Saturday, 30 May 2015

A Visit to Dickens' Home

Having spent a fair bit of time immersing in the world of the Victorian poor through Charles Dickens' novels, it was time to visit Dickens' adult home in London, which is now the Charles Dickens Museum.

The inside of the house is very much preserved in the same condition as when Charles Dickens was living there.

Of all the rooms in the house, I found the kitchen to be the most interesting place, which probably has muchg to do with my having to spend most of my time at home in the kitchen!  Another eye-opening experience for us was seeing the wash basin in the laundry room that was used to keep the Christmas pudding (as was the practice in the Victorian times).

Two other items in the house also caught our eyes.  The first was part of the Marshalsea prison grille, which represented a very traumatic time in Dickens' childhood. The actual prison is long gone (as we saw on the Dickens tour a few weeks ago) but bits and pieces of it still remains in various locations, and the prison is vividly described in a number of novels, most notably in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.

The second is a simple-looking window that was mentioned in Oliver Twist as being the window out of which Oliver Twist was pushed by Bill Sikes during the burglary.

The window is very small, so one can imagine how scrawny and malnourished the poor boy must have been to be able to squeeze through it!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Woe to Being Poor

One of the most famous Charles Dickens character is Oliver Twist.  The novel has been adapted so many times that everyone would have heard of it even if they had not actually read the book.

I find the novel difficult to read, less so due to Dickens' language but more because of his depiction of the cruelty operating within the Victorian workhouse system and the predatory nature of human beings upon those who are weak and vulnerable.

Using the same approach as we have done for our Dickens' study so far, we went out in search of the actual workshop that inspired the story of Oliver Twist.  We found it in the abandoned annex (previously the outpatient unit) of the old Middlesex Hospital.

According to a book that has researched into the same topic, this part of the hospital was originally the Cleveland Street Workhouse in the Victorian times and was very nearly demolished had it not been for the campaigning efforts of people to preserve it for its link to the world famous novel.  The building has been boarded up for years without any signs of conservation or redevelopment, so we could only peer through the narrow slits between the boards to look at the outside of the buildings.

The evidence of the close link to this particular workhouse -- for there were a number of workhouses littered in various parts of London -- is that Charles Dickens lived nine doors away and would surely have seen and heard of whatever went on inside and outside of it.

Not satisfied with being shut out of the workhouse, we went to The Geffrye Museum, which used to an infirmary for the elderly poor in east London.

We were there to find out more about the homeless in Victorian times (which inevitably meant admittance to a workhouse at some point under those circumstances).

As expected, it is not a particularly cheerful exhibition but it certainly gave us a very good idea of the plight of homeless people in the Victorian times, the various circumstances that gave rise to their dire fate, and of course, details and artefacts of the inevitable workhouse system.

We have read about and heard of inmates picking oakum in Victorian workhouses and prisons, so Tiger had a go at doing that inside the exhibition.  He only did it for two minutes, yet that was enough to set him off, "This is stupid and pointless!"  Having never set foot in an institutionalised classroom before, Tiger has no concept of people being given meaningless tasks to numb their minds or to punish them for falling on hard times.

The heartbreaking realisation that we have made is that there are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK.  It is quite inconceivable in a modern day and when one walks about on London's main streets, but it is true.  The difference between poverty in the Victorian times and today is that poverty seems to be 'invisible' today, as in, we don't see beggars and homeless people on the streets but they do exist.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mr. Dickens Beckons

Tiger and I went on a Dickens tour in London to help us trace the steps of some of the significant sights mentioned in his various novels.  As Dickens' novels are mostly about lives of disadvantaged (and often poor) class in the Victorian times, the tour started, unsurprisingly, at Borough tube station.

Naturally, the tube station did not exist in the Victorian times, so what we are interested in is the layout of the road junction directly opposite the station.  According to our tour guide, that layout has not changed since Dickens' time, except that it was used by horses and carts back then.

A few mintues' walk away is the St. George the Martyr church which features quite strongly in the novel, Little Dorrit, for it is the church where the named character was baptised.

At the north side of the church, less than 100 yards away, is the remains of the Marshalsea Prison where Charles Dickens' father was imprisoned for debts and where the fictional character of Little Dorrit was born.

The Victorian insolvency law, prior to the Debtors Act in 1869,  is rather peculiar in that the people who could not repay their debts could be thrown into the debtors' prison for a very long time, and without any means of 'bailing' themselves out as they were not allowed to earn an income to repay their debts.  Charles Dickens' family lived in the prison with his father for the duration of his imprisonment because they could not afford to live outside on their own, Charles being only 12 years old at the time of his father's imprisonment.  The experience of having to live in a prison (albeit for a short period of time) and the consequential work experience at the blacking factory must have traumatised him greatly because the debtors' prison feature quite prominently in many of his novels.

Further along we came to a garden established by the Victorian social reformer, Octavia Hill.  She was one of the pioneers who campaigned for better living conditions -- specifically open spaces in London -- for the poor.

A few streets along, we came upon an informal shrine for what is left of the Cross Bones graveyard.  The site was basically a mass grave for the outcasts of society (most medieval to the Victorian time), i.e. the paupers, but mostly prostitutes.

After learning about all the sorrow and sadness (it appears that one needs to have quite a strong heart to be able to get through the real stories that inspire Dickens' novels), it was time to head to the inn.  Not just any inn, but The George Inn, which has existed since the 16th century abd where both Shakespeare and Dickens had visited.  It is also mentioned in Little Dorrit.

