We recently made a return to the School History Project Conference in Leeds. We first attended the event many moons ago, back when we were first starting out, under our original name of Discovering Medieval. They very kindly gave us a free spot that first year, as we were so new to the business and didn’t have many funds. We attended for 2 years, but then, as circumstance had it, our work increased at Bodiam Castle and we were no longer able to attend the conference.
This year however, Bodiam had moved one of its school weeks to the autumn and we were free to attend again. The exhibition area seemed to have grown a lot in the 10 years since we’d last been and there were now many other exhibitors with stands promoting their various activities.
As strange circumstance would have it, we made a new friend this week. We had met Dickie Knight at a school fete in Winchester that week. He was promoting Anglia tours who run trips to the WW1 battlefields. Low and behold, who should be placed next to us in the exhibition but Dickie again, along with his friend and work colleague Ian. The world being a much tinier place than we think, it turned out that he knew a friend from my old home town who is a WW1 re-enactor. A phrase he had said rang in my mind as familiar and so I asked if he knew Jim. Six degrees of separation indeed! It was pleasant to have similar minded people to chatter with in the breaks between busy periods and it was interesting to find so many parallels between our lives.
We arrived about 9.00am on the Friday to set up our stand, ready for the first teachers who were registering from about 11.30. We’d been planning what to bring for ages and I’d been working on a video about what we do to display to the teachers. My brother had some years previously sold me an old Bakelite TV casing, suggesting that it might come in useful one day to display a video, and so it did. We made the video to look rather like a 1950s TV advert, which lasted for about 6 minutes and was on repeat. It contained info, photos and testimonials for our displays. If I say so myself it was very effective. I bristled with pride as I heard one teachers say to another ‘what a clever idea’ it was. It’s always nice to feel that your work has been appreciated. The video was actually on an ipad held behind the glass window but it really did have the feel that it was being broadcast on the TV.
I was dressed as a WW1 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse for the 2 days and Wel was dressed in WW2 clothes the first day and medieval the next. It was a great pleasure talking to a teacher whilst walking to lunch one day, who was very interested in my uniform. we discussed how I’d researched it and obtained info and permission from the Red Cross to recreate it.
We also had made a brand new brochure containing info on all our displays and we were giving away free A3 double sided posters we had made of a knight on one side and physician on the other. We’d also had some new business cards made recently with photos of us in different outfits on the back. The one drawback being if we bring the cards to historic sites, the kids there think of them like collectible album cards and try to get the whole set! The posters were very popular and it was extremely gratifying to hear comments about how professional our posters, booklets and cards looked. A lot of hard work had gone into them and not just by ourselves.
We brought along Wels harness of replica 15th c armour to display on a stand, we use it in our ‘War of the Roses’ A level workshop and also at the other end of the scale for Reception age children in our ‘Knight & Lady’ workshop. We thought it added a bit of a wow factor, although surprisingly not as much as we thought it would. We also had various other conversation pieces on our table such as an original WW2 baby gas hood, replica WW1 P Hood, live medical leeches and our branding irons, which were there to represent the broad range of topics and time periods we now cover. Different objects caught different peoples eyes, depending on what subjects their school was covering.
We chatted to many teachers over the two days of the conference. Only time will tell if work will follow on from our hard work but it was also a great place to network and meet other societies and people who work in the history industry. We met people from the Battlefield Trust, the Holocaust museum, English Heritage, Thrackray Medical museum and the Historical Association to name but a few. We also met a gentleman who worked for Edexcel and I think he said he might mention us in his newsletter.
One of the highlights of our visit was meeting Ian Dawson and his wife Pat again after so many years. We last saw them I think whilst shooting some scenes for Hodders ‘Medicine Through Time’ CD. We had been up to the university for the day some years back. It was lovely to catch up and we also attended Ian’s workshop on the Paston letters. The Pastons were a family who lived in Norfolk during the 15th century and a large amount of their correspondence to each other survives until this day. I’d read the letters when I first started re-enactment. They are full of interesting information about what life was like then. Some of the letters are very personal and show emotions that we all still feel today. Ian was keen for teachers to use them in the classroom to help students relate to people from the period. There can be a great belief amongst children that all people in the past were ‘stupid’ or that their lives were so alien to their own. I always try to dispel the stupid myth within our KS3 medieval life workshop, with some success I think. They find the arrow puller used on Henry V particularly clever and I am keen to emphasise that the students only know the things they know now thanks to the discoveries that have been made over the years by people in the past. There is a wonderful quote I once read by an 18th C MP called Edmund Burke which reads:
‘Society is a partnership not only between those who are living
but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’.
It has always stuck in my mind, I see the past not as something that is dead and buried but a continuous thread of humanity, all linked together, working towards a common cause of bettering and improving all our lives. If Alexander Fleming had not accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928, perhaps my dose of Quinsy as a child would have proved fatal? Thus my life is directly linked to Alexander Fleming and his wonderful discovery. Many of us can say the same thing. It’s a subject I often talk about with the children during medical displays. It often inspires the question ‘What will people think about us in the future? Will they think of us as barbaric or backward?’. It has got them thinking about people from the past and that they are little different, they just lived a little further back in time. Often I find that the 5 & 6 year olds we teach, think that people in the past were clever, the quern for milling is clever, the butter churns are clever, armour is clever, so where does this idea of stupid people come from in the intervening years?
Anyway, soap box stepped off, let’s return to the SHP. We were very lucky to be near the Hodder book stand, we had remembered from before how friendly they were and indeed their stand was very sleek and professional. On the Friday night they hosted a drinks reception for the teachers and very kindly gave us all a drink too. They’d also given us a free copy of their ‘Hindsight’ magazine about GCSE history and ‘Modern History review’, their A level magazine. We’ve now subscribed to Hindsight which is a well made beautifully presented magazine, the issue we received included an article about medicine on the western front, one of our favourite topics as we run a workshop on ‘Medicine in the trenches’ for schools and also at historic sites. It was great to look at their array of school history books. I feel if I read them all, that I would have a good general knowledge of history. Some of the them, such as their book on the War of the Roses are written by Ian Dawson, a copy of which we already own and would recommend.
Finally, I’d like to thank Liz & the university staff for organising the event and for the splendid array of hot drinks, yummy pastries and biscuits that appeared every day. We’ll definitely be back next year.