Hodder History Expert Blog

Looking forward to the SHP Conference - 6-8 July
By Tony Fox
29 Jun

As I write I have a week of sleeps until the 30th SHP Summer Conference, and as the saying goes “I’m as excited as a terribly excited person who has a really good reason for being terribly excited.” For I am returning to my spiritual home, after a decade's absence.

I did run a stall last year, but this year I am back delivering a workshop, and for the first time, a fringe session. Looking at the programme, I can see local history features heavily and my workshop is just one of a half dozen that mention it in the preamble; therefore I should, as usual, be able to share history ideas - and sharing teaching ideas and learning from others is the heart of the SHP conference.

I will be writing a daily blog over the weekend sharing what I have learned.

But I start by looking back. These first two blogs share some successes (and failures) in using historical fiction in the classroom as this began for me with an SHP Conference 10 years ago.

Using historical fiction in the classroom

Like many the initial spark that inspired me to use historical fiction in the first place, came from the furnace of Christine Counsell's ideas. As I recall, it was a workshop during the 2008 SHP conference in particular.

A Success - the Bonny Pit Laddie

I was inspired to develop a series of lessons based on The Bonny Pit laddie. This children’s novel allowed me to move beyond a description of conditions in the mines, to explore the social and political impact of these conditions; and in particular to focus on the relationship between working miners who were supported by their community, and the mine owners.

Blessed with the range of types of mines we find in my local area; from alum and iron ore in North Yorkshire, to lead in Weardale and then coal in Durham, I felt compelled to use this book as a resource, especially as some of the themes linked well to other topics in my KS3 curriculum.

I focused on coal mining, as it is difficult to avoid it’s primacy in Durham, and with the Londonderrys as an example, it was a simple task to show where Fredrick Grice had acquired his ideas, especially when writing about the actions of the evil mine owners. The book could add period detail and flesh out the characters we studied in the scheme; the narrative was used to enrich the sources of information, as well as working the other way - the sources added credibility to the fictional narrative.

A failure - The Boy in striped pyjamas

Emboldened by this success I coordinated with the English department to use The Boy in the striped Pajamas, which was, I’m afraid, a disaster. The mess was compounded by the release of the film just as we were planning the lessons.

I like to think the fault lay not in our planning but with the author’s treatment of the Holocaust. I feel the book is shockingly superficial, packed with misconceptions and grossly misleading. Both History and English departments found we were having to work against the counter-factual information, rather than use extracts to enhance the understanding of students.

This experience led me to abandon any future plans to use historical fiction.

An inspiration - No 1

Because of this experience it has been some time since I last considered using historical fiction in the classroom, but I have been recently inspired to give it another go. 

About a year ago I came across Tony Stowers’ No.1, as we both offered to assist in the planning for the 2025 Stockton and Darlington  Railway commemorations. I have a specific interest in the development of transport on Teesside, which is the focus of Tony's novel. My second blog will focus on this book in much more detail which I think is brilliant.

'The essence and spirit of the time'

The catalyst that inspired this change of heart, the spark that fired me to use his novel, was a review in a recent issue of the Battlefields Trust’s magazine (not of Tony's book but another book entirely) and this line in particular reminding me what is the unique role historical fiction can play in our teaching:

but there can be no doubt that when a novel is well-researched and well-written, as this book is, it can capture the essence and spirit of the time.’

Harvey Watson’s review of The Welsh Linnet, by A J Lyndon, in Battlefield  (Vol. 22, Spring 2018)

Isn’t that what we all strive for! To capture the essence of spirit of the time.

Tony Fox

Tony Fox, took his PGCE at Trinity and All Saints College, in 2000, this is the home of the SHP. He is a Humanities teacher based in the the North East of England. He has Chaired the Durham Branch of the Historical Association since 2005, is the South Durham regional Officer for the Battlefields Trust, and is an advisor to various Heritage bodies and groups in the region.


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