The Joys & Challenges of the 'Courage of Conscience' Derbyshire History HLF Project

A presentation from the SYTT event - Remembering and Forgetting: Exploring local commemorations of WW1 (26th April, 2015) by Gertie Whitfield, Freelance Educator - Whitworks


The slide show is just going to roll, I’m going to talk to you and there is nothing to read. I’m working in schools, I will explain a bit more about that in a minute and I can answer your questions as well. I’m Gertie Whitfield, I started bringing history to life in the classroom and most of all within the primary classroom and I tend to work in Sheffield and Derbyshire for the most part and I’ve been in and around the classroom for about thirty years as an English teacher, a Drama teacher, PSHE teacher, a teacher trainer and history has always just been my passion really so now I’m turning that passion into doing something I absolutely love everyday which is fantastic.

So just to give you an idea of how I bring history to life because I mentioned I’m a Drama teacher so I know all about – I follow on very nicely from you I think because I’m all about bringing it so that the children can feel it and the year 6 teacher at Charnock Hall talked about my Sheffield home-front programme and this is what she said ‘The children understood propaganda, how and why it was used. They had the chance to think deeply and explain if they agreed or disagreed with the concept. Through the drama and reading World War One letters and Sheffield’s own World War One Constance Renshaw’s poetry they were able to empathise with people who lived through the First World War in Sheffield. It made them think about the effect on people and imagine what it was like for them at the time. They were learning so much more than history, the opportunities for speaking and listening were fantastic. The children expressed themselves articulately with emotion and understanding’ and a year six boy from the same school said ‘I understand more about how the people of Sheffield felt about World War One because we acted it out and sort of lived a day of being at the time of the war and that some people went to war early and lied about their age and were excited to go to war. I will remember acting out the poems and living a day of being in the house and talking about the different things they talked about in the war.’

So I think that really sums up, I don’t just do the First World War, I go right back to ancient Greece and to answer your question primary schools are supposed to only go up to 1066 now unless it’s local and significant so obviously Sheffield home-front for Sheffield home schools is local and significant at the moment. The First World War is local and significant. Secondary schools they should be doing it in year nine because you have to go chronologically now.

Ok, so I look for alternative narratives and mostly I’m about women. I’ve gone a bit further with World War One but there are two marvellous women, Elsie Knocker who I feature both at key stage one and my key stage two and I’ve also got an Alice Wheeldon package who I’m going to talk a bit more about later on because she’s connected with the work that I’m going to talk about. I was very lucky to somehow get  in contact with a group called Pro Peace Chesterfield and they had decided to apply for a Heritage Lottery Grant, a ten thousand pound one and it was going to be all about the alternative narratives and particularly conscientious objection in the First World War, now they’re Chesterfield Pro Peace, I’m an educator so yes I’m using the research, yes I’m using the stories but I’m about getting kids to think and feel, I’m not saying to them this is right, this is wrong.

My talk is entitled ‘the joys and the challenges’ and there are many joys as you can probably tell from those quotes but the challenge is actually getting schools to see that this is good history. Particularly when it’s not battles and trenches and soldiers, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be commemorated but this bit – it’s not what people are looking at. The Courage of Conscience project in North Derbyshire is – there’s been a lot of research over the last few months.

I’m now tasked and in fact I’ve already done it of creating a set of secondary history lessons, now they’re history lessons because there isn’t drama in every secondary school but there’s history in every secondary school so that’s why we’ve gone for history and I’m also tasked with setting out – putting together some primary schemes of lessons and they are currently in schools, one in Dronfield, in a secondary school and one at Grassmoor Primary being trailed so we’re ironing out the problems before we can put them out more publically. The primary schools are also being offered a days training. The challenge is getting them to come and to see it’s free and that it’s relevant. Now a lot of the stuff that I do at primary level involved literature. I love English as well you see. First World War everybody’s been talking about the poems, the songs- it’s all there so that’s a lot of what I’ve included in the work that I do.

