History books are often full of the lives of king and queens, famous leaders and thinkers. What about ordinary people? These people are also our ancestors or distant relatives in the past. They lived through the times in history that we now read about. Can we find out about their lives? With a bit of work, the answer to this question is yes!
Every time somebody is born in the UK, a record called a birth certificate is made. It contains facts such as the baby’s name, where and when they were born, the name of their parents, and what the parents do for a job. We all have a birth certificate if we were born in the UK.
Marriages and deaths are also written down in the same way. Making these records is called civil registration. It began in England and Wales in 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne. There should be a record of everyone who lived after this date.
The Victorians used another set of records called the census to collect information. The first census records began in 1801 as a simple count of the number of people who lived in each house throughout the country. This was done every ten years. We still carry out the census today.
From 1841 onwards, the name of every person was written down. After 1851, other facts were added such as the age of each person, their relationships within the family (wife, son, daughter), occupation (job) and place of birth. These facts can tell us quite a bit about the Victorian family.
Complete the following tasks to build up a picture of the family history of William Robert Towers, a young Victorian boy.
Using family history sources like a birth certificate or a census return we can draw a family tree to show William Towers’ family. A family tree is a simple diagram that allows you to show how people are related to one another.
Our story is about William, so we place him at the centre of the tree. His date of birth can be added by using his birth certificate.
We also know the names of William’s parents. They can be added to the tree above William, joined to him by a line to show he is their son.
We know that William Robert Towers and Mercy Gridley married. We can use either ‘=’ or ‘m’ to show this.
We can also add William’s sister and brothers to the tree. Usually, older children are placed on the left, with the youngest on the right.
We could go on adding the names of William’s wife and children and other relatives to this family tree.
- With the help of your family, can you draw your own family tree? Use this tree as an example – you might need a large piece of paper if you have a big family. Have you got any records at home that can help, like we had for William Robert Towers?
- Can you find any photos of the people in your family tree?
- Ask your family if there are stories that they remember about their parents and grandparents. Imagine what it must have been like to be a child when they were growing up. You might want to write down some of these stories. Perhaps you can be the historian for your family!
This lesson features family history documents from the Victorian period. The originals, with the exception of his birth certificate, are held at The National Archives.
The intent is that children will gain a sense of how sources can be used to find out things about the past. The tasks are designed to progress in difficulty as more sources are introduced, so that pupils will gain confidence in drawing their own conclusions from the evidence. Children can also develop their understanding of the concepts of change and continuity by discovering something about the childhood of a poor Victorian boy. Mapping the family history of a particular Victorian child can be used to develop chronological awareness.
Family history activity
The family history activity is one that children can complete with their parents and carers. It can be done independently of the questions and tasks in the first section of the snapshot. Hopefully, children will be encouraged to gain a sense of where they come from and how this links to where they are today. They can see how things have changed or remained the same. Good luck with tracing your family history and developing your child’s sense of history! Teachers could use this activity as homework or as a project-based exercise to compliment the tasks.
Pupils could be organised into groups to work on different sources and report back their findings to the rest of class:
- Write a biography of William or draw his family tree
- Construct a short drama about the imprisonment of William, or role-play an interview with him about his family life
- Create a timeline of the Victorian period, including the dates of William and his family
- Use the census material in source 5 to look at other families listed there in terms of their size, occupations, housing and so on
- Use the sources as a stimulus for creative writing
To trace the history of William Robert Towers, we have used his birth certificate, plus census returns for 1871, 1881 and 1901. Also included are the charge papers for William’s spell in prison after stealing two pet rabbits. The questions encourage pupils to investigate the sources and try and build up a picture of his life. All sources have simplified transcripts to help pupils to understand the complex language of official documents. Square brackets indicate words that were not in the original document.
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