We were looking at the gable end of one of the rows of cottages when I asked the group of children visiting from a primary school, “Can anyone see something different about the end of that building?”
I was leading the group on an educational tour around Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire and we had reached the small village on the estate which had once supplied workers for the cotton mill. The group were in Year 6, averaging about 10 or 11 years of age, and had been quite excited when going around the mill itself earlier, nervously watching the various noisy spinning and weaving machines in action. Now we were outside on a dull and overcast day and I was attempting to extend their experience of things around the village before their visit to the Apprentice House after lunch.
“It’s very old,” ventured a dark-haired girl dressed in character, wearing a white apron and a white mop cap like most of the other girls. The boys wore flat caps and waistcoats, much as you’d imagine finding Oliver Twist would appear if he’d accompanied them.
“That’s because it’s been there nearly two hundred years and it was once a farm building back then. Now that’s a big clue,” I replied.
Blank faces all around. I glanced at their teacher who smiled back at me, raised her eyebrows then said, “Remember what we were saying earlier, Year 6, about primary and secondary sources of information in History?”
Some of the children looked more intently at the brickwork while others had lost interest and were either staring up at a very large old oak tree or kicking at the grit and pebbles on the path.
“The bricks go up in a curved shape around the edges of the wall,” said another girl.
“It’s like an arch,” added a boy.
“Good, well done,” I said. “So what sort of building do you think it could have been before people lived in it as a cottage?”
More blank faces, so I added, “If it was on a farm before it was converted to be a row of cottages?”
“Was it a barn?” asked the first girl, the one with long dark hair.
“That’s right and the arched shape was the entrance, where the barn door had been. It was bricked up when Mr Greg the owner needed to offer houses to the workers in the cotton mill.”
There were murmurs of “Oh, yeah” from the children and I asked them, “So, what do you think? Is this a primary or a secondary source?”
Later on, when were on our way back to the room in the mill where they would sit and have lunch, I chatted to their teacher. She had said that the children in her class did not have to know such detail as primary and secondary sources but she thought that it prepared them a bit more for History taught in high school the following year. I found that interesting since I could not recall being taught about sources in my own History lessons when at school several decades ago. In fact the way we were taught was extremely boring and seemed to be mainly about learning the dates of battles and treaties. We did that from a book or more often by listening to the teacher sat at his desk droning on and on. To me it felt like a punishment. There was no hint of personal discovery or research about sources of information, through play acting of characters or group discussion.
“Why do you think it’s so important at this younger age?” I asked the primary teacher.
“Firstly, because History was my main subject at college before I became a teacher,” she admitted a little sheepishly. “And secondly, because it can often be so interesting – even fascinating - to find out some of the information and facts behind characters and events from History and so on.”
I had to agree and when I think about when I started taking children and adults around Quarry Bank Mill a few years ago, admittedly, somewhat apprehensively as a retired science teacher I remember it was discovering lots of details, facts and figures about the Greg family, their mill and their cotton workers that inspired me to discover more. To begin with of course I needed to get some details clear in my head so that I could pass on the correct information to the visitors. But very soon I was reading up about the Industrial Revolution and trying relate that to the various novels I’d read and enjoyed by authors like Dickens, Gaskell and Eliot. Learning more and more about workhouse children, “indentured” as cotton apprentices during those times, sometimes from the age of five, inspired me to write novels about them. Researching primary and secondary sources became essential and, like that primary teacher had said, fascinating for me, even though at times some details were quite upsetting.
Some of the videos I discovered, often quite by accident, were very helpful and a few like those below, mentioned and presented by teachers like Ms Stacy Stout; https://www.youtube.com/missstoutsHistoryclass could maybe be useful to others – students, teachers, and writers, of or about the Industrial Revolution.
Video Title: The Children of the Revolution – Children Who Built Victorian Britain;
Video Title: A Factory Worker in the Industrial Revolution;
Video Title: Industrial Revolution – A Boon to Industry – A Bane to Childhood;
These videos illustrate vividly the kind of thing that I wanted to draw a reader's attention towards in my historical fiction novels.
It may be of interest or helpful to others to include a Summary of what I have found about Primary and Secondary sources:
A distinction between primary and secondary shows the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described. So then the reader of it knows whether the author is either reporting their impressions first hand or is the first to record them after an event i.e. primary. If conveying the experiences and opinions of others is second hand then it is secondary. A primary source provides direct or first-hand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects.
Primary sources are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.
Secondary sources interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.
We might ask questions such as:
· How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
· Where does this information come from - personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
· Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?
Ultimately, all source material of whatever type has to be assessed critically and even the most scrupulous and thorough work is viewed through the eyes of the writer/interpreter. If we are to get at the truth of an event then this must be taken into account because primary and secondary sources form the cornerstones of historical research. A modern-day work of History is essentially a description and interpretation of primary sources, along with commentary of secondary sources. A book from 1877 England would be a primary source about Victorian History. An agricultural building like an 18th century barn converted into cottages or a Methodist church would be a primary source about Georgian History.
Secondary sources are interpretations of History. Think of them as History books such as Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. This is a secondary source because it interprets facts of the past and it is not from the period in question. The book was written in the late eighteenth century, putting it well outside the end of the Roman Empire and making it a secondary source.