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Approach 4 – Making the Industrial Revolution human through family history

It can be hard to make the Industrial Revolution human – the term too easily conjures up images of vast machines or disease-ridden slums populated by hundreds or thousands of people – but not individual human beings that we can relate to. I began thinking more about the human scale of the Industrial Revolution when I uncovered information about strands of my father’s ancestry. What emerged via census returns was splendidly ordinary but really useful for introducing two of the basic features of lives in the 19th century – movement from rural areas to towns and the resulting changes in types of work.

What follows is aimed at KS2 or KS3 students and isn’t detailed – it doesn’t have to be long – but it does benefit from being based on a real family with strong blood links to the teacher. It’s important that students ask questions and pull out the key points rather than me saying ‘this story tells us that …’.

I might start with the generation timeline idea as context [see Approach 1] – how far back am I going in generations and to introduce and identify my relationship with the key people below – but then it goes something like this:

Our only family photo from the period - but we don't know who the women are!Have I told you about my great-granddad? No …? Well, it’s about time I did. His name was Seth, Seth Duke. Seth was born way back in 1850, the youngest of 5 brothers and sisters. One of his sisters was called Sethina! Seth was born in the far north-west of England, in the Lake District, near a place called Ulverston. It was very rural and Seth’s father was a farmworker, just as his father had been and I suspect his father had been and so on back through time. When he was a lad Seth must have expected that he’d spend his life working with cattle, sheep and in other farming work.

But when Seth was about your age – his early teens – the family left their home and moved many miles away. I don’t know exactly when they moved, it was sometime in the 1850s, but by 1861 they were all living in Liverpool, one of the largest cities in Britain. After this Seth’s life was very different from what he’d expected, growing up in the countryside.

Now – what questions do you want to ask about Seth, his family and their story?

Asking Questions

What I’m after are questions such as:

  • Why did they move? [work probably – Seth’s father, John, was a ‘beer house keeper’ in 1851 so his earlier work as a herdsman – had gone. Maybe there was less farm work. ]
  • How did they get there? [Probably by steamship – there was weekly steamer from Bardsea to Liverpool]
  • Was it a success? [hard to tell – they did stay and didn’t go back]
  • What did Seth and his family do in Liverpool? [he worked in industry, making moulds used in iron-casting; he married and had a family. I must find out more about his brothers and sisters]
  • How do you know? [census material tells me about the family every ten years – where they lived, ages, jobs]

So Seth and his family can open up two very important strands of the Industrial Revolution – migration within Britain and changes in employment. The 1850s is obviously quite late in this Revolution but this has the advantage that you can focus on how much has changed (and when investigating a period such as the IR it’s often better to start at the end with the human effects and then go back to explore causes and events rather than automatically starting with causes because they came first chronologically. Similarly teaching about the English Reformation always goes better when you begin with the Dissolution and Pilgrimage of Grace, not Luther!). This could lead to a range of possible enquiry questions for investigation, such as:

  • How did the Industrial Revolution change the lives of Seth and the Duke family?
  • Which developments during of the Industrial Revolution were most important to the Duke family?
  • What was life like in Liverpool in the 1860s for Seth and his family?

And ideally students will come up with their own enquiry questions to explore.

Related Links

Finally, census pages provide a very concrete form of evidence to accompany this introductory story. Other valuable assets are historic maps such as the old Ordnance Survey maps that have been published and, in this instance, provide a graphic illustration of the wide-open space of Furness and the closely-cramped streets of Liverpool.

For such maps see

BACK to START                        NEXT APPROACH

This Page


Asking Questions

Related Links


Using Family Histories

Using Family Histories

  1: Generations

  2: Migration

  3: Sense of Period

  4: Industrial Revolution

  5: Changes in Everyday Life

  6: Overview of 20th Century

  7: Outbreak of WW2

  8: GCSE Medicine


The entire article (PDF)

My mother’s 1930s (PDF)

Dad’s 20th Century Lifetime (PDF)

My mother’s Wartime (PDF)

What do we owe our lives to? (PDF)