The fascinating thing about London is that it is such an old, historic city that there are significant sights of historical and literary interests to be found at nearly even turn.  For example, what appears to be an ordinary, insignificant-looking alleyway turns out to be the site of the "White Hart Inn" mentioned in Shakespeare's play, Henry VI, and in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.

On another day, we were walking in another part of London when we chanced upon The Old Curiosity Shop

It is entirely possible that, as we are currently focused on Charles Dickens and his work, that we seek out opportunities to learn more about him, which in turn results in various serendipitous occurrences such as the above.  One can certainly learn a lot by walking around in the ordinary parts of London -- in the same way that Charles Dickens did to gather ideas for his stories -- if the walks are taken with keen interest and a sense of curiosity about one's surrounding.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Getting to Know Dickens

After spending two Christmases of reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, we finally have arrived at the Victorian period in our history study to justify spending more time learning about the man and his novels that serve as very strong social commentaries of what life was like in the Victorian times for the poor.

One of the Museum of London's workshops, Dickens in context, serves as the perfect tool for us to combine the study of both history and literature in the same session.

The workshop started with a drama session where 'Charles Dickens' was in one of his press conferences, with the children participating as reporters who asked him questions (prepared by the museum beforehand) that were designed to weave together his life story, the novels that he had written, and the Victorian society in general.

The session was cleverly designed to engage the children, so that everyone could get a really good idea of the context of Dickens' novels and characters even if they have not read all his work.  Another point of interest is that we met Lucinda and her daughter at the workshop, who are both as lovely in person as they are on her blog.

The group then had a good hour to explore the People's City gallery, which showcase many artefacts that trace the rapid economic and social changes that took place in London from the Victorian times to the beginning of the Second World War.

The rest of the day was spent in an object-handling session where the group was shown real Victorian objects that they were to guess/identify the items and what they were used for, as well as the socio-economic class that those objects would have belonged to.  The class divide was very pronounced in the Victorian times -- people today are still as obsessed about it although most have learnt to be more discreet -- so it was not difficult to figure out that the chimney broom and the shoe-shine box belonged to the working class while the hand mirror and the jewelry box belonged to the mid-to-upper middle class.

All the work done by the group that morning, i.e. the drama session, gallery viewing, object handling, culminated in a final, creative writing session where the children were given a short excerpt of one of Dickens' novels (each group had a different excerpt) and a visual representation of a Victorian scene (again, each group had a different picture), and they had to do a simple analysis of his literary techniques before attempting to write their own version of a descriptive paragraph in the Dickensian style in 10 minutes.

The group was of mixed ages (the children were 10 to 14 years old) and mixed abilities (some children are natural writers, while one or two struggle with putting words on paper), as is typical of homeschooling groups, so this final exercise was quite challenging for a few in the room but everyone attempted it in good spirits and was happy to share their individual writing with one another at the end.  I was very impressed with the positive attitude of everyone in the room, and even more with the quality of the paragraphs each one wrote in the short time.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Exploring Slavery

It started out innocently enough, with us learning about a Victorian explorer/missionary, David Livingstone, and his travels in Africa.

A few chapters into the main book that we were reading for this topic, we came across the concept of slavery, which quickly turned our attention onto the transatlantic slave trade that was undergoing huge changes in the Victorian times when slavery had been going on for centuries but people were just starting to make progess in abolishing the practice, openly at least.  As we saw last month when learning about chocolate, slavery still exists today in various forms.

We attended a workshop on the abolition of the slave trade at the National Gallery, where we were shown a few paintings that traced the process of abolition.

While the art gallery session gave us a good overview into the abolition process towards the end of the slave trade, we wanted to understand more of this sad history of human trafficking, so we attended a Slavery Study Day at the Museum of London Docklands.

This museum is a very relevant to the learning of the transatlantic slave trade, specifically of the sugar trade, because the building was the former warehouse for the sugar that came to London from West Africa, where the sugar canes were grown and where slaves were used on those plantations.  On the third floor of the museum is the London, Sugar & Slavery gallery where we saw some harrowing instruments of enslavement and cruelty.

The various sessions throughout the study day were very interesting and informative.  We started with an introductory session where we were given an overview of the slave trade, how it began, why West Africa in particular, people's attitudes at that time, and how it ended.

There was also an object handling session where we learnt about Africa pre-and-post slave trade through various objects that symbolise the produce of that continent (e.g. sugar cane, tobacco) and its varied culture (e.g. small bronze sculptures from Benin, gourd drums).  The main objective of the session is to dispel the misconceptions of early Europeans that dark-skinned people were sub-human or that they had an inferior/non-existing culture, which I think the children understands very well.

The most interesting session of that day, for me, was the poetry session where the workshop leader engaged the children in various language exercises to reflect upon what they had heard, seen, and felt in the previous sessions, in relation to the topic of the day, i.e. slavery.  The children then had to write a short poem about slavery.  There was a family of African descent in attendance that day, and those children wrote the poetic verses on the topic that day, far more insightful and sensitively written than anyone else in the room.  I wonder whether the topic being very close to their personal ancestral history has something to do with their ability to feel its relevance much deeper than the rest of us. 

Considering the gravity of this topic, I think the museum has handled the displays and the sessions with great care and sensitivity.  I was very interested in the reaction of the African family to this topic so I observed them for the whole day, in addition to paying attention to the sessions, of course.  It seemed to me that the mother was slightly uncomfortable with certain exhibits in the gallery and with some points that were discussed in the various sessions.  I imagine it must feel strange for someone of African descent to hear about the history of slavery from Europeans.  I personally would be very interested to hear the British side of the story about the Opium Wars but since this topic is not in the National Curriculum, I would not have the pleasure of seeing how it is taught to children in this country, if at all.
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