The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

Teaching the Victorians

Key Stage 1

As we have already discovered in relation to other periods of history, stories are the best way into the past for very young children. Even before they come to school boys and girls may have encountered the Victorians in the form of fairy tales or nursery rhymes. Tops hats and tail coats, fancy bonnets and crinolines will all be part of their visual vocabulary long before they are aware of which time in the past these things belong to. They will understand, almost without being told, that people who wear these clothes don't have mobile 'phones or cars or television. At this early stage all you want is for children to notice the differences so try writing your own short stories set in Victorian times. Drawing pictures of characters from the story and labelling them will help children to respond to the story and tell you how much of significance they've noticed.

The next stage is to make use of some genuine Victorian stories. Dickens is the obvious source: the original text is far too difficult but the start of the film version of Oliver with its evocation of early Victorian London can quickly establishes the look of the period and the gap which existed between the rich and poor. All the time we are waiting for Oliver to be rescued we are taking in the filth and squalor of his surroundings and the contrast between the slums down by the river and the elegant squares 'up west'.

Once we have an idea of where we are in the past we can make links - through family trees, buildings (maybe the school building itself), objects and photographs. The local church may have a graveyard with names that are still to be found in the locality; 'then and now' shots of the same location help to establish the fact of change if not its nature. Finally, work can be done on those aspects of Victorian life which most closely accord with the childrens' own experience - school, home, transport and health. In each case a study of the past has to be preceded by an understanding of the present so the children know what questions to ask.

The National Curriculum suggests that children study the lives of famous people at Key Stage 1 and schools often choose Florence Nightingale or Mary Seacole from the Victorian period. You can use the BBC Watch Magic Grandad series to introduce the Lady with the Lamp (episode 2). It does not pull any punches where the nature of her work is concerned and may raise many difficult questions - for example, why were the soldiers fighting in the Crimea in the first place?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel offers a more straightforward alternative though it may be difficult for young children to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement. Why not approach it instead through a fictional family working on the railway as the well known How We Used to Live series does (Iron Ways to Victorian Days - Yorkshire TV). What you are aiming for is children who can write their own story in a Victorian historical setting, being as true to period and as detailed as their ability and enthusiasm allow.

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Key Stage 2

Key stage 2 children generally cover the Victorians in Year 5 or 6. By this age it is possible to do some quite detailed and original research. Nevertheless the topic has to start with an appreciation of the changes in people's lives which took place as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

One way to do this is by a series of OHP overlays which show the changes to their own locality over the last two hundred years. If these do not exist you will have to create them, using large scale O/S maps which your local library or museum should possess. Typically, the overlays will show the gradual extending of the built-up area over greenfields, the appearance of factories or shipyards, the building of railways and roads and probably the redevelopment of the town centre with banks and other grand buildings taking the place of older, more modest dwellings. Amidst all this change some features will remain: the ruins of a castle for example or an old church. But new churches will also appear and schools, as well as houses for richer people and hotels for tourists if the locality is by the sea.

At this point the children could easily divide into research groups taking one aspect of the changes which they have seen as their special study. The BBC Landmarks series Investigating Local History shows how this can be done in relation to the Victorians and much can be done through the internet if fieldwork is not practicable.

So far the work has been relatively straightforward - observational and deductive, with description and analysis as the result, and a display the most likely outcome - but what about the politics, the issues that divided Victorian society and helped to create the modern Welfare State? Once again the best way to approach this is through stories, but this time the heroes and heroines can be real people - Elizabeth Fry, Lord Shaftesbury and Dr Barnardo are examples. All are individuals struggling against an establishment that seemed blind to suffering, yet all succeeded in the end because the majority of Victorians were decent and honourable - a point which needs to be made if children are not to learn a 'black and white' version of history which explains nothing. Much better to emphasise the old saying that 'the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,' and show how fear and ignorance were usually to blame rather than wickedness. Charles Trevelyan was behaving like a responsible public servant when he opposed the sending of relief to Ireland: to him it meant propping up an unworkable system. What he could not know was the century of bitterness and blame that would follow his apparent heartlessness. This has cost much, much more than was saved at the time.

Nor did the 'do-gooders' of Victorian Britain always earn the thanks of those they were trying to help. The extracts from Mayhew provide a unique insight into the mentality of the poor who preferred to survive by their own efforts even if these took them outside the law. Factories, workhouses, schools and prisons - all seem to bear the imprint of the Victorian 'system'. How was it that ordinary people put up with so much harsh discipline? The answer may be that there was no choice: survival dictated obedience and there were always those blessed moments of leisure - all the more precious because they were few. There is another Victorian Britain - the Victorian Britain of the music hall, the punch-and-judy show, the 'street-patterer' and the 'Chinese Shades'. These show a capacity of enjoyment which might lead us to question whether today's pleasures are so pleasurable. And of course there was the development of sport, itself a by-product of the Victorian obsession with the world of medieval chivalry and of Greece and Rome.

All of these aspects of daily life ultimately centred on the home. Channel 4's 1900 House was the best of its kind, mainly because the Bowler family entered so whole-heartedly into the spirit of the project. What did it teach? That living before the age of central heating and automatic washing-machines was extremely uncomfortable? That wearing corsets could damage health? I doubt whether these are valuable lessons in themselves, as they only reinforce childrens? impression that the people of the past were unlucky not to live in the present. A more valuable way of treating the same subject is to ask what Victorian children would have thought of the modern world. Would they have been dazzled by its marvels or dismayed by its noise and pollution? Although life has improved in all sorts of ways since 1900 the Bowlers found that they were much more united as a family in 1900 than in 1998.

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