Thursday 11 July 2024

The rise & rise of the Paralympics - by Robin Scott-Elliot

That the Paralympics rose out of such a dark place, from the ashes of the Second World War, wounded men and a fugitive from the Nazis, says much. From its humble beginnings on the lawns of a Buckinghamshire hospital it has become one of the great global sporting events, shining a light on how sport, and Paralympic sport in particular, can be a force for good.

On 29 July 1948 at Stoke Mandeville, 16 men and women were pushed from their wards in cumbersome wheelchairs to take part in an archery competition. It was the same day as the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

That’s where it began, and this is what it’s become. On 28 August, 4,400 athletes from around the world will gather in Paris for the 18th summer Paralympics to compete for 549 gold medals across 22 sports. There will be athletes in wheelchairs, there will be athletes who are blind, athletes with cerebral palsy, athletes who run on blades. Channel 4, the Games broadcaster, like to call them the Super Humans and when you watch the blade-runners compete in the 100m, the blue ribband event of any Games, it’s impossible to disagree. But they’re also a bit of everything.

Martin Perry from Drumchapel in Scotland was born missing both hands and one leg. He started playing table tennis as a boy, his bat strapped to one arm with a swirl of Velcro. He’ll compete in his first Paralympics in Paris. 

Watching a warm-up session in the swimming pool at a Paralympics is an education in… well, what exactly? There is every size and shape there, from all over the world. I watched a Chinese swimmer with missing limbs stop the clock installed at the end of lanes by swimming into it headfirst. 

Inspiring is the word I kept being drawn to– and I really did find it just that – but there are many athletes who’d disagree. Before the London Games, I was repeatedly told ‘just write about us as you’d write about any athlete.’ 

Natalie du Toit lost a leg in a scooter accident. She won 13 Paralympic golds in the pool. “It’s not inspiring, it’s about showing people it is possible,” she said. “Hopefully, people go out there and live life to the fullest, whether it be disabled people, old, young, whatever. Every day you can learn. I was always given the advice that the day you stop learning is the day that you will die.”

Aled Sion Davies, a multiple gold medallist who competes with a prosthetic right leg, talks of watching a young girl run across London’s Olympic Park in 2012 wearing shorts, two prosthetic limbs on show. Davies said he didn’t dare wear shorts until he was 17.

London 2012 is seen by many as a pivotal moment in the Paralympic movement, and for the wider recognition in this country of people with disabilities. From the beginning, Britain has played a full part in getting where we are today (and there is, of course, plenty more road to be travelled).

Doctor Ludwig Guttmann

Sport both matters and matters not a jot. Doctor Ludwig Guttmann knew that. 

It begins with him. Guttmann is one of the good guys; a German Jew who’d got out just in time, arriving in Britain in 1939 having already helped friends and family escape Nazi Germany. He was an expert in spinal injuries and began work at Stoke Mandeville in 1944. By 1948 he’d his hands full with young men with shattered lives, young men who’d gone to war and now faced life in a wheelchair.

Guttmann wanted to show them they still had everything to live for – he was also a believer in the worth of sport for both physical and mental health – so, with the Olympics down the road, came up with an idea for his patients, a Wheelchair Games.   

I wonder who they were, those first 16? Did they take part in the archery competition enthusiastically? Were there some who’d rather have stayed in their rooms? And who won? What happened to them? Did it make a difference?

Doctor Ludwig Guttmann presenting medals 
at an early Wheelchair Games 

When I was a sports journalist, I was always fascinated by the back story – how did they get here? And no event I’ve covered produced back stories like the Paralympics.

There’s Achmat Hassiem. I spoke to him ahead of London 2012. He’d lost a leg in a shark attack off Muizenberg beach on the Cape peninsula – lost a leg because he distracted the shark to give his younger brother time to get out of the water. His actions saved his brother’s life. Achmat struggled to deal with his new life until a visit from Natalie du Toit. He got back in the water – not just the pool, but, once he’d dealt with the fear, into the sea as well.

There’s Bradley Snyder. I was with a couple of other journalists in the corridor leading from the London 2012 swimming pool when we spoke to him. He’d just won gold, a year to the day from being blinded while trying to diffuse an explosive device planted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. His eyes were surgically removed and replaced with prosthetics. He was softly spoken. “I don’t point any fingers,” he said. “I was doing a risky job and I take full responsibility for what happened and that’s why I've been able to be successful over the past year because I don’t blame anyone and I haven’t victimised myself.”

