Gripped by survivors' stories
As Neville Chamberlain delivered the news that Britain was at war with Germany, a group of 30 London schoolchildren stopped playing hopscotch and, awestruck, listened to the wireless. As the first air-raid siren sounded Ted, the tin-hatted air-raid warden, rounded them up for the shelter.
This wasn't September 1939 but November 2003 at the Reminiscence Centre in Blackheath, south-east London. The exercise was part of a workshop run by the charity Age Exchange where elderly people pass on their memories of various events which schoolchildren then act out. This one was called The Blitz Experience and was one of 200 such "reminiscence theatre" sessions run by the charity since l998, covering the Holocaust, black history, the changing role of women, the Second World War and schooldays. Primary and secondary children take part, and this time the children were 10 and 11-year-olds in Year 6 from James Wolf Primary School in nearby Greenwich.
Age Exchange's theatre director David Savill says: "Almost everything children experience these days is virtual, via the internet and television.
These workshops create an opportunity for them to come face to face with people who have been through the Blitz, for example, and they learn from their experiences in an informal way." Ted, Lil, Joan and Kitty, all in their 70s and 80s, explained what rationing was like, and when they conveyed their delight to be given an orange as a wartime Christmas present there were gasps of disbelief. The class was rapt when they heard that l940s children sometimes had no inside lavatories, that boys wore shorts even in winter, that they left school at aged 14 to work 48 hours a week in factories, and that no one locked their doors.
James Wolf teacher Mike Taylor says: "We'd been doing Britain since the 1930s and this was the best way to convey what it was like during the Blitz in 1940-41."
Workshop leader Simon Geal got the class to close their eyes as he talked them through being evacuated and travelling for nine hours on a train to a remote village. The children then "became" evacuees being met in a strange place by their new 'families'. The elders explained how alienated they felt in the countryside; they had never seen windmills, and many hadn't seen cows as they had never been out of London.
Simon Geal says: "The older people seem to have a very calming effect on the children, they exude warmth, and children love characters like Ted, who is a bit of an old rascal. Children of this age don't have extended families any more, so they miss out on real experiences with people of 70 upwards."
Kitty became upset when she told how she had been separated from her brother Arthur during their evacuation to Devon, and described how he used to climb through the window of the house where she and her sister lived to snuggle up with them at night. The children's faces were full of concern when she explained how they didn't have enough food and how much they missed their mum and London. When the children returned to school, Kitty's story was the one they repeated more than any other, according to Mike Taylor.
Age Exchange say that in classrooms children learn their subject, but in theatre with real living testimonials, they feel it.
The charity gets letters from children explaining how learning from elderly people has changed them and made them more thoughtful and appreciative.
Some have become "recyclers" after hearing about the "make do or mend" mentality fostered by the war.
David Savill says: "Lil often tells children her generation are natural recyclers, because this attitude was born out of necessity. Everything was worn until it wore out, old food turned into something else, a stew or whatever. Children learn waste was not tolerated, and that affects their regard for what they now have."
The most valuable part of the two-hour workshop, says Mike Taylor, was when the class broke up into small groups at the end of the session and chatted with the elderly people while trying on gas masks and tin helmets and looking at ration books.
"Questions came flying fast and furious then," says Mike Taylor. "I think they felt more easily able to talk in these small groups, and that was what they all said they enjoyed the most afterwards, quoting various things Kitty, Ted, Lil and Joan had said. They absolutely loved it, and that means it really sunk in."
The Reminiscence Centre is the headquarters of the Age Exchange theatre. It houses a museum of everyday life in the first half of the 19th century and mounts a programme of interactive exhibitions. A range of history and citizenship activities and resources are also available.
The Reminiscence Centre
11 Blackheath Village
London SE3 9LA
Tel: 020 8318 9105