By Kim Biddulph
“I will like history more.” This was the response from one of the schoolchildren I worked with on a project about Sir Hans Sloane. He had been asked how the project would change what he will do in the future. This boy had been difficult to engage and had struggled with reading primary sources. He had done his own thing when we were doing designing activities, and he didn’t even want to go to the celebration event at the end of the project. But it meant a lot when I read his feedback, and that is what he said. It made my day.
I highlighted this response in the evaluation report I sent to the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, which had provided the money for the project. Healing Histories took place over the academic year 2011-12 and, as project coordinator, I was based in the London Borough of Camden‘s School Improvement Consultancy Service. I worked with students from two secondary (high) schools on a debating project about herbal medicine and with another primary (elementary) school class on designing and planting a physic garden in Bloomsbury Square.
But the most challenging and exciting part of the project was to get a class of twenty-four Year 5 pupils (aged 9-10) to research, write and design a trail leaflet about Sloane in Bloomsbury.
Sloane lived at 3 and 4 Bloomsbury Place (then Great Russell Street) from about 1695 to 1742, and his collection was, of course, the basis of the British Museum. Through their research (prepared in advance by a freelance historian, Katie Potter), the kids found out that the Duke of Bedford had a house north of Bloomsbury Square and that there had been a market south of Bloomsbury Square when Sloane lived there. They also found out that he had been a vestryman at St George’s Bloomsbury, which was a new church, opened in 1731.
We also had a professional writer, Dr Michael McMillan, who helped the kids get into the research through poetry and drama. The pupils really enjoyed dramatising major events in Sloane’s life, like his trip to Jamaica and meeting the ex-pirate Henry Morgan, and the attempted arson attack and burglary at his house in 1700. Michael also challenged them to do the best writing they’d ever done. It really worked. They wrote a day in the life of Hans Sloane as he went for a walk around his local area.
Then they designed the leaflet itself, with the help of Sav Kyriacou of digital:works. I found some pictures of Georgian interiors for them to use as a guide to creating a colour swatch for the leaflet, and we did a very basic and fun cut and stick activity with all the elements we needed on the trail.
The trail was launched at a great day in Bloomsbury Square, and the Mayor of Camden attended, as well as Sir Hans Sloane himself (well, an actor)! The pupils had prepared part of the trail as a walking tour and gave it to pupils from another school. Then, as one final treat, I had organised for them to go into 4 Bloomsbury Place, one of Sloane’s houses. He had originally moved into number 3, but as his collection grew he needed more space so leased the house next door as well. Various businesses are now housed in that same building and two of them let us look around, including Prestel Publishing, who gave the pupils access to the roof!
We found so many sources and stories for the children to work with, including Old Bailey records of the attempted burglary and other crimes in the area, vestry records at St George’s Bloomsbury, and accounts of Handel leaving a buttered muffin on one of Sloane’s priceless manuscripts. There were all of his c.80,000 collected objects in the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum to look through, too. Sadly, we didn’t find the correspondence, which now fills me with regret!
The pupils got a lot out of the project, though. They looked at an array of historical sources, which the teacher has packaged up to use as a topic with subsequent year groups; they became amazingly confident in their writing; they contributed something to their local area; and their hard work was rightly celebrated.
There was something special about Hans Sloane that kept their interest. He led a fascinating life at a fascinating time in history, meeting pirates, Samuel Pepys, Handel, Linnaeus, and kings and queens. He was a high-achiever from a relatively modest background–and William Stukeley described him as not being able to speak in public at all. He had a tangible impact on the local area, with the British Museum standing as a testament to his collecting zeal. He popularised milk chocolate and he had a stuffed giraffe in his living room (both winners with kids).
I have moved on to pastures new, but later this term the pupils who were involved in this project will do a series of talks at neighbouring schools to tell their peers what they have done and what they found out. Copies of the trail have been sent to every Camden school with ideas for teachers to incorporate them into their history or English classes, and the trail is being given out at the British Museum. So if you’re in London and you get a chance, go to the information desk in the Great Court and ask for a copy, then take a stroll round eighteenth century Bloomsbury through the eyes of Sir Hans Sloane. Until then, you can download the trail from the British Museum website.
Kim Biddulph trained as an archaeologist and now works as a museum educator. She coordinated two projects for the London Borough of Camden to engage children and young people with the heritage of Camden, an area of central and north London. Healing Histories was the second of those projects, funded through the UK National Lottery and it aimed to explore the heritage of Sloane, who lived in the borough for over 40 years. Kim also blogs at Archaeotext.
Image Credits: Kim Biddulph