Learning about Local History

It is always a pleasure to welcome school groups to Brighton History Centre, as we have many resources that can be used to support local history projects. Year 7 students from Cardinal Newman School have been coming for the past four years and this year’s visit, led as always by Jane Nash from Brighton Museum & Art Galleys’s learning department, was a great success. Over the course of six days, 330 children had the chance to find out more about the people living and working in some of Brighton’s oldest streets in the 19th century.

East Street, 1883. Image courtesy of James Gray Collection / The Regency Society
East Street, 1883. Image courtesy of James Gray Collection / The Regency Society

Using information from historic census returns and old street directories, the students were able to imagine what life might have been like. East Street, one of the streets students looked at, has been one of the town’s main shopping streets since the early 19thcentury, and Pike’s Brighton

Street directory extract, East Street 1861
Street directory extract, East Street 1861

Directory for 1881 lists milliners, jewellers, chocolate makers, perfumers and wine merchants among its occupants.  Census returns also highlight social change. In the Victorian era, different generations often lived under one roof and, while wealthy households tended to employed live-in staff, in poorer ones children were working from a relatively young age. Feedback from the students suggests that they acquire great research skills and enjoy the process. Judi and Leona commented that, ‘It was really interesting to see how the same building would change through the years, and how the residents…changed in occupation and nationality.’

Perhaps not surprisingly, the group seemed at home with the online resources, such as the genealogy websites Find My Past and Ancestry. Emilie and Esme said, ‘One of our favourite parts was going on the online census to find out more about the addresses we had been researching.’  But they were also given the opportunity to view census entries on microfilm, which Elena, Maddie and Bethany described as ‘a great experience and an immense resource’. Zoe, Ellie and Amelia said, ‘Looking at the actual street directories was really amazing because you could freely look at lots of books without too much guidance.’ Anya and Grace added that, ‘I felt like a proper historian, finding things out from old-fashioned books.’

Eliza Drogrez, chocolate maker in East Street 1897
Eliza Drogrez, chocolate maker in East Street 1897

The school’s visits to Brighton History Centre offered a valuable opportunity for students to work with primary historical sources and to undertake their own independent research as part of their local history project in school. To accompany each visit to the History Centre – and to put their learning into context – groups also visited some key streets in the Lanes with their teachers, to find out how and what architecture and the built environment could tell them about Brighton’s past.

Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre and Jane Nash, Schools Special Projects Officer

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