A Victorian disaster

Teaching ideas

Show students the image of the rocking horse. Ask them to examine the image closely before answering the following questions: Is the toy well made? Would it have been an expensive toy? Who would have owned a toy like this? Why do they think its legs are gone? What do the missing legs suggest? Do not explain where the toy comes from straight away, but precede the revelation with some discussion along the lines of the next activity.

Show students the image of the exterior of the Victoria Hall in For the classroom. Explain that it was built as a venue for public social events and give examples. Ask students how these events differ from what we would refer to as public events today. Explain why the Victoria Hall was built as an alternative venue for public events. Ask students to write a list of activities or entertainment events they take part in today and then ask them to write a second list of social activities they think Victorian children would take part in. Compare the two lists. Show the poster for the ill-fated event in For the classroom. Ask students if they think any of the listed activities would appeal to today’s children. Why or why not? Ask them why they think the advert mentions the giving of prizes. What sort of prizes do they think would have been given away? Now explain to students that the toy rocking horse was one of the prizes from the show.

Look at the illustrations from the front page of The Graphic newspaper in For the classroom. Point out the size of the stairwell where the children were crushed to death and explain what caused the tragedy. Ask students to do one of the following: 1) imagine they were one of the survivors and write an account to someone they know about the event; 2) write a diary entry from the point of a parent whose child had survived the accident; 3) imagine what the entertainers, the Fays, felt after the tragedy, and write a diary entry about the event as Mr Fay. Encourage students to imagine what the sights, sounds and smells would have been like inside the hall as the event unfolded.

Use the resources in For the classroom and the web links in About the object to build up students’ understanding of the details of the promotion of the show, the show and the disaster itself. You could allocate pairs or groups of students one or two pieces of evidence each. Ensure they know that there was a caretaker of the Hall (Mr Graham) and that Mr Coates was the agent of the Hall’s proprietor and let the Hall to Mr Fay. Discuss who they think was responsible for the disaster and why. Read the findings of the second inquest in For the classroom. Are the students surprised by any of the findings? What do they think of the view that the parents and teachers were partially responsible for the children’s deaths? Do these verdicts cast any light on the nature of society in that period?

Show students the image of the foundling token from For the classroom and ask them to try and break the code. Who do they think wrote this?

Are there any clues on the object itself as to what it is about? Introduce the Foundling Hospital and go on to consider some reasons why concern for the welfare of women and children became the focus of many reformers and philanthropists from the AD 1700s. This could lead to a comparative study of urban and rural society in the 1700s and the 1800s.

What difference did individual social reformers make to conditions for the working class in Victorian Britain?

Get students to conduct research in small groups into a range of prominent Victorian reformers such as Robert Owen, Richard Oastler, Earl of Shaftesbury, Edward Backhouse, Thomas John Barnardo, Joseph Rowntree, Octavia Hill, Robert Peel, Titus Salt – or a local reformer. Identify the area in which each one worked, what they identified as the needs of the working class and precisely what steps they took to meeting those needs. Investigate what motivated them as individuals by researching into their social backgrounds, political leanings and aspirations. Discuss whether they demonstrate different perceptions of the working classes. How much opposition did they face, from whom and on what basis? Look at what evidence there is for success. How were initial successes followed up?

Was nineteenth-century social reform really about helping the poor and needy?

This enquiry could stand alone or be developed from elements of the preceding one. It starts from the position taken by some left-leaning academics that the underlying purpose of social reform in the nineteenth century both at philanthropic and legislative levels was to create a more productive working class, prevent social revolution and thus secure the position of the upper classes. You might introduce students to this view by looking at examples of working class radicalism starting perhaps with the Peterloo Massacre – see Object file: Peterloo handkerchief – and moving on to the Cato Street Conspiracy and Chartism. Schools could be considered in terms of their strict discipline and demand for conformity and the limited level of education to which they gave access. The actions of reformers could be linked to their beliefs about Christianity and temperance. Encourage students to distinguish between incremental and revolutionary change, and between improvements in the experience of individuals and structural improvements. You might point up differences in interpretations in how you decide students should present their findings.

How were children viewed in the AD 1800s?

Explore the different representations of children in popular art in the nineteenth century. Show the images from A bigger picture and the photo of the Victoria Hall memorial in For the classroom, and ask students to make notes about each image, paying particular attention to the portrayal of the children and the scene in which the image is set. Once students have looked at all the images, ask them to point out any similarities and differences they have spotted, and see if they can account for them. Why are the children in some images portrayed as healthier and happier than in others? What clues do these different representations give us about how children were viewed in Victorian society? How are they intended to make the viewer feel or think? How do representations of children in Victorian times compare with representations of children in today’s media? The class could present the outcomes of their enquiry by creating a series of paired images that contrast views of children both within the nineteenth century and between the nineteenth century and today.

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A Victorian disaster