routinely exploited and diseases were frequently fatal. The first law against cruelty to children was not passed until 1889. An extract is included in the collection.

But there is a lighter side to the archives, including football matches, games of marbles, holidays, pantomimes, carnivals and visits by Queen Victoria. An 1851 poster invites the citizens of Warrington to St Elphin's Park on May Day for the ancient custom of celebrating, with "demonstrations of festivity", the "joyous and enlivening season of spring".

Most aspects of childhood, these Victorian Voices tell us, have altered beyond recognition, but some are eternal: in 1851 a schoolmaster writes of punishing boys for making too much noise, upsetting the school's neighbours and "forming conspiracies to harass and annoy individual scholars".

"I find the boys are ever ready to enter into any boisterous mischief,"

concludes the perennial schoolteacher.

www.archiveawareness.comwww.victorianvoices.comCompetition closing date is December 21. Schools may submit only one entry in each category.

Prizes include books and software

ARCHIVE RESOURCES

Material on www.victorianvoices.com is gathered under seven headings. Here are some tasters.

Work

At the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, children as young as 5 or 6 worked 12 hours a day in all kinds of jobs.

School

In the first half of the 19th century, few children went to school as their families needed them to work and earn money.

Religion

Victorian values - pride in the home and family bonds - were connected to religion. Christianity was accepted at all levels of society.

Family and leisure time

Poorer children living in cities could not afford toys and so made footballs and cricket balls from old rags and played in the streets.

Illness, death and disaster

Because living and working conditions were so poor, disease and accidents were common.

Crime, punishment and the law

Law and order was very important in Victorian society. As towns and cities grew, so did crime.

Beyond Britain

Despite overseas conflicts, such as the Crimean and Boer wars, Britain built a fantastic empire during the Victorian age.

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