There’s Martine Wright, a sitting volleyballer who lost her legs in a terrorist attack in London. She’d stayed in bed for five minutes longer that morning – if she’d got straight up when her alarm went off, she wouldn’t have been on the train with the bomber.

There’s more, many more. Those born the way they are and those who’ve become the way they are. So many stories. So many different lives. 

Those words from Natalie du Toit again… “It’s about showing people it is possible. Hopefully, people go out there and live life to the fullest, whether it be disabled people, old, young, whatever.”

The Paralympics begin in Paris on 28 August – give it a watch.




Monday 1 July 2024

A history of voting reform - by Susan Brownrigg

On Thursday July 4th, the U.K will go to the polls to vote in the General Election. Eligible voters will select from a list of candidates who they would like to represent them as their member of parliament - MP for their area (constituency.)

To vote you must

  • be registered to vote
  • be 18 or over on the day of the election (‘polling day’)
  • be a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen
  • be resident at an address in the UK or living abroad and registered as an overseas voter
  • not be legally excluded from voting
You can vote in person, or register to vote by post.

In the past very few people had the right to vote. 200 years ago, all women and most men without property were illegible, meaning only approximately 2.7% of the population had the right to vote!

In the 1708, after the Acts of Union which united the parliaments of England and Scotland, the General Election took place between April 30th and July 7th - as different constituencies (areas) voted at different times back then, rather than on one day.

Today there are 650 constituencies with each appointing one MP. 200 years ago seats in the House of Commons were not split so equally!

The Industrial Revolution had brought great change, towns boomed with a huge increase in population and yet, big towns like Birmingham and Manchester did not have an MP, so the people had no representation. Yet Cornwall which had a similar population to Manchester had 42 seats in the House of Commons!

Some places were called 'rotten boroughs' because they had such a small electorate (people allowed to vote) and yet they had an unrepresentative influence.

Old Sarum in Wiltshire was an uninhabited hill but still elected two MPs.

Demand for reform grew, with riots taking place in Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham.

In Lancashire, life was extremely hard for working people, wages were low, living conditions were poor and food was very expensive, so people were hungry all the time. They decided to gather for a peaceful protest in the centre of Manchester, on open land called St Peter's Field, on the morning of 16th August 1819.

Over 60,000 men, women and children, many dressed in their Sunday best, took part, carrying banners pro-democracy and anti-poverty banners bearing the words reform, equal representation and universal suffrage. Many of the banners' poles were topped with a red cap of liberty, as seen in the image below.

The Peterloo Massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester

They were also looking forward to hearing a speech from Henry Hunt, who was nicknamed the Orator and was a advocate of universal suffrage and annual parliaments.

Worried about so many people gathering, hundreds of soldiers and special constables were summoned, in case there was trouble.

Local magistrates on seeing so many people assembling panicked read the Riot Act, which meant the people had to disperse. They also sent in the local Yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry made up of local shop owners and mill owners) to arrest Henry Hunt.

As the men rode towards Henry Hunt, the protestors linked arms. The Yeomanry, on horseback, and armed with sabres and clubs, struck out at the banners and the people.

In the violent chaos, an estimated 18 people including four women and a child died from trampling or sabre cuts. Nearly 700 were seriously injured. Some died several days after being hurt.

A new memorial plaque in Manchester now acknowledges
 the lives lost and the many who were injured 
Photo Susan Brownrigg

An inquiry cleared the Hussars and the Magistrates of any wrong-doing.

The event became known as The Peterloo Massacre - and is now believed to have heavily influenced the change to ordinary people getting the vote.

The Peterloo Massacre Monument in Manchester
 City Centre includes the names of those killed
Photo by Susan Brownrigg

While researching my next book, Wrong Tracks, a mystery inspired by the early railways and the Rainhill Trials, I discovered that on the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, that protestors gathered again in Manchester.

The Prime Minister's railway carriage (red and gold) on
Opening Day of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

The guest of honour for the opening was the Prime Minister, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. His carriage was very elaborate in red and gold, topped off with a coronet.

The Duke of Wellington was resolutely opposed to voting reform and he was warned that protestors were waiting for his arrival. 

A tragic accident, at Parkside which resulted in the death of another passenger, Liverpool's MP, William Huskisson, meant the Duke of Wellington wanted to turn back, but he was persuaded to continue on.

On his late arrival, the protestors waved banners marked No Corn Laws and Vote by Ballot and two tricolore flags. The Duke of Wellington was booed and hissed at, and his carriage was pelted with vegetables.