The other part of the project which is going to come kind of later on and isn’t happening yet is there’s a group of young people, now when we say young people we mean sixteen to thirty who are working with a poet, a Derbyshire poet to respond to the stories and then at the end of our two year cycle there is going to be a celebratory event where the two – well the three strands of our work come together and also it’s all going to be publically available. Right so I thought I’d talk a little bit about what’s actually happening in the lesson plans, now you’ve probably seen a lot of pictures of children wearing hats, when they go into role and you talked again about how you know getting them to think differently and women have to be women and they are best off wearing hats because I find it just helps them get into role and we don’t wear it but we think about different clothing that people wore and how they would carry themselves differently and they go through all of that – this is how the First World War started and it may look very odd but I actually, I was struggling to understand it and I was thinking how do I do this for primary aged children and then it came to me as I read it, it’s a bit like bullying, you hit my friend, I’m going to hit you. ‘Oi hang on a minute I’m going to hit you if you hit her yer’ and that’s basically what I set up and then they get the countries and they get the map and they get it, they get the concept of how the First World War started. Obviously it’s a very simplistic level but they get the idea.

We then look at recruitment techniques so we look at posters and talk about how they make people feel. We talk about the Pals battalions and I get them all – I say ‘right you’re going to be your school and you’re going to be a battalion you five’ and they have to come up with a rhyme, a rhyming couplet for saying how fantastic their school is and then I become a sergeant major and they march up and down chanting their chant. The thing that makes them feel is good and proud and I say yes and that’s what they try to get you to do so you go to war with your friends and feel proud and that you’re part of something special. And we also look at white feathering and the interesting thing is every time I say to a child if I give you a white feather what do you think it means? The one thing they don’t come up with is cowardice, they come up with hope and love and peace, so when you then tell them what it is you can imagine their horror really.

All the way through this and it’s with the secondary as well I’m doing what some people might know where you have an agree, disagree and so they have to move so the statements I use all the way through is the government was right to use various techniques to get people to go to war and they have to move where they think, no right or wrong I tell them they just have to be able to explain their opinions and it’s amazing we’re actually recording it so that we’ve got something to show the Heritage Lottery Fund we did actually do it so we’re writing it down as we go and the changes in their mind as they go through the different exercises and their ability to understand the different points of view, it’s very interesting the number of them who end up in the middle because they can see both, and it was very interesting to begin with because when the first face of the propaganda they went from being a bit against war to being all for it – they were actually being suckered by propaganda but now we’ve gone through some of the other things they’ve changed. This is a great one bad teeth no bar, they always think of bar – snack bar, drinks bar so we have to talk about how king and country and what it meant and how it was different from now, because they are like want to [incomp] You know they don’t get it at all.

Paul said after that first section who’s the deputy head of Grassmoor, he said ‘we’ve held the first session with our Y five children and they’re completely engaged, they worked solidly through the drama for over two hours and were absorbed by the activity. High order thinking, questioning and speaking/listening skills are an area of development at our school but this method of working and this subject matter gave the children a vehicle to extend their ability in all these areas. The PSHE element not only in terms of their assessment is to work with people in challenging situations but also in terms of understanding the issues of a hundred years ago and comparing them against today’s standards is a huge underlying part of this project’.

Okay, then we move on to anti-war and the peace movement and we look at a song, I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier and also this nursery rhyme which we do both these things at primary and secondary and this nursery rhyme has caused much conversation and in fact its rhyme and song that is going to be the end product of the secondary scheme of lessons so this is the nursery rhyme, sing a song of Europe, highly civilised four and twenty nations holy hypnotised when the battle opens the bullets start to sing, isn’t that a silly way to act for any king. The kings are in the background issuing commands, the queens are in the parlour her etiquette demands, the bankers are in the counting house busy multiplying, the common people at the front are doing all the dying. So obviously there’s a deeply political message that they can talk about and it also talks to them very clearly about the structure of society during that time.

