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12 January 2015

Picking oakum to learn about the Victorian poor

My Year 10s have just begun the final unit of work on their Medicine Through Time course. The unit deals with Public Health in the 19th and 20th centuries. This brings us into the realm of studying Victorian attitudes towards the sick, the poor and whether the state should intervene in people's lives to keep them healthier. Past experience has shown me that this unit has the potential to be a little dry and so I'm looking for opportunities to bring it to life, especially through active demonstrations and practical tasks. With this in mind, I delivered my students an oakum-picking practical with the aid of a cartoon and fifteen short lengths of rope.  Here's how it worked:-

Context of the lesson
Students have just done an introduction to conditions in early 19th century towns.  They have looked at the major health problems and approached some of the scientific, economic and political reasons why little was done to improve these conditions before 1848.  They were now ready to look at the work of Edwin Chadwick.  This time I wanted to make sure that students understood the motivation which drove Chadwick's recommendations, which were underpinned by a desire to cut the cost of looking after the sick and the poor.  So the ideal starting point was to begin in the 1830s and look at how previous governments had tried to cut the cost of the welfare.

How the activity worked
1. Students looked at the 1834 poor law and were given a brief overview of the workhouses

2. Students were then asked to use their skills at working with evidence to analyse this fascinating contemporary cartoon on the workhouses.  I asked students to focus firstly on what it suggested about conditions in workhouses and secondly what it revealed about early 19th century attitudes towards the poor.

3. The source naturally provoked discussion about the types of work done in the workhouse.  At this point, we watched the following clip from the popular 'Worst Jobs In History' series.

4. Students were then presented with short lengths of rope and asked to do five minutes of oakum picking.  I patrolled the room as the overseer, doing a bit of "quality control"!

5. At the end, I awarded a prize to the class champion oakum picker!

6. Students then used what they had learned to write a summary of 'How did the government try to reduce the cost of looking after the poor?'

Where we're going next
This lesson has laid the groundwork for students in understanding Victorian attitudes towards the poor and the desire to save the  rate-payers' money where possible by reducing the benefit "burden".  With this foundation in place, I'm going to take my students on to look at the work of Chadwick and how he tried to reduce the cost of looking after the sick and poor through recommending public health measures.

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