Just a few weeks after opening day, Wellesley told Parliament, "the constitution needed no improvement and that he would resist any measure of parliamentary reform as long as he was in office." Fearful of serious social unrest, his party rebelled. The Prime Minister lost a vote of confidence and a week later he was replaced as Prime Minister by Earl Grey.

Earl Grey set about reforming Britain's electoral system, resulting in the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 saw the number of MPs increased and now middle class men (who owned or lived in property worth £10 rental a year were now allowed to vote.

Further reform acts in 1867 gave the vote to working men, those in urban areas first, then rural areas, but women were still rejected.

From the mid 1890s onwards groups of women joined together to campaign for the vote - they became known as suffragists. There were regional groups, especially in urban centres like Manchester.

Suffragists campaigned using peaceful methods such as lobbying parliament.

Suffragettes were women who were determined to win the vote by any means. They believed in 'deeds not words.' They were led by Emmeline Pankhurst, who was born in Moss Side, Manchester.

The Rise Up, Women statue in St Peter's Square, Manchester,
depicts Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragist movement
Photo Susan Brownrigg

It wasn't until after WWI, in 1918, that the Representation of the People Act saw the vote given to all men aged over 21 and women aged over 30 with property - and not until 1928 for all women to be given the vote.

In 1969 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

Author Susan Brownrigg at the Reform Pillar, Parbold
Photo Susan Brownrigg

The monument, known locally as The Parbold Bottle was erected by two local quarry owners to celebrate King William IV asking the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, to introduce a reform bill.

The Duke of Wellington was opposed to the railways for the rest of his life as they "encourage the lower classes to travel about."

Susan Brownrigg is a working class Lancashire lass. She is the author of the 1930s Blackpool Gracie Fairshaw mystery series and Kintana and the Captain's Curse, a treasure hunt adventure set in Madagascar during the golden age of piracy.
Wrong Tracks will be published in 2025.

Find out more at

Wednesday 26 June 2024

Who? Tom Palmer on Finding Characters for your Historical Fiction


When I write a history story I have to decide when the action is going to take place – and also where to set it. I also have to decide what is going to happen based on the setting. Then how it happens. And why it happens. But – for me – writing historical fiction always has to begin with the character.

The who. That who is usually a real person who lived through a period of history that fascinates me. That’s my character.

Once I have the who, the where and when look after themselves. That’s my setting. I need to set the book in the time and place that person lived. If you are basing your story on a real person this is the easy part.

Now – with more research in books, online and in film, maybe – I can find out what they did. Along with how they did what they did, I have a plot or a storyline.

And, finally, why. What motivated my historical figure to do what they did? 

That’s my WRITING CHALLENGE for all you young Time Tunnellers. 

Can you think up a good idea for a story based on a real historical figure that you are interested in? 

Now ask yourself the questions:

Who do you want to write about from history? 
When did they live? 
And where were they when they made their contribution to history? 
What did they do in that time and place that so interests you? 
How did they go about it? 
And – very importantly – why? 

For me this is the starting point for every book I write. Some answers come easier than others, but, if you keep going and research deeply into your who, where, when, what, how and why, then you should have a decent story on your hands.

Tom Palmer is the author of over 60 children's books, including award-winning historical fiction for young people. 
Find out more about Tom here

Wednesday 19 June 2024

William Shakespeare Part 2: London - Another Classroom Activity

Like the post on William Shakespeare, Part 1 - Stratford, this week's Time Tunnellers post will offer another interactive and fun classroom jumping quiz.

Use masking take to mark out a long line on the floor.

Invite as many volunteers to participate as you can fit on the line. They should stand on it.

Explain: A jumping quiz works in the following way.

There are ten statements which you (as the teacher) will read out.

The statements will either be true or false. Pupils should think about their answer (which may well be a guess), but not give anything away.

Then you say 'Ready, steady, JUMP!' On the command, pupils should jump forwards for 'true', and backwards for 'false'. You can then reveal the answer.

As there are ten statements, pupils can keep track of their own scores on their fingers. Apart from being fun and interactive, jumping quizzes are great for engagement: even those watching can participate by deciding on an answer and awarding themselves points if they were right.

In addition, cheating is all but impossible: you can't turn yourself around in mid-air, can you!

So without further ado, here are ten questions based on our video!

