Using Archives for Teaching History

Earlier this year we were delighted to be able to facilitate a Pedagogy workshop with Helen Elliot, Teaching Fellow and PGCE/PGDE Secondary History Subject Tutor at Birmingham City University and Martin Phillips the Local Heritage Education Manager (West Midlands), Heritage Schools, for Historic England. The workshop, facilitated by Corinna Rayner, the Archives & Collections Manager, was all about planning a series of lessons around a theme based on Birmingham’s History and used resources held in the Library of Birmingham’s Archives. As we were still in lockdown, the workshop was digital – and while it worked really well – we do hope to be able run it again for next year’s students… in the Library of Birmingham building!

What follows is a blog from Helen Elliot (and the students), following on from that workshop, providing advice to teachers of History in secondary schools.


In my teenage years I was something of a family history nerd, which happily coincided with the expansion in availability of archives and records online using websites such as Ancestry, Staffordshire BMD and the National Archives.

Climbing the spiral staircase to floor 7 of Birmingham’s Central Library, in order to “see what I could find” led me to realise that I was wholly unprepared for what I could find. Whilst I cannot say that I found any particular skeletons in the closet for my family’s history, I can say that although I loved being surrounded by parish records of Aston and Witton, using the special foam rests and putting my belongings into the locker, I honestly had no idea what I was doing, and did not venture up the spiral staircase again.

When I became a secondary school History teacher, I was determined to use my family history archives in the classroom as much as possible. Being very lucky to have my great grandfather’s First World War attestation papers and war records, I used these as part of my 1914-18 unit of work following soldiers through the Western Front.

The ‘reality’ of the war, based on the fact that their teacher was related to this ‘real person’ proved to be engaging and enriching for my pupils year on year. They relished the opportunity to look through Thomas’s records and decipher the cursive handwriting.

Slide from a lesson used by Helen with her students. The title reads “What did the army need to know about its recruits?”. Included on the slide are two photos. One is a sepia portrait photo of a soldier labelled ‘Miss Wilson’s Great Grandad – Thomas Berrington who fought in WW1.”. The second is a formal group photo of soldiers in uniform, and on it a caption reads “RESERVISTS [illegible] 1st GRENADIER GUARDS MAY 1921”.
Slide from a lesson used by Helen Elliot with her students.
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Trusting in Science

A conversation with a friend earlier in the year touched upon the subject on everyone’s mind at the moment – Covid-19 vaccines. My friend had just had her first dose and was feeling optimistic that this could lead us out of the restrictions and give us back some semblance of normality in society.  The conversation led to anti-vaxxers and the understandable apprehension of many people about a vaccine that was relatively new.

Never before in our generation have we seen the introduction of such a wide-scale vaccination programme. The vaccines we had as children and for travelling abroad have been around for years. The seasonal flu jab was introduced gradually and without the same fanfair, or more accurately, urgency, as the Covid-19 vaccines. Every vaccine has to start somewhere; there is always that first person to trust in science and take a leap into the unknown. This prompted my friend to recall a letter in the James Watt Papers (MS 3219) from Ann Watt, writing to her husband in 1779 about her torment in deciding whether she should have their children inoculated against smallpox.

Letter from Ann Watt to James Watt, 5th November 1779 [Finding Number MS 3219/4/4/9]
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Re-housing the Dyche Collection

Regular readers of the blog and users of our social media channels may have heard the good news that together with Sampad, we were awarded funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the project ‘From City of Empire to City of Diversity: A Visual Journey.’ One part of this exciting project will be the re-housing of the entire Dyche collection (MS 2912).  

The Dyche collection is made up of a variety of materials including an estimated 10,000 photographic prints, photographic negatives, bound volumes, ephemera, various props (including a fake tree stump!) and photographic equipment from Ernest Dyche’s studio. The collection is currently housed in standard archival boxes with very few individual objects in protective enclosures. Some objects such as the photographic negatives are in their original packaging. Fig 1. shows us a typical example of how the collection is currently housed.

