History Around Us

Historic Houses and Buildings

From the teacher's point of view there are two main agencies involved in the preservation of the built environment: English Heritage, formerly the Ancient Monuments division of the Ministry of Works, and the National Trust. These bodies have made a substantial investment in education over the last twenty years, appointing full-time education officers and producing a range of books, video-cassettes and resources which are intended for use in the classroom.

There are some differences of approach betwen the two agencies. Whereas English Heritage is a department of state with statutory duties, albeit exercised 'at arm's length' from the government, the National Trust is wholly self-supporting and depends to a great extent upon the work of volunteers. It has to reconcile its wish to encourage schools to visit properties with the need to protect both priceless contents and the atmosphere within which they can be enjoyed fully. Whilst many English Heritage properties are freely accessible and often unsupervised, there are some National Trust properties which are simply unsuitable for school parties.

What then constitutes an ideal house or building for children to visit?

Basics: the property must have safe access, good lavatory facilities, somewhere for children to eat lunch, space to let off steam and ideally a separate workspace or classroom near to the public areas but separated from them. It must be within reasonable distance from the school to avoid ruinous expense and the effects of travel sickness and boredom. It must be teacher-friendly eg allow free preliminary visits.

Curriculum relevance: the property must have a clear relationship to work that forms part of the national curriculum and be largely centered upon the period or theme being studied. It must offer children the chance to experience the period through a degree of 'otherness' from the present. There may be staff 'in role' or the opportunity to dress up; demonstration of long-vanished skills or technologies which explain how life was lived before modern inventions; carriage or locomotive rides which literally transport children into the past. Where children are required to use displays these should be laid out with regard to their needs as an 'audience' eg simple labels and clear graphics at an appropriate height.

What the teacher should do: preparation for the visit needs to include work which will introduce the site and relate it to the work the children are doing. Activities will include timelines; the key features of the period being studied; the kinds of evidence that will be encountered during the visit and the way this evidence is used. Research suggests that children derive much more value from a visit where they are first of all involved in recognising what is already familiar to them. This forms a basis on which they can extend their knowledge and draw their own conclusions. Remember: the aim of the visit is to develop understanding rather than excite or surprise.

Case study: Coldharbour Mill

Illustration: Coldharbour Mill

Coldharbour Mill

Coldharbour Mill is a large textile mill near Uffculme in East Devon. It was closed down by its owners, Fox Brothers, in 1980 and re-opened as a working museum shortly afterwards using labour paid under a government scheme to relieve adult unemployment. Since that time the building itself has been largely restored and new machinery brought in. Children can not only see the way in which spinning and weaving were industrialised during the 19th Century they can also learn about the social conditions created by the factory system and the many hazards faced by those who made Britain the 'workshop of the world.'

Coldharbour offers many advantages for a school visit. It has clear curriculum relevance. It is a total environment, not a 'glass-case' experience and it is school-friendly in that its main purpose is education and it has splendid volunteers willing to do role-play activities with groups.

In order to appreciate what happened during the Industrial Revolution the children must first understand the processes that were industrialised. They need to handle raw wool, pull and twist it in order to experience how a strong thread can be created, and then see someone handspin it using a traditional spinning wheel. If you put about twenty spinning wheels side by side and turn them by means of a single rod then you would have a crude version of Samuel Crompton's famous 'mule', an example of which they can see at Coldharbour. At this point ask the children three questions:

  • 1. Where can we get the power from to turn so many wheels at once? Answer: water wheel
  • 2. How can we make more solid and durable machines? Answer: use iron
  • 3. How can we bring the two together? Answer: build a factory

The next stage is to consider the problems that each of these solutions might raise in their turn. Water power needed a river or stream that was fast-flowing enough at all times of the year so steam proved to be a more reliable alternative. Making machines from iron components required better smelting and casting techniques. Factories meant that people would have to leave their homes in the country and come to work where the factories were. Each of these solutions also generated problems: smoke and noise pollution; long hours and dangerous work; the threat of unemployment, overcrowding, disease and crime.

What got the whole process started in the first place? Probably a gradual but increasingly steep rise in population which may have originated with the cessation of the plague in the 17th century. This stimulated the farmers to produce more food so the population went on growing - creating greater demand and the labour to supply it. One way to demonstrate this might be a board game with each player representing a family. The aim of the game would be to survive fifty years and the winner would be the one with the most people alive at the end. Hazards such as poverty, famine, illness, and poor sanitation could be countered by higher wages and opportunities to create wealth, for example by starting a business. To be historically accurate the game should be weighted in the 'success' direction as - despite many setbacks - a lot of families did make it through to prosperity.

Once children have some understanding of the changes represented by Coldharbour and the way these came about they will be much more able to appreciate the authenticity of the experience and much better able to contribute to the role play. They may even be able to 'see' the rats which it will be their duty to 'bash'!

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