1. William Shakespeare moved to Liverpool to work in the theatre. (FALSE - London)

2. Some of the earliest references to Shakespeare's plays were in theatre owner Philip Henslowe's Diary. (TRUE)

3. Henslowe owned the Globe Theatre. (FALSE, he owned the Rose Theatre)

4. The Rose Theatre was on the North bank of the Thames. (FALSE, the South Bank)

5. Another playwright, Robert Black, was jealous of Shakespeare. (FALSE, Robert Greene)

6. Greene called Shakespeare and 'upstart swan'. (FALSE, 'upstart crow')

7. Shakespeare was a shareholder in the Globe Theatre. (TRUE)

8. Shakespeare was well known and popular in his own time. (TRUE)

9. Plays were also performed at inn courtyards. (TRUE)

10. Shakespeare's brother is buried in Salisbury cathedral. (FALSE, Southwark Cathedral)

TIE BREAKER QUESTIONS (in case of a draw between top scorers):

A. Queen Elizabeth I often attended theatres. (FALSE, she saw their performances at court, in her palaces)

B. Shakespeare's portrait hangs in the National Gallery in London. (FALSE, Portrait Gallery)

Barbara Henderson is one of the regular Time Tunnellers and an award-winning author of eleven books, eight of them historical adventures for children.
Find out more on her website.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Taking inspiration from the world of the Brontës - Miriam Halahmy

Haworth 1847. When Mother and her beloved twin brothers are taken by the Haworth ‘miasma’, to keep her family from the workhouse, Kate, 15, takes a job at the Parsonage, home to the Brontë family. Kate dreams of being a writer. Poverty and gender stand in her way and Luke Feather who wants to marry her, believes writing a waste of time.
When Charlotte Brontë discovers Kate’s passion for books and writing, an important friendship develops. Kate begins to embrace Charlotte’s radical ideas of equality and is thrilled when she spots clues that the Brontë sisters are writing stories. But how can Kate achieve her ambitions to write, while locked into the daily struggle to survive in Haworth?

I have also written since childhood and have been fascinated by the Brontës’ ever since I first visited their home, The Parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire and saw one of the tiny books displayed under a magnifying glass. Patrick Brontë, their father, was the Reverend in the church which they could see from their bedroom windows. Sadly the children lost their mother and two older sisters in early childhood. The four remaining children became very close and their writing was the centre of their lives together.

I have read the Brontë novels and have always loved nineteenth century fiction. But in 2016 a new biography of Charlotte Brontë was published by Claire Harman. In this book she writes how a new servant comes to work at the Parsonage, Martha Brown. Martha is strong and very willing – but she is only eleven years old!

The Bronte Parsonage (Photo: Miriam Halahmy)

“I am just going to write because I cannot help it.”

Charlotte Brontë wrote these passionate words as a teenage girl. By that time, together with her sisters and brother, Emily, Anne and Branwell, she had been writing since childhood. These were the famous little books written in very tiny script, so that adults couldn’t spy on their imaginary worlds. It is estimated that Charlotte wrote about 100,000 words before she started Jane Eyre, her most famous novel.

Charlotte's little book - 1830 - aged 14 years (Photo: Miriam Halahmy)

Now here comes the mystery of fiction. This sentence triggered a What If in my mind. What if a girl – Kate, fifteen years, very poor, – comes to work at the Parsonage. Kate has a secret ambition to write, and she is gifted. And what if Kate comes to the attention of Charlotte Brontë?
That was enough to send me into a spin. I immediately began reading everything about the Brontës I could lay my hands on and started writing scenes and characters. This was a very exciting idea and I was determined to write the book. But I needed some help.
I was awarded an Art Council Grant to research and write the book. Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum opened the archives for me.

Researching in the Bronte Parsonage Museum archives (Photos: Miriam Halahmy)

Haworth is such a gift to a novelist. The old village is untouched in many places. It is really possible to walk down the steep cobbled Main Street and imagine walking in the footsteps of the famous novelist family. In the Parsonage you can enter their rooms, the kitchen, Patrick’s study and even see the dining table where the sisters wrote their novels. I would stand for ages, imagining scenes for my book and taking photos.

Main Street, Haworth (Photo: Miriam Halahmy)

The sisters' dining table (Photo: Miriam Halahmy)

We also know that the sisters and Branwell walked all over the moors above the village. I walked in their footsteps in snow, sunshine and rain, with the wind wuthering and the larks rising above me on fine days. I’ve seen heather in bloom, the dew ponds left behind from the old quarries and the remains of the three Withins farms. Top Withins might have been the setting for Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

At the ruins of Top Withins (Photo: Miriam Halahmy)

I spent a year researching my book and then a year writing it. It's been a wonderful journey and now I have all the pleasure of taking my book out into the world. It is proudly on display in the Parsonage Museum bookshop and I have been invited to speak in schools and universities. I hope that my story of a poor girl who comes under the influence of Charlotte Brontë, will encourage a whole new generation of readers to explore the writing and the radical ideas of the Brontë sisters, as much as they have inspired me.

