A study of Victorian child prisoners fitted in well with the KS3 study of the nineteenth century Britain. We were keen to get involved as it provided an ideal opportunity for our students to broaden their appreciation of the nature of sources, and to link up with other students. The project also demonstrated how students with a visual impairment can use primary sources independently and work as equals alongside their fully sighted peers.
With materials adapted into Braille and large print, we began in lesson-time by examining the birth, marriage and death certificates of William Towers, as well as the census returns for his family. A mixed ability group was able to access the information, reaching conclusions about the family’s level of wealth at various stages. The fact that the family was forced to ‘take in washing’ towards the end of William’s life encouraged the students to discuss options for the poor and the nature of the workhouse.
Inconsistencies between the census returns led to a debate that illustrated some of the problems of the nature of evidence. One able student was confused until we did a role-play where she valiantly played the role of the census enumerator. She had to try to get information from William and his wife while their young children were demanding attention (roles enormously enjoyed by other members of the group)!
We then took the students to The National Archives where they worked in groups with some of our Sixth Form. They looked at the sources and used the Oscar Wilde letter to do some initial ‘hot-seating’ exercises. The students played William and the magistrates — and our Drama teacher played the victim, allowing an additional perspective to emerge. The time in The National Archives provided an invaluable insight into the nature of Government record keeping. We were able to tour storage areas and then handle items such as royal seals, tally sticks and a captain’s log from a slave ship. This brought History very much to life.
On our return, the Drama Department took over the development of the project. I continued to provide additional factual detail and prepared a few History and Theatre Studies A’ level students to play the role of the magistrates.
Prisoner 4099 had many elements to it, and many aspects of preparation. As the Drama teacher I was responsible for working with our Year 9 students to prepare them to work in role. This was done on a very fun and informal basis in the classroom.
Having researched the life and death of William Towers at The National Archives we began with facts about his life. However, we soon engaged our imaginations and started to create snapshots of William’s life in order to give depth to his life and the people in his life. We began with William’s experiences in prison and created a sound collage using Oscar Wilde’s famous letter detailing the hardships for young offenders.
Working back in William’s life we developed a photo album showing key points in his life that explored his personality and his relationships with family members. With this background completed, students were hot-seated in role to consolidate their characters. Although Year 9 knew roughly what questions the journalists were going to ask them, they didn’t prepare strict answers preferring to work in a rehearsed improvisation way on the day. How did it all go? You can hear the results for yourselves!
History lessons never really excited me and I’d not even heard of The National Archives before. That was until I was given the opportunity to take part in a Victorian court room radio play about William Towers, a small Victorian boy convicted for the crime of stealing rabbits. It really got me interested as it sounded like it could bring a part of history to life.
To get into character we went on research visits. The first was at the ‘Galleries of Justice’, where we got to experience a courtroom and prison in prisoner’s shoes. The second was the trip to ‘The National Archives’ in London where they gave us the chance to feel hidden treasures and research William himself.
Finally the day arrived, we met with other cast members from the RNIB New College Worcester and prepared our parts, I was a journalist and I interviewed William and his family. We recorded the play and told the story for all other children who will visit the National Archives’ Learning Curve website.