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SHP 2018: Second plenary

Putting ordinary people back into the history of the Industrial Revolution, with Hannah Barker, Sarah Alderson and Daisy Horsley.

Hannah has recently written a book called Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution. She encourages us to stick with it through the first two chapters of economic history as ‘it does get juicier’.

Who should history be about? History that focuses on elites, western Europe, men and white people poses a problem. Very few students of colour take History at Russell Group universities, so Hannah thinks it probably does matter if you don’t see yourself in the history you’re studying. It matters for their sense of place and their identity. Hannah has been doing some work on the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank telling the story of the place through the eyes of the children and hopes that it will appeal to people on a personal level.

Ordinary people matter and count – this message, transmitted to students, reinforces the idea that they matter and they count. Hannah’s stories are all about people in trade, who, she says, not many people are interested in, though they constituted 20-40% of the 10th century urban population. She’s interested in people who are ordinary, with humble, ordinary dreams and desires. Finding a nice wife, having one’s own shop – those were their goals. This is less popular with historians, who have a penchant for the hero of the story.

Why are they important? Recently scholarship into the drivers of the Industrial Revolution, e.g. Maxine Berg, suggests that we don’t fully understand them. There’s a lot of focus on technology and factories, rather than shops and small businesses. The latter drove the economic growth and so looking at the people who run them is important. Hannah talks us through some of the evidence she’s been using – dusty papers and wills in archives populated by Feargal Sharkey, and lots of shoe leather used up going to see buildings. She says it is surprising how small the original buildings were, though many people lived there, usually not related to each other – your family, your employees and your business, all under one roof.

Sarah speaks next, talking about how she moved Hannah’s work into her teaching. They began with a continuum on social class and then moved into interpretations of the industrial revolution, using the Olympics opening ceremony. Why did Danny Boyle choose to call it ‘Pandemonium’, i.e., the gates of hell? Sarah then gives students excerpts from Engels and a German travel writer who visited the factories and loved them. To engage students with the stories of every day people, they have devised a Happy Families set, based on census materials from Thomas Street in Manchester. They then have to compile their own Thomas Street census, based on the information from the cards. It helps the students to identify with the houses, the families and the jobs that they’re doing. Then, back to the continuum – students have to think about where they’re going to sit on the line, with rich at one end and poor at the other. This helps them to see straight away the significance of the people in the middle; Sarah then presents them with Hannah’s interpretation and asks them to critique it.

Sarah makes the point that she is an average history teacher who was getting a bit stale, but working with Hannah and Daisy reinvigorated her, took her off the treadmill of target-driven teaching, and reminded her what history teaching is all about. Doing this one project has opened the door to lots of other collaborations. She strongly encourages us all to go back to our schools and repeat her project, so that we have a fresh batch of evidence-based case studies based on recent scholarship to share with our students.

Daisy finishes the session with ‘the graveyard shift of the graveyard shift’, offering some information and background to the Heritage Schools scheme. They offer free support to schools and teachers to help them develop local history studies. Why bother with local history? It gives students a bit more local pride, and helps them to feel important and valued – some day in the future, their diaries and other artefacts might be important. It also provides a great opportunity for linking with local history societies and academics. Daisy appeals to us to help with Enriching the List, which will enable your students to participate in a live, ongoing, heritage project.

The Thomas Street pack is on our website and can be accessed by clicking here.