Hard times

11th November 2005 at 00:00
An online archive exploring the lives of Victorian criminals also offers pupils the chance to write prize-winning stories. Valerie Hall reports

As Dickens showed in Oliver Twist, picking a pocket or two was one of the few survival options available to poverty-stricken young people in Victorian times. Now, primary pupils can find out about the squalid world of the real Artful Dodgers of the time - and much more - through the Victorian Voices project, which includes online archive material and a short story competition.

Among the 65 archive sources provided by the Archive Awareness Campaign as inspiration for short stories is the criminal record of Edith Rose, who was convicted of stealing necklaces, boots and blouses and served several terms of hard labour. In her mugshot (below), the jaunty angle of her hat accentuates her defiant expression.

Other records include images of fellow child criminals convicted for petty crimes such as stealing bread, records of school meals and timetables in 19th-century schools, a letter detailing a suspected chloroform overdose, a girl's diary, and a list of paupers chosen for emigration to Canada.

The archive material is complemented by an online resource pack comprising around 100 documents and lesson plans covering work, school, religion, family and leisure, illness and death, crime, punishment and law, and overseas conflicts, such as the Crimean and Boer wars.

The pack reveals the vast chasm between rich and poor, which existed despite Britain's then status as the wealthiest nation in the world and the fact that much of the globe was coloured British Empire pink.

It also describes the great social, scientific and economic changes that took place and people's mass migration from the countryside to towns to work in the factories constructed during the Industrial Revolution.

However, as children will discover first-hand, for those who could not work, the workhouse or a life of crime were the only options. Those captured by the newly introduced police force were imprisoned, flogged, sent to penal colonies abroad or even sentenced to death.

For the competition, children in Years 3-4 and 5-6 (primary 4-5 and 6-7 in Scotland) are required to write up to 600 words by December 21. The judging panel includes children's author Ad le Geras and historian Tristram Hunt. Prizes include books and Adobe software for the school, Usborne books for the children and the chance to work with a design expert creating a cover for their story. Entries to: Lucy Fulton, Archive Awareness Campaign, co The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU.

* www.victorianvoices.com


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