I’ve talked about the women’s peace conference now it’s very interesting in Derbyshire all the important women for peace and things seem to live just outside and we couldn’t find anybody who was in a part of that movement within Derbyshire itself so but I also said we were a kind of – it’s an education piece so we wanted them to think I also used Violet Markham who was actually a very prominent women during the First World War in Chesterfield and she wrote an article for the newspaper condemning the Women’s Peace Conference and saying how it would make the war last longer and I had a lovely moment because we did this in the primary school and at the primary school it was very challenging in terms of language for them and so I gave it out to them in bits in groups saying ‘I want you to be historical word detectives and come up with three key sentences as to what the paragraph that you’ve been given means’ and all of a sudden we’re working away and they were thinking – all of a sudden this child puts up a hand and it all goes quiet and she talks to her real teacher not me and says ‘miss I’m linking my learning, I’m inferring and deducting ‘ [laughs] and we really wished that Ofsted had been there at that moment [audience laughs] because they would have loved it.

Yes, and there’s another piece of poetry that I haven’t done with them yet which is for Mothers of England by Gladys Hallier and I’m going to do that as a kind of real piece of melodrama and lots of sound and things before we do it. But we are actually going to look at some conscription cases, we had a look at the story of Henry Smith who was a Quaker in Belper and we’ve got his defence documents and we are going to explore his feelings. We’ve got a tribunal from Buxton which somebody has painstakingly transcribed from the microfiche which was very difficult to read and both at primary and at secondary we’re going to have them acting it out so they’re just going to be reading the script but the very fact of having five people sat down and one person – I did it with at a secondary school last week and they were immediately saying ‘gosh you’d have to be brave to be standing there as a conscientious objector’ with these five or six people in front of you who have already decided that you’re not going to get your wish.

And then we’ve got the Hunter brothers who an interesting set, they are triplets and they’re in a very military family, they went off to war and then two of them towards the end of the war decided they were going fighting anymore and what I’m going to look at with the kids is what conflicts that might have set up in their family and the way people feel and why they might have changed their mind and things. The secondary school we’ve only got four hours of teaching and we’re looking at recruitment and propaganda, conscientious objection and that tribunal that I talked about and then I also have been very lucky to come across and this is just one of these but I’ve actually got the whole set of documents from a christadelphian who was a miner who was called up in April 1918 because in 1918 they got rid of lots of the exemptions so miners were no longer exempt and so he then went for his religious exemption and in fact Christadelphians had actually got themselves – there was a clever man called Mister Jannaway who’d done sort of some deal in London and he’d got them all off however the news didn’t get through and people wouldn’t believe it so this is actually one part of his charge sheet and what the secondary school are getting they are getting a whole set of documents plus a few more bits of information that I’ve gleamed then they’re getting a set of questions to say you know we’re using that word infer again so what evidence they’ve got and what the can infer from these documents when they look at them and put together that story. So that was very lucky find from the Derby Peoples History Group who also like me to my next person Alice Wheeldon who I think I referred to earlier.

Has anyone here heard of Alice Wheeldon? Brilliant. The very thought of a woman slightly older than me being accused of wanting to get a blow pipe full of poison who is then going to creep across a golf course into a bush and blow it at Lloyd George [laughs] to kill him is quite incredible isn’t it? And not surprisingly it’s a trumped up charge, she was guilty of a crime and she was helping conscientious objectors escape the law and the government decided they needed to make an example of somebody and they picked Alice Wheeldon and they got this – but the person the agent provocateur that they put in there went ‘oh what about this, we’ve come up with this’ he never appeared at the court so she got ten years penal servitude. Her son in law or was it her son I think got lesser sentences, one was let off because ‘you’ve got a very bad mother who influenced you wrongly’.

Now it’s a wonderful story, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the great granddaughters of Alice Wheeldon and I’m in contact with them and so I’ve put together a resource which starts with the funeral and raises questions, what do you want to know about this story more and then we are going to give different groups different documents, one is a newspaper report, another is from Chloe and Deidre Mason who are in Australia saying what they are doing now because they’re fighting to have her conviction quashed at this very moment so they’re hoping that next year that’s going to reap you know all their hard work so all I was going to say finally is that coming back to your idea of commemoration I think this is an appropriate way of commemorating World War One but is only one way and I would really like to thank the Courage of Consciousness who’ve gone for the Heritage Lottery bid and allowed me to do this work because I’m finding it really exciting and that’s it.

Transcript ends

Click here to find out more about the Courage of Conscience project

This page was added on 21 August 2015.

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