Living through the era of
the Napoleonic Wars c.1793-c.1815
These ideas were prompted by reading Jenny Uglow’s book In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars 1793-1815, published in 2014.
What follows is part enthusiastic review, part outline ideas for KS3 activities although this isn’t fully worked out and resourced – it's a range of ideas which might prompt others to develop or share their existing activities.
The Enthusiastic Review!
This is one of the best history books I’ve ever read, genuinely page-turning so that I always resented putting it down but then had the pleasure of looking forward to picking it up again. What made it so enjoyable was its focus on the everyday experiences of such a rich and varied range of people. We do follow the events of the wars and the deeds of the high-born and the famous but essentially this is the story of how those 22 years of war affected ‘the people’ – soldiers and sailors AND their wives and children, the traders and farmers growing wealthy because of the war (and sometimes not), local bankers going out of business or making a fortune because of the wars, the unfortunates captured by or on the run from the press gangs, French prisoners of war suffering in prison or enjoying socialising with local people, Englishmen losing income because those prisoners made and sold things cheaper other Englishmen making a hefty profit out of smuggling those French prisoners back to their homeland, midshipmen unborn when war began in 1793 sailing off to war several years before it ended in 1815.
So I was very sorry to reach the end – even after 740 pages. My dominant thought on completion of the book was a heightened awareness of the fragility and happenstance of life, exaggerated by war certainly but that fragility was and is the product of many other factors. The biggest puzzle I was left with was how Parliament could abolish slavery in the British empire yet countenance and support the press-gangs which really are the stuff of nightmares. The wide-ranging extent and ruthlessness of the press-gangs’ activities was truly shocking.
The Teaching Ideas
So what are these ideas that I haven’t got time – yet – to turn into activities? There’s a kind of logic to the sequence though you probably wouldn’t want to do them all.
1. A sense of period activity based around a number of visual images – what can you learn from these pictures about what it was like to live between 1790 and 1815? How was life then different from life in the mid-1600s and the 1900s?
2. How did the British feel about themselves in the 1780s? This is a washing line activity placing information about events in the 1770s and 1780s on a line from Confident to Despondent. This would provide brief context for the onset of war, covering the American War of Independence and loss of empire, Ireland, industrial change and conditions, rural poverty and protests against bread prices, anger over who could not vote etc.
3. How did people feel about the war? This would be a living graph with the vertical axis charting the path between fear and happiness and the horizontal axis running from 1793 to 1815. The task would be to draw the graph year by year based on the news headlines for each year – groups in the class could take responsibility for 6 year chunks to speed up the activity. The viewpoint could be a general one [British public opinion] or from different perspectives – radical and Tory. What’s so notable reading Jenny Uglow’s book was how varied reactions were, from year to year and in depth of support or opposition to war. Brought up as we are on apparently unanimously courageous domestic reactions to World War Two then very different story of reactions to the wars of 1793-1815 could be a revelation. The living graph could be turned into a physical graph with one student per year.
4. A living graph of a single year – to counter the generalisations of the overall graph you could tackle a single year and see how many ups and downs in responses to the war are visible – and in some years there were many! Even 1815 makes a good example. When raucous crowds gathered one June London evening London politicians didn’t know whether this was good news from the war or the latest outbreak of protest at bread prices rising.
5. Did anyone benefit from the wars? This would be another washing-line activity with one end marked ‘made a fortune’ and the other ’abject misery’. You could use 6 or 8 ‘normal’ individuals – merchants, urban workers, farmers, farm-workers, wives of sailors or soldiers but you could also then expand this to cover the famous people – Pitt, Wellington, Nelson – and the political radicals who hoped that the war would lead to political reform and social improvements.
6. The Battle of Waterloo – create maybe 8 cards, each in turn revealing a stage of the battle. Give them out one by one to students who have to chart who’s winning at each stage and maybe make a choice – what do you think will happen next of these 2 choices? You could split class into British, French, Prussians with an overall task of deciding why the French lost, what the turning points were, was it really such a close-run thing and who should get the credit.
7. A really big overview contextual activity covering the 1680s to 1914 about Britain’s place in the world. It would visually cover other wars and their causes, threats to dominate Europe or invade Britain and the development empire with the central question – was Waterloo the key turning point? This, despite its scale, would have to be do-able in one lesson so that the overview is visible! This of all activities gets my imagination working … but not yet!
So that’s it.
I feel mildly guilty about not providing all these as fully resourced and worked out activities but I’m daft like that!
You may be interested in exploring the website of Waterloo200 which does offer teaching activities – something of a mixed bag I think but then no single activity suits everyone.
You’ll find it at www.nam.ac.uk/waterloo200/
If you do have ideas and activities on this period and want to share through ThinkingHistory then do contact me.
Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.