Mosaics of life

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Ben Walsh explores online initiatives that offer personal, in-depth looks at key periods in history

WW2 People's War

BBC It's a great time to be interested in history! This is especially true if you are interested in the history of the Second World War. One major reason for this is the BBC's latest history venture, WW2 People's War. It's great stuff. If you imagine the textbook view of the period as the big picture, then think of it again - more like a mosaic. WW2 People's War is an opportunity to get right up close to the mosaic and study its tiles. The best tiles are the ones that you don't expect to be there or which aren't quite in the right place. For example, we have the Jamaican who served on the boats that rescued pilots who were shot down in the English Channel (Allied and enemy) during the Battle of Britain. He tells us of his enthusiasm for the project, which helps us to see the contribution of black people to the war effort. Of course, there are also many other stories of those who were evacuated, survived bombing raids or were captured at Dunkirk and escaped.

This is much more than yet another history site. It is about connecting people as well. Most of the entries record the memories of people during the war, but they have been recorded and placed on the site by library researchers, family members and school students. Research Desks give advice on how to research family connections or more general histories.

One entry which exemplifies the connection theme is the diving teacher who uses a sunken air sea rescue boat for training. She has used the website to appeal for information to assist her students in understanding and appreciating this site. Bringing the past to life is a claim made all too regularly, but with People's War the BBC can probably make it with some justification. As a veterans says: "We need to keep these memories and show what these grey haired old duffers did for their country ..."The Union Makes Us Strong

Trades Union Congress

The Union Makes Us Strong is another mosaic approach that is tremendously personal and powerful. There is a timeline which provides a spine running through the site and which gives an excellent overview of the history of the working classes and the trade union movement from 1815 to the present day. It is very much a working-class history written from the point of view of, and in sympathy with, workers and trade unionists. From any section of the timeline, you can branch out to see more pictures and documents. This is where The Union Makes Us Strong really starts to fire the imagination.

The whole ethos of the project, funded by the New Opportunities Fund, is about allowing people to access the documents, photos, paintings, portraits, memorabilia and other items in the TUC's library.

The same basic structure is used across the site. The TUC Reports section is a vast resource that details the congress's proceedings since 1868. It is not visually arresting, as it is mainly pages of text, but there is a useful search engine, so researchers should be able to find what they are looking for.

The other featured sections are the General Strike, the Match Workers'

Strike and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This latter section allows the user to browse author Robert Tressell's original manuscript, along with an electronic transcript. The General Strike and the Match Strike are likely to be the most engaging resources for students. Each is divided into subsections with a guiding narrative and a powerful collection of sources.

Here, students can get local strike reports from May 1926 or watch the increasing confidence, organisation and dignity of the women working in the match factories as they take on the mighty employers and end up winning the strike and the hearts of the public in the process.


PortCities partnership

PortCities is another project supported by the New Opportunities Fund that is aimed at lifelong learners and is fascinating and full of potential uses for the history teacher. The PortCities label is little more than an umbrella for five websites looking at the history of the ports of Liverpool, London, Bristol, Hartlepool and Southampton, and their surrounding areas.

Each site is based on a huge collection of digitised records from the museums, archives and galleries of each locality. Each has a search engine that allows users to look for resources and a series of guiding themes or stories that pick out key developments in the history of each port.

Liverpool and Bristol, for example, look in some depth at their roles in the slave trade of the 18th century. From the stories and documents we learn of the growth of the trade and its horrors, its links with the tea and sugar trades, and the bitter campaigns fought to abolish slavery. There are also plenty of resources that show the commitment of those who fought to keep the campaign.

There are more cheerful aspects to the sites, however. London's history gives us the opportunity to look at scientific discoveries in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Hartlepool site is currently developing a theme on the people of the port, which will include what they did for fun as well as their work and life.

For the history teacher looking for a local dimension in their courses, these sites are going to be a gift if they live locally. They can still be of use as case studies or perhaps comparative studies with one's own locality. With lottery-funded materials like this online, we history teachers know we are winning in a little way when we buy our ticket, even if we don't win the big one!

Ben Walsh is a teacher and member of the Historical Association secondary education committee

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