Tag Archives: centenary

The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools

Pupils from Blue Coat Junior School give a performance at St Matthew’s Church, Walsall on Remembrance Day 2016

The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools

By Michael Noble, Centre Co-ordinator for the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre for Hidden Histories. More details on these Centres can be found by looking at the AHRC’s website.  

With a remit to engage the public with the topic of the First World War, the Centre for Hidden Histories has made working with schools a key component of our outreach work. We found a receptive audience. Not only does the First World War feature across the National Curriculum, in a range of different subjects, but many schools expressed an interest in engaging with the centenary as a means of giving pupils the opportunity to learn about life a century ago. Several schools sought HLF funding for extended projects on the war and were keen to receive expert support as well as gain access to university resources.

The Centre carried out a range of direct engagement activities with primary and secondary schools, both on campus and in the school classroom. A variety of topics were explored in these sessions, from the multi-national, multi-faith aspects of the war, to the role played by children and teenagers, to the impact of the war on the pupils’ own community, even, in some cases, on their school itself.

MEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY REPAIR LONDON’S BOMB DAMAGED HOUSES. 10 OCTOBER 1944, WESTWAY, SHEPHERD’S BUSH. (A 25880) Assistant Steward W G Collins, of Portsmouth (left) and Able Seaman George Gray, of Northshields rebuilding a parting wall. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205157541© IWM (A 25880)

The work was carried out with partners  including the Widening Participation team at the University of Nottingham and Whitworks Adventures in Theatre, a heritage arts organisation in the East Midlands. These collaborations were invaluable in providing first access to schools. Accessing schools can be a challenge – they have so many demands on their time that it can be difficult to find the space to fit in, so working alongside existing schemes and relationships offered a huge advantage.

Pupils from Stonelow Junior School are shown how to digitise physical objects at the University of Nottingham. Photo courtesy of Larissa Allwork. Photo courtesy of Larissa Allwork.

The sessions were grounded in the use of primary sources. We wanted to give the children the opportunity to experience the ‘raw material’ of history and to learn how to critically assess evidence and place it in context. We used census returns, photographs, letters, official documents and physical artefacts to open a window onto the world of the early twentieth century. Where possible, biographical narratives of real figures, both well-known and obscure, were used to put a human face on history.

We found that striking some note of familiarity, such as a closeness in place or through another connective link such as a football team, was a good place to start. Several of the schools had catchment areas that include Victorian terraced housing and the pupils were able to understand the war though tracing familiar streets in census returns and on maps. Pupils were often startled to realise that their own homes had ‘lives’ that preceded their own.

Pupils from Grassmoor Junior School give an emotional performance of the experiences of Mr George Rushton, who left his teaching job at the school to fight in the war. Photo Courtesy of Larissa Allwork

A handful of striking stories worked especially well. The stories of combatants like John Travers Cornwell, at 16, the war’s youngest VC recipient, or Sidney Lewis, who lied about his age and saw action on the Somme at the age of 13, struck a particular note. At one session in Walsall, the classroom erupted with shock and wonder at the story of Henry Tandey who, according to one famous account, declined to shoot the then-twentysomething Corporal Adolf Hitler. This led to a fascinating (and animated!) discussion about chronology, the nature of causality and the classic science fiction trope of ‘time travelling to stop Hitler’. The pupils also stopped to consider the moral position of Tandey, whose single act of mercy was to have a terrible afterlife.

Indeed, we were deeply impressed to find that even quite young pupils were able to engage in serious and considered debates about topics such as capital punishment for desertion (following the story of Peter Goggins, who was shot at dawn in 1917) or the different recognition of men and women. We examined the story of Charlotte Meade, who died from TNT poisoning after working in a London munitions factory. The pupils were asked, ‘did Charlotte give her life for the war effort?’. When they answered with an emphatic ‘yes’, we turned the discussion to the question, ‘so where are her medals?’.

MUNITIONS PRODUCTION ON THE HOME FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 110204) A female munition worker at work in a factory at an undisclosed location. Copyright: © IWM (Q110204). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205352885

One of the things we discovered through working with schools is that youngsters, particularly at primary age, have not fully absorbed the myths and common misunderstandings of the war that are found in older audiences. Few of them had any prior knowledge, but all of them expressed a thorough growing curiosity and desire to learn more.

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Everyday Lives in War launches

There was a strong community focus to the launch event of the Everyday Lives in War centre last week at the University of Hertfordshire. The last – but certainly not the least – of the AHRC-funded World War One Engagement Centres to launch, the event attracted a wide range of community groups to talk about their work and their collaborations, and to find out about how they could get involved in the work of the centre.

Three-minute talks from organisations as diverse as the Herts at War project, the Luton Museum and the University of Reading’s Huntley and Palmer Archive began the day. David Souden from the Historic Palaces spoke about a project to lay red ceramic roses, one for each of the 888,000 British and Colonial soldiers killed in the First World War, in the dry moat around the Tower of London. He and Alastair Massie from the National Army Museum reminded us all of the strong national as well as local links being forged by the Engagement Centres.

A panel session followed, which examined objects and artefacts brought in by members of the public. Fascinating insights followed from members of the panel, such as Alan Wakefield from the Imperial War Museum, Dan Hill from the Herts at War project, Gareth Hughes of the Western Front Association, Mike Roper, Jim Hughes and Rachel Duffett of the Everyday Lives centre, and others. Objects discussed included a Princess Mary box – given to every soldier who fought for the British during the War, including, we heard, soldiers from the Empire – photos, medals and even fragments of a shot-down zeppelin.

Dan Hill from the Herts at War project speaking at the panel session
Dan Hill from the Herts at War project speaking at the panel session

The themes covered by the centre will include food and farming, conscientious objection and military tribunals, supernatural beliefs and theatre and entertainment. To emphasise the last of these themes, those attending were treated to a performance of JM Barrie’s A Well Remembered Voice of 1918.

All in all, the launch was a memorable event with a strong focus on community and public interest in the First World War commemoration, which augurs well for the coming months and years. Good luck Everyday Lives in War

For further information, please go to the AHRC website.

The significance of the centenary

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What does the nature of a centenary commemoration tell us about collective memory and current social attitudes? How have commemorations changed over time? What are the most appropriate ways to handle the remembrance of traumatic or politically sensitive events?

These are just some of the questions explored by ‘The Significance of the Centenary’, an AHRC-funded research network. Find out more in a feature article just published on the AHRC website.

The network is led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the Universities of Cardiff and Sheffield, the National Library of Wales, and Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity looking after sites such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court.