“Seedy At times, grim in places, but colourful and tinted with the hues of history” – this was cricket commentator and author John Arlott’s comment on the city of Portsmouth in 1969. A marked improvement on a visitor’s opinion more than 200 years previously. On a visit in 1729, Steven Martin Leake described Portsmouth Point as Gomorrah, pairing it with the notorious Gallows Point in Jamaica, which had a reputation for being like Sodom.
When you stick around a little longer, you find that Portsmouth is a fascinating city, with a rich and diverse past that has played a pivotal part in the nation’s history. Did you know that all of Portsmouth was excommunicated in 1449? Or that the Danes devastated Portsea Island in 979? Few who live here do.
But then few people know much about where they live. Local history tends to be looked down upon or not given the attention it so richly deserves. Put the word local in the title of something and it immediately appears irrelevant, parochial and obscure. Local news is second to the national headlines and local celebrities are never as glamourous as their national counterparts. Yet, local history shouldn’t be seen this way.
Fostering an understanding of the locality in which pupils live and study, I feel, is integral to their identity as both locals and national citizens. Pupils should be made aware of the dangers of viewing the past just through the eyes of the powerful, the rich, the literate and aristocracy. Most people in history were not kings, queens, or celebrities and pupils should understand the importance of social history. Local history is the people’s history.
Below are few points on how you can effectively incorporate local history into your teaching.
1 Use local history as a big picture
I created a chronological overview from the Roman to the Victorian period focused on the enquiry question, “When was it best to live in Portsmouth?”
This three-lesson enquiry is used as a start to a scheme of learning to give the big picture of the periods that pupils are about to study. This allows the teacher and pupils to refer back to the local study throughout the course to add deeper understanding and substantive knowledge.
One example of this is when pupils learn about the power of the church in medieval England, as we also reassess the significance of Portsmouth being excommunicated in 1449.
My enquiry not only incorporates chronological understanding but also key skills, such as how to use evidence and justify statements, how to get a class to work collaboratively and effectively (team work, communication, etc). Access the resources at bit.ly/thinkinghistory
2 Collaborate to make things easier
Any big-picture overview study, as outlined above, will require considerable time to both research and plan if you don’t tap into the local resources available to you.
For starters, take advantage of county-wide CPD courses that could give you the inspiration to create a local history study. I attended the Hampshire History Challenge Group. These sessions are intended to challenge teachers in their second and third years of teaching to create engaging, original and outstanding lessons. Sharing resources and research with other schools through these groups could relieve some of the time you need to dedicate to researching your local history.
I have also been working with the University of Portsmouth to use some of their research in a two-lesson study on crime and punishment in Portsmouth in the nineteenth century.
Finally, don’t underestimate the value of local historians as a resource – most are very happy to give their time.
3 Demonstrate that local history can challenge textbook narratives
One frustration of teaching history is the sweeping national narratives often given in textbooks. If you read most accounts of the Reformation in textbooks, for example, pupils can easily fall into the trap of thinking that everyone in England was Catholic under one monarch and then Protestant the following year because the monarch had changed. Local history rarely follows a convenient narrative.
An outstanding lesson shared within our local history network is a local investigation into Bramley Parish Church and whether people did as they were told during the Reformation. In 1547, for example, Edward VI instructed all churches to whitewash their walls, yet this didn’t occur until 1551 at Bramley Parish Church. Mary I also ordered that the English Bible should be replaced by a Latin Bible in 1554, yet this wasn’t acted upon until 1557.
Furthermore, my own crime and punishment lesson demonstrates similar challenges to the textbook version of events. Although the 1839 Gaol Act advocated the separation of classes of prisoners and silence, this was impossible in Portsmouth because of its overcrowding. Furthermore, Year 7 pupils analyse the significance of the Battle of Southsea; a four-day riot on Southsea Common that clearly expresses the class system and social inequality in Portsmouth.
Local history is a wonderful tool to deepen understanding and to give pupils a layered, complex view of the past.
4 Seize the opportunity to get your students’ hands on primary documents
GR Elton said that historical research must “arise from the evidence, not from the mind of the enquirer”. The analysis of primary documents is a vital skill to learn in history. Studying local history often involves detailed study of communities and the close reading and analysis of original primary documents.
Documents such as the Domesday Book allow pupils to research their local area and to build a more complex understanding of the past.
For example, pupils discovered that at Rowner in Gosport there were “five hides, four ploughs, two slaves and one acre of meadow”.
In this way, pupils can begin to grapple with what kind of society existed nearly a thousand years ago and deepen their analysis of key themes in their studies.
Dan Kneller is a history teacher at Bay House School and Sixth Form @Kneller88