More than 1000 Year 9 students from secondary schools in Stevenage visited Knebworth House on 15,16, & 17th September, having received their call-up papers. Students from Barnwell School, The Barclay School, The John Henry Newman School, Marriotts School, The Nobel School, and Thomas Alleyn Academy were called to attend the WWI experience, which was organised by a partnership of Knebworth House Education & Preservation Trust, Stevenage Educational Trust and Stevenage Museum has been supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to bring a sense of wartime to life for these young people.
Actor-interpreters from ‘Time will Tell’ courtesy of the National Army Museum’s HLF-funded Building for the Future project really brought the sessions to life. The fierce Drill Sergeant met the students as they arrived and immediately assigned them to the eight regiments of the 1st Herts battalion. Speaking about the importance of discipline and following orders, he ordered them to line up smartly to await further instructions. The authenticity of the drill was made even more atmospheric each morning by the heavy mists rolling over the parkland. On Tuesday morning students from John Henry Newman saluted the Mayor of Stevenage Cllr Sherma Batson. Following the drill, students were marched swiftly to their first session.
Students particularly enjoyed learning about the role of animals in the war. Andy Smerdon, an Essex based amateur historian and horse owner and Jamie Quinn, a retired mounted policeman, introduced the children to the horse and mules stabled on site and explained the vital contribution that animals made at the front.
A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse told the children about her experience of hospital life and how it changed her as a young upper class woman who had never been out without a chaperone before. This excellent portrayal was complimented perfectly by the Knebworth House archive session which focused on the pioneering work of Pamela, Countess of Lytton. Students learnt how Pamela set up a Hospital for Soldiers in London staffed by VAD nurses. They had the opportunity to read about the soldier patients and their injuries and illnesses from the actual 1918 hospital log book from the archives. One pupil remarked, “The archive material was actually really interesting!” which is high praise from a 13 year old!
Dan Hill from the voluntary community group Herts at War led a very popular object handling session. It was the highlight for many students to say they had actually held a piece of First World War equipment or weaponry. Staff from Stevenage Museum brought some interesting original documents and personal letters from soldiers for the children to read, so that they became familiar with stories of local individuals in the Great War. Further background knowledge was provided by the showing of the film ‘Hertfordshire on the Home Front’ and an exhibition about WW1 and its impact on the East of England region provided by Lowewood Museum in Essex.
The ‘Meet a soldier’ and ‘Meet a chaplain’ sessions added detail of life at the front and were very moving, as the actor interpreters explored in role the themes of duty and conscience. They effectively combined light touches of humour with the tragedy of conflict and students were highly absorbed in these presentations.
Overall the event has been a great success. Hannah Brownlow, Education Officer at Knebworth House reported:
Having the chance to see the First World War brought to life by the actor interpreters, and handling original artefacts and archive material was an amazing learning opportunity for Stevenage schools. The pupils were so engaged and full of questions; it was a delight to share with them the previously untold story of Lady Pamela Lytton’s war time hospital. I have no doubt that they will remember this unique experience in our perfect historic setting for many years to come – I know I will!”
The feedback from the participating schools has been very positive. Lisa Naylor, Subject Leader for History and Politics, John Henry Newman School commented:
‘A wonderful day. Our year 9 students got so much out of all the experiences and were talking about it all the way back to school! It will certainly support our lessons when we start teaching WWI.’
Marina Breeze, SET Development Officer said: I have rarely seen young people so thoroughly engaged and inspired by what they were learning. They took part in the drill with enthusiasm, listened intently to the actors, responding with intelligent questions, and were fascinated by the artefacts they saw and touched. They were, without exception, a credit to their schools.
On departure, each student was given a souvenir information pack about wartime Stevenage and Lady Lytton’s Hospital for Soldiers. The event will launch a Great War writing competition in Stevenage secondary schools, with the winners being announced on or around 11th November 2014. Students are invited to write a letter home, diary entry, recount or poem in response to their experience choosing a viewpoint of a soldier, a chaplain or a VAD nurse. In light of the popularity of the film ‘War Horse’ and the book by Michael Morpurgo, they may alternatively write a recount as a war animal. Education Officer Hannah Brownlow is looking forward to receiving entries from the six participating schools by October half term.