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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.

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

Connected Communities Festival: Performing the First World War

A number of sessions at the recent Connected Communities Festival in Cardiff reflected on the nature of community at this time of commemoration and during the First World War.

This session, ‘Performing the First World War’ explored how drama and performance can shed light on lives and legacies of the First World War.

The session focussed on creating new drama from local material and how lost plays can reveal historical experiences. Brenda Winter-Palmer (Queen’s University, Belfast) led an activity around her experience of developing a community play, The Medal in the Drawer. Dr Andrew Maunder (University of Hertfordshire) then considered how ‘lost’ plays of the First World War can explore the war, memory, and identity and give an alternative perspective on the more familiar performances of the war.

You can revisit all the sessions which were live streamed in a YouTube playlist.

Leeds Stories of the Great War

The latest film from the AHRC examines ‘Leeds Stories of the Great War’, a project undertaken by the University of Leeds that has been investigating the experiences of people who were living in Leeds during the First World War.

Leeds as a city was vital to the British war effort. It lost more men than the national average; equally, as a key industrial centre, Leeds factories and industries played an indispensable role in supplying the British troops and civilians during the war. Leeds residents also contributed in other ways: its households took in Belgian refugees; its hospitals cared for thousands of wounded soldiers from Britain (and it’s then Empire).  Today, in the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds, the West Yorkshire Archives (now in Morley), and Leeds Central Library, Leeds houses the most important collections of archival materials on the First World War outside of London.

Leeds Stories of the Great War aimed to bring together community groups with academics to explore all aspects of Leeds life during the war.  One of the ways the project delivered this was to contribute an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ style event in Morley, where members of the public had the chance to bring along photographs, letters and objects relating to the First World War, and have them put into context by academics from the University, and experts from the libraries and museums of Leeds.

For more information on Leeds Stories of the Great War please see the Legacies of War website. ​

Launch of Living Legacies 1914-1928 in Belfast

livinglegaciesThe Living Legacies 1914-1918 World War One Engagement Centre launched this week in Belfast. One of five UK-wide centres funded by the AHRC to connect academic and public histories of the First World War, the centre is a collaboration between Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster and National Museums Northern Ireland.

At the launch event both Vice Chancellors warmly welcomed the initiative and the collaboration, as did the NMNI’s Director Tim Cooke, with Professor Richard Grayson of Goldsmiths, University of London, giving a lecture in which he drew on his own family history to explore aspects of the history of the First World War as it impacted on Ireland.

But it was the excerpt of the play ‘The Medal in the Drawer’ by Brenda Winter-Palmer that took centre stage at the University of Ulster venue on Monday evening. Performed by second-year Creative Arts students at Queen’s University, the play charts the war-journeys of four volunteers who join up to fight with the 36th Ulster Division and the Connaught Rangers. Tensions on the streets of Belfast are never far from the minds of the protagonists as they prepare for war, questioning each other and themselves about their motivations for joining the war effort. At the end of the excerpt we saw, the spirit of death arrives to touch each of them…

It provided both an act of commemoration and an important reminder of the intimate links between the personal and the political, the past and the present, connections which the Centre will itself be exploring as it seeks to bring the academic and the public together over the coming months and years. Click here to read more about the play and the family history behind it in the Belfast Telegraph.

www.livinglegacies1914-1918.ac.uk