Washday clues

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Jessie Anderson on a day of dressing up and gettingdown to work Victorian style with infants. This is great fun. We could do this all day," is a typical comment from youngsters enjoying the Washday Blues session at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. The lesson aims to give key stage 1 pupils hands-on experience of a Victorian wash day.

The girls wear Victorian pinafores, the boys striped aprons while they wash the clothes in metal dolly tubs, grating hard soap into the water, wielding wooden washing punches and poss sticks, scrubbing the clothes on wash boards, wringing them out and, under strict supervision, putting them through a mangle. There is even a carefully hoarded blue bag (virtually unobtainable nowadays) to be dipped hastily in and out of the rinsing water.

Such is the appeal of novelty that the children are all eager to try their small hands at the heavy work of wringing and mangling. "It's more fun than nowadays," they decide. "My mummy only has a washing machine and a dryer, " observes one five-year-old boy, obviously feeling sorry for his deprived parent.

"Getting hands-on like this is something they don't forget. It's particularly valuable for this age group," says Margaret Henderson, deputy head of Longtown Infants School. She had brought her 32-strong class of six to seven-year-olds to Tullie House having already taken them to the museum earlier in the year for an artefact-handling session covering washing, cleaning, lighting and cooking. "It's a wonderful resource and very highly valued by the teachers in the area," she says.

The museum education officer, Sandra Stancliffe, gives the children a brief talk about the processes involved in a Victorian wash day and the uses of the equipment on display are discussed and explained. The children are then divided into groups, either to get to grips with the dolly tubs and poss sticks or to handle, take apart and draw the artefacts, such as flat irons, washboards and crimping and goffering irons set out on tables around the room. Others dress up in replica Victorian clothes. The groups are switched around so that by the end of the two-hour session every child has had a go at everything.

There's tremendous enthusiasm around the dolly tubs, probably because this offers the greatest opportunity for creating a mess. "My mum would have hated doing this," one boy tells me. "Would you have helped?" I ask. "And miss the football?" responds the outraged small male chauvinist. The girls give more serious consideration to the advantages of the modern wash day, and come down heavily in favour of today's technology. Dressing up also has great appeal, particularly for the girls who admire the rather splendid replica Victorian dresses, although the stays take a bit of getting into by today's well-fed youngsters. There are itchy tweed suits for the boys, a sailor suit of which they approve, and a bright pink "dress" of the kind worn by Victorian boys up to the age of five.

Most of the boys find this totally unacceptable, with "too like a girl" the general reaction. But one lad with the courage to stand out from the class says: "Pink's my favourite colour." He insists on keeping the dress on and parading around the room in it. Then, apparently recognising similarities with the kilt (Longtown is right on the Border), he observes: "It would be good for Scottish people."

At the end of a highly successful morning, there is lots of art work to show they have studied the artefacts. "They get fun out of it," says Anne Haworth, the school's history co-ordinator. "And they learn, because it is inter-active. "

As one small girl, emerging from one of the other key stage 1 sessions was heard to exclaim, with a blissful sigh, "That was just too much fun".

A Tullie House education initiative covering the topics of wash day, toys and games, and light , all targeting key stage 1, recently won the Royal Mail North-West Museum Award. The Pounds 2,000 prize money will be spent on "reminiscence work", collecting and collating the memories of elderly residents.

A WashDay Blues session costs 50p per child for schools in the museum's user group; Pounds 1 per child for non-user members. Further information on this and other education initiatives at Tullie House is available from Sandra Stancliffe or Heather Tipler. Tel: 01228-34781

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