Hard labour

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Tony Robinson's new book chronicles the worst children's jobs in history.

Becky Hewlitt reports

The rebranding of history as an exciting and interesting topic for younger children continues apace with The Worst Children's Jobs in History, an entertaining and informative book from Time Team's Tony Robinson. It's a thematic journey through the terrible jobs that children have suffered across the ages and with an impressive mix of humorous cartoons, grim original sources and engrossing text, Robinson has written a book that will amuse and inspire even the most reluctant of historians. He has written numerous children's books including Kings and Queens, Archaeology is Rubbish - a beginner's guide and In Search of British Heroes, as well as making many historical documentaries for Channel 4 over the past three years dealing with such subjects as the Peasants Revolt, the Roman Emperors and the Holy Grail.

Many history teachers are thankful to Robinson for providing good quality historical programmes that the whole family can watch and enjoy together.

"I have been asked if we'd ever do a children's Time Team," he explained during a break from filming, "but I don't see the point. Children don't live in an exclusively 11-year-old's world. They can access Time Team on different levels - five-year-olds like to see us digging in the mud, eight-year-olds like the treasure hunt aspect and parents understand the narrative. The attraction to everyone is the fact that the programme comes in layers."

This inherent differentiation is also apparent within the new book. As Robinson says: "All the best stories have different levels to them from Rowling to the Brothers Grimm. All pupils can access this book - from those who like reading the stories to those who'll just have a laugh at the pictures of wee and poo." The book covers jobs throughout time and range from pin making to gong farming - gong being the medieval term for sewage.

The most impressive aspect of this book is the way that the funny cartoons don't jar with the horrific fact that these children went through great suffering to help support their desperately poor families. This is mainly due to the tone of the writing, which strikes the balance between flippant and maudlin.

There is also a good selection of original primary material which would form useful extension tasks for the talented historian. Boys would be engaged by the "Dungeons Dragons" style boxes which give ratings for each job based on such indices as filth, boredom, hard slog and cash while the more literary of pupils would enjoy the stories and anecdotes that are dotted throughout the text. For example, were you aware that Captain Cook only went to sea after being bored stupid by selling cheese and ham at a grocer's shop in Whitby? Or that wool is best woven after a good soaking in week-old urine?

My Year 7 class enjoyed a lesson where we divided into groups and each team was given the facts about a different job. They then had to argue the case for their job being the "worst children's job in history" and also try to pick holes in the other team's case. For example, while the farm boys complained of picking turnips in freezing temperatures, the mill workers said they would enjoy the fresh air and when the mud larks grumbled about searching stinking sewage on the riverbanks, the gong scourers laughed at their worries as they recounted hours spent scraping underground sewers.

The team which eventually won with a unanimous verdict and a class-wide vote of sympathy were the trappers. These were the unfortunate boys and girls who sat in darkness and solitude down the mines opening and closing the ventilation doors. When I explained the lesson to him Tony Robinson agreed with their decision, "The trapper must have been the saddest, loneliest kid in history. This sort of debating activity is exactly why I wrote the book, I want children to make subjective judgments and be consistently challenged."

Indeed, Robinson believes that making children examine their own place in history is the most important aspect of his work. "I'd ban the use of the word 'history' to label what we do. Thinking about issues such as child labour gives children some sense of the concept of why we are who we are and what has shaped and moulded us."

* The Worst Children's Jobs in History by Tony Robinson (Macmillan Pounds 12.99) Becky Hewlitt teaches history in the West Midlands

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