“Who lived in a house like this?”
...David, its over to you.
I love local history. There I said it. I say this to teaching colleagues and they look at me askance like I've just said I was into collecting oddly shaped rocks. (Unless they're a geography teacher, they usually get it.) It may get me some funny looks in the staff room but I think finding out about the place in which you live and work is fascinating and offers an intriguing insight into how the community came to be what it is. Once again Local History is back on our television screens. BBC has been showing David Olusoga’s ‘A House Through Time’ which traces the history of one house in Liverpool and it’s surrounding area from when it was built to present day. When I turned on the tv I was reminded of the local history lessons I taught a few years ago and wrote an article on. I taught in a north London comprehensive school for many years and every year we would teach the Year 7 students about the history of the area. It is an ethnically and socially diverse community and often the students we were teaching had only recently moved to the area or even the country. Learning about the area helped these kids in particular to find their place and realise that it had always been a pretty transient population. Wood Green had been a hamlet for hundreds of years and was mentioned in the Domesday book. It had a couple of farms and a pub. Farmers would drive their cattle through the village on the way to market in London. Nothing much changed there until the 19th century and the coming of the railways. It became an attractive place for white collar workers to live and commute in to city. By the early 20th century the farms had gone and had been replaced with rows and rows of terraced housing. During the war, the town suffered some bomb damage and now the terraced avenues are flecked with small 1960s blocks as replacement. In the 1980s a massive complex was built and it became a hub for north Londoners out to do their shopping on a Saturday. Wood Green has a great selection of housing stock to look at and study. Having developed in the 19th century from a hamlet to a town, the buildings ranged from 18th century wooden houses to20th century post war flats. The road we selected for our study was a street that represented this change over time. It was two minutes away from our school gates so we could walk there with a trail of students and it had houses dating back to the 1850s right up to the 1980s. The class was split into groups of 4 and each group was allocated a house. The aim was to find out all they could about its past residents and how things had changed for the occupants over time.
The students LOVED it! We provided some scaffolding and the historical materials and they were away. Using the original censuses they discovered the names and occupations of their residents, with photographs they imagined what the people may have looked like. When visiting the street the children compared architecture and style of the buildings. In the classroom they used map layering to see how the area changed through the period and they were able to make judgements on whether they thought these changes were a good or bad thing. Over several lessons the groups built up a picture of who lived there. When the groups learned to decipher the copperplate writing on the oldest census reports they felt like explorers decoding a new language. The sense of achievement in the class was palpable.
In the end, each group produced a house of sugar paper filled with their findings. We put them all together on the wall to build our own street and everyone gave verbal feedback on their displays. One of the most interesting things the students did was to use their imaginations to decide how happy their house would have been at different points in its history. This was designed to get them thinking about the bigger picture of changes over time and the impact the may have had. The children really put a lot of thought into this, evaluating how a house might feel to be empty or full or to have competition for entertainment outside the home for example. Their ideas were explained on a living graph and threw up some fascinating insights.
They had learned so much and been so engaged in the whole process. Importantly they learned in a practical way that history is not the complete task, rather it’s a recreation of it from the remnants of what we have left. The children realised that they could never know everything about their house and it’s previous tenants but by making reasoned inferences based on the evidence they could produce an idea that would stand up to scrutiny. How to do it: 1. Make friends with your local history archivist. They are usually found at your local library or, if you have one, the local history museum. In my experience these people are only too happy to help. Our local museum archivist helped me to gather the maps, photos and census materials and then rooted around for anything else she thought I could use including telephone directories, advertising pamphlets and posters! She was invaluable and pleased that local children were learning about their past. 2. Gather as many resources as you can lay your hands on. You’ll be surprised how they can come in useful. Also generic history books to help your students put their house in a wider context. 3. Use Google Maps to scope out the potential streets in your area before you start. The street view function is great for seeing what the area lookalike on the ground. Google Maps is also a fabulous tool if you are unable to physically take your class out to the street. I used it as an introduction before our visit to familiarise the children with the place and task at hand. 4. You might consider signing up to an online ancestry website. I did this primarily to save me more trips to the archive but it was also great for easy cross referencing and transcribed versions of original documents. I was able to see where the residents had gone to with the click of a button. I used Find My Past and the site was easy to navigate and had all the information I needed at the touch of a button. If you would like an in-depth explanation of how the lessons were structured and our findings you can read the full article here in Teaching History magazine. I hope you decide to investigate the history on your doorstep and if you do, please let me know how you get on!