Time's tables

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Gillian Thomas watches pupils dress up to relive the experience of Victorian school days

"No smiling and only speak when you're spoken to," says the stern-faced teacher. Wearing a prim grey cape and boater, she is about to give class 6L, from South Farnham School in Surrey, a Victorian lesson in the schoolroom at Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

The 10 and 11-year-old boys, who have just donned black caps and waistcoats, obediently line up in silence, hands behind their backs. They do not even titter when the girls from their class appear, dressed in bonnets, smocks and shawls.

Two by two, they are marched in silence from the museum's education centre down a narrow cobbled street, past authentic-looking shops - a grocer, confectioner, chemist, plumber and tinsmith - to the school.

Formerly Stirchley Board School, built in 1881, it was brought to Blists Hill and re-erected brick by brick to help recreate the Victorian era. Most of the buildings - shops, houses, a pub, a bank and various workshops - have been transported there, joining the remains of three blast furnaces, huge brickworks and several mines.

Originally coal, bitumen and tile clay were all mined on this early industrial site, which spreads for about half a mile along a hillside.

During its heyday in the mid 19th-century, 500 people were employed here.

Following an inspection of the children's hands - cleanliness being next to godliness, as the teacher stresses - the hour-long lesson begins with prayers and the singing of "All Things Bright and Beautiful".

The classroom itself, furnished with lines of wooden benches and desks, is light and airy but conspicuously devoid of any child-produced artwork. From the start, the teacher makes it clear that there is to be no talking, everyone must sit up straight and stand when asked a question. Also they have to address her as "Ma'am". No one demurs.

Starting with arithmetic, the children recite their tables in unison without a problem, but then find adding up in "old money" difficult, not helped by having to write everything down on a small squeaky slate with a graphite stick. Throughout, the importance of having neat copperplate handwriting is stressed because "it will get you a better job".

Afterwards, it is obvious that the lesson had not been merely a game for the children but had succeeded in evoking the realities of Victorian schooldays.

"At school we have to put our hands up before answering a question but that's the only thing that was the same," says Daniel Baker.

Left-hander Catherine Walberton found writing particularly hard because the teacher made her use her right hand.

Following the lesson, the children split into groups to explore the rest of the site, led by staff from the nearby Preston Montford Field Studies Centre where they are staying. The museum itself does not organise guided tours. Several "characters", including a doctor and a policeman, are on hand to explain more about the activities that used to be carried out there. And most of the old shops and houses have costumed demonstrators on hand to show their particular building or craft. They also sell old-fashioned sweets, freshly-baked bread and hand-dipped candles.

Blists Hill includes some woodland and a short stretch of canal which leads to the spectacular 305-metre long Hay Inclined Plane which enabled pig-iron to be transported in cradles from the canal to the River Severn.

l Admission: pupils from pound;3.25, adults from pound;5.21, one teacher per eight students free

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