Rebel with a cause

26th September 2003 at 01:00
A Devon museum re-creates Victorian factory conditions and gives pupils an opportunity to role-play in the struggle for workers' rights. Christine Zaba reports

Coldharbour Mill. Uffculme, Nr. Cullompton, Devon EX15 3EE. Tel: 01884 840960. Email: info@

"Can she work? Can she clean, and sweep, and tidy?" Mr Robson looks down sternly at young Abigail Locke, demure and tiny in her white mob-cap and long white pinafore. The sun beats down on the cobbled yard by the old factory building. The children stand silent in rows.

"I have to say I don't approve of education," he blusters. "Too much coddling, too much idling. Well, your schooling days is finished now." He glares. "I started work at the age of 4 and it didn't harm me." He rounds on the boys. "I can see a boy stood there, with his hands in his pockets! A shilling off his wages, Annie Armstrong." He motions to a stooped mill worker standing meekly beside him. You could hear a pin drop.

Bernard Coulter is working hard this morning in his role as Henry Robson, foreman in Fox's woollen mill, 150 years ago. Built in 1799, the mill worked on until 1981, and was salvaged and restored as a museum. Bernard Coulter, as Henry, carries a bowler hat and wears a tightly buttoned serge suit. These Year 3 children have been studying the Victorians. To prepare for today, they've had to put themselves into character, writing letters of application for work here, and arriving on the day dressed for the part.

There's a fine array of ragged trousers, neckerchiefs, flat caps and shawls. But Robson isn't impressed. "A raggedy boy. I ain't interested in raggedy boys," he splutters. "If they come to work dirty I take ninepence off their wages."

But in this play - and Bernard, a professional role-player and experienced teacher, has made sure beforehand that the children know it's a play - all is not what it seems. As the tour progresses around the hot, dingy halls and huge, oily, clattering, machinery for spinning, carding and weaving, a plot begins to unfold. Annie Armstrong is secretly planning sedition, even unionisation. She gets the children on her side. By the end of the tour, they're rebelling against the cruelty and unfairness of the system. The moment when they rally round the oppressed Annie and turn on the wicked foreman is one of high drama.

"We're trying to get them to the point where they refuse to sign away their rights," explains Bernard afterwards. "If the school has done the preparation properly, that's what usually happens."

Lunch break is followed by a more sober, factual tour of the factory, guided by Sandra Phillips, who explains each machine, turns it on to show how it works, and gives the children samples of yarn they've seen being made.

It's an entrancing journey into the past, in this small Victorian mill deep in the rolling Devon hills. "The Victorians are just one of the workshops we do, but it's a very popular one," says education officer Victoria Rogers. There are stepped programmes, devised for national curriculum requirements for key stages 1 to 4 in the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution, Britain since 1930 and the Second World War, the Tudors, art and design, and textiles. Other subjects covered include museum studies and tourism and leisure. A gallery houses art-in-textiles exhibitions, and there are special interest days.

"They were good actors," says Charlie afterwards, munching his picnic by the mill stream. "My favourite bit was when everyone quitted the factory at the end." Turning the clock back isn't easy, but it's enlightening to make the effort.

Factory tour pound;2 + VAT per pupil; drama pound;4 + VAT per pupil. The museum is open all year and can accommodate up to 100 students. For more school trip ideas, see the Going Places supplement in this week's TES

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