Fig. 1. Current housing of MS 2912 photographic negatives in their original packaging in a standard archival box
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How to: School Records

School records are a valuable resource for family historians, for studying the history of education, and for more personal purposes such as proof of education or residency.

Cookery class in an unidentified Birmingham school, photographed in 1896. [Finding number WK/B11/5171]

The following is a guide for how to discover and access records of local authority schools. For more information about broader education records, please see this source list .

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The Wingate Bett Transport Ticket Collection

The Library of Birmingham is host to numerous collections of ephemeral material, and when we use the word ephemera to describe items, we’re often discussing materials which when originally created, were considered to have very limited use and popularity. Consequently, such items are not always viewed as holding the same cultural and historical cache as documents which are larger in size and have written content, such as a diary or minute book. 

Most items of ephemera such as posters, postcards and railway tickets often become collectables. They’re generally relatively inexpensive mass produced items which most people have come into contact with in their daily lives. Items are retained for various reasons such as sentimental attachment, because the item lends itself to being collected or the owner finds it difficult to discard of materials due to the long term environmental impact of constantly discarding of every disposable item which comes into their lives. 

Many libraries and archives accept donations of ephemera for addition to their collections. When they do, items in the collection acquire a new status as cultural and historical documents. With the changing perceptions of how a historical narrative is created and the ever increasing range of sources we can call upon to add to these stories (especially since the escalation of the mass produced consumerist society from the middle of the nineteenth century), ephemera adds to the everyday narrative of life which cannot be captured by the grand narrative sweep of a history book. One such collection in our archive is the Wingate Bett Transport Ticket Collection. 

Who was Wingate Henry Bett?

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Nightingale Nurses in Birmingham

This Wednesday, it’s International Nurses Day. Each year, on 12th May, the contribution and dedication of nurses to the healthcare of millions of people is celebrated across the world. This year, International Nurses Day will focus on change and innovation in nursing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 12th May is also the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale which is marked by a service held at Westminster Abbey. This involves three important processions, one of which is a procession of Florence Nightingale Foundation Scholars who carry a symbolic Lamp, accompanied by student nurses. Together they represent nursing knowledge and the transfer of knowledge to the next generation. So for this week’s blog post, we thought we’d take a brief look at the careers of two nurses with links to Birmingham, who trained at The Nightingale Home and Training School for Nurses which was established by Florence in 1860 at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London.

Mary Cadbury

Born into the Quaker Cadbury family in Birmingham in September 1839, Mary Cadbury was the fifth child of Benjamin and Candia Cadbury. Her father owned a drapers shop on Bull Street, until he went into partnership with his brother John in 1846, forming the Cadbury Brothers chocolate business. 

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A historic walk through Sutton Park

A highlight of Sutton Coldfield for me is Sutton Park. Although I’ve regularly walked through the park since I moved to Sutton Coldfield 3 years ago, the park has become more important to me than ever before. It has been and is a place I can recharge, see nature and see a part of Birmingham that people may not be aware of, nor know of its importance. It is a site of special scientific interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and the largest Local Authority park in the UK.  While I was in the archive, I had the opportunity to look at some old photos of Sutton Park and through these photos was fascinated by how similar some things felt and how other things felt like they were from another era. I am going to (attempt to!) tell a potted history of Sutton Park from them.  

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Fig. 1 Town Gate, Sutton Park, n.d. Image from Sutton Coldfield Volumes 1 & 2, compiled by Marian Baxter, 2001

Many walks start at Town Gate. See Fig 1. This is the main entrance which is probably most familiar to people today who have visited Sutton Park. Built in 1826, this gate was finally able to provide a direct approach to the park from the town. Since its creation, it does not look much different. Prior to this, the original main entrance would have been Wyndley gate via Manor Hill. Although the residents of Sutton Coldfield had free access, people outside of the area had to pay to gain admission. It was only in 1974 when Sutton Coldfield became part of Birmingham that the admission fee was abolished so it could be enjoyed by all no matter where they were from.

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