What life was like in the lower tiers

20th October 1995 at 01:00
LANDMARKS: THE VICTORIANS. Age range 9 to 12. Mondays 1.20pm. Teacher's notes Pounds 2.75. Video pack Pounds 36. Victorians Resource Pack Pounds 9.99.

The Victorian Era - software for Acorn and PC, Pounds 29.95 BBC Education 0181 746 1111

The Victorians achieved leaps of technological genius that stand comparison with any period. Yet they accepted poverty and squalor on a scale that still has the power to shock. These are the people who built railway stations and town halls like Renaissance palaces or medieval cathedrals, and yet who fought to retain the practice of using children as cheap labour in mines. How will today's children view them?

Giving an idea of how the Victorians saw themselves is a well-known engraving of the era, reproduced in the resource pack which accompanies this impressive new Landmarks series. This depicts Victorian society as the "British beehive", made up of social layers in which people had their allotted tasks, from the monarch at the top to the sweeps and costermongers at the bottom. The focus of this series is on the lower tiers of the beehive.

The first programme is an absolute joy. It tells the real story of life in the late-Victorian countryside through the eyes of James, an agricultural boy labourer. James narrates the programme himself in an engagingly laconic manner, quickly demolishing the rural idyll we all tend to cherish, impressions often based on sentimental illustrations or collections of old photographs.

No Victorian photographers seem to have been around to capture what it was like for a child to start milking at 5am or to eat his breakfast under the begrudging eye of the farmer's wife.

This was a world completely dependent on the horse, and James is at his happiest in the blacksmith's forge or bedding down in the stable. Neither he nor anyone else realises the future significance of the annual visits of the mechanised traction engine at threshing time.

There is one slip into rather anachronistic pacifism, when James decides he doesn't want to become a soldier and kill people - the most effective deterrent at the time was more likely to be the pay. But I enjoyed his matter-of-fact comment that stones are the farmer's enemy "because it says so in the Bible" - catching the genuine Victorian voice.

The programmes which look at children working in factories and as servants adopt slightly different formats. In presenting the world of the factory, the programme uses a modern narrative voiceover, explaining, for example, how the old money system worked. The dramatic reconstructions work well, beginning with mill girls putting on caps to save their hair from being torn from their scalps by machine belts, and then showing them quailing before the supervisor Mrs Shawcross.

There is particularly good use of open-air museums at Ironbridge and Bradford to illustrate the development of shops and transport in factory towns, but the highlight must be some remarkably clear Victorian film footage of streets choked with hansom cabs and horse-drawn carriages.

After James's unpleasant farmer's wife and Mrs Shawcross, it's a fair bet that the cook will be a tartar, and so she proves. She is rotten to poor Julia, the maidservant who shows us how a medium-sized Victorian middle-class household worked. Julia keeps her good temper, showing us how to use a Victorian lemon squeezer, scrape sugar from a sugar-cone, put clothes through a mangle or paint the grate with blacking.

Of course, girls like Julia knew when they were on to a good thing, as the programme also shows a family living in poverty, with children working for a pittance, making rugs or glueing match boxes. In comparison, the little girl of the house where Julia works has a beautiful china doll.

The resource pack that goes with the series has posters, picture cards and practical suggestions for lessons, and activities which will complement the series. It is written by Jo Lawrie, who has produced some of the best resources available for teaching the Victorians and is well up to her high standards.

There is plenty of background material for briefing teachers unfamiliar with the details of the period, and some very good original material reproduced in photocopiable form, including a page from a Victorian punishment book. The Victorian inspectors seem to have approved, but it might be better not to use when OFSTED is on the premises.

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