On the shelves at The Bronte Parsonage bookstore (Photo: Miriam Halahmy)

Miriam Halahmy has published eleven novels, three collections of poetry, short stories, articles and book reviews. She has been writing 'since she could hold a pencil' and the most important thing she did as a child was reading. Miriam was a teacher for twenty five years and continues to enjoy meeting young people to talk about her lifelong love of literature and her personal commitment to writing. Her books have been published in America, translated into several languages, adapted for the stage and she has been twice nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Miriam has been fascinated by the Brontë family since childhood and her latest novel, The Bronte Girl, has allowed her to immerse herself in the work and lives of the most famous literary family in the world.

Website :

Instagram : miriamhalahmy

Wednesday 5 June 2024

D-Day 80th anniversary special - by Robin Scott-Elliot

Bob Johns paused on the stairs and cocked his head to one side. He could hear his father’s snores. He smiled to himself and stepped carefully down into the hall of 129 Jervis Road, the small, terraced house in Portsmouth where he’d spent the first 14 years of his life.

Outside, he pulled the front door quietly shut behind him and sat on the steps to put his shoes on before plunging his hands into his pockets, turning up his jacket collar and hurrying off past the Royal Navy dockyards. Did he look back? If he did it would have been the last time Bob Johns ever saw home.

Bob Johns

Fast forward a couple of years, to the early hours of 6 June 1944 and Bob Johns was taking a deep breath before leaping into the night sky above Normandy, one of the first… I was going to say men to take part in D-day but Bob Johns was not a man, he was a boy. Bob Johns was 16, and he shouldn’t have been there.

His story is one of so many found within the history of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe 80 years ago, the day of days for so many young men and the end of days for plenty among them.

I have read and written plenty about D-day – including a podcast, Wars That Shaped The World – and been interested in it since I was a teenager and persuaded my parents to drive us from our home in Belgium so I could go and walk the ground, see Pegasus Bridge, Omaha beach, St Mere Eglise and all the other places that fill the history books.

Yet for all that I only came across the story of Bob Johns this week, stumbled over it while looking up something else. It’s why history fascinates me – there is always something new to learn, to discover to understand. History is always alive.

I can’t remember if we stopped in Ranville on that teenage trip or subsequent visits. Ranville, a small Norman village, occupies a footnote in history – it was the first village or town in France to be liberated. Among the men of the 6th Airborne Division who drove the Germans out at 2.30am was the boy Bob.

He's still there in Ranville, laid to rest forever in the war cemetery outside the village. On his white marble tombstone, the curved top matching all the other 2,417 graves, is carved the winged badge of the Parachute Regiment, the date of his death and his age, 16. It’s an age that places him exactly between my two daughters.

Bob's grave

There is an inscription on it, requested by his parents, Henry and Daisy… ‘He died as he lived, fearlessly.’

He was the second of Henry and Daisy’s five children to be killed in the war. His eldest brother, William, had been lost at sea in 1940 when his submarine was sunk in the Atlantic.

Perhaps that’s where the impulse came from for Bob to run off and join the army. When he turned up at the recruiting office, the sergeant must have had his suspicions, although Bob was tall and broad for his age – but nevertheless his age was only 14. The sergeant looked the other way and Bob was in.

By January 1944 he had sailed through the parachute training school. “He loved being a paratrooper,” his commanding officer, Jack Watson, was to recall after the war. “He was a very big chap and very capable. He was always ready to help people and really was fearless.”

He jumped into Normandy not long after the clock had hurried past midnight on 6 June to signal the beginning of D-day. Bob and his company were to spend 11 days on the frontline around Ranville and after a brief break were back in action in the bloody battle for Normandy. Some veterans have described this as the time of their lives, and from what we know of Bob this does sound like the time of his young life.

Back home, that was not how his parents saw it. When he’d disappeared, they searched with mounting desperation for their son. Not a single friend knew where he’d gone, or if they did they didn’t let on. The local recruitment office said they’d not seen him (he must have joined up away from Portsmouth). Henry and Daisy filled an ‘Under-age enlistment’ form and waited for the army to send him home to his mum and dad. Except this was not a priority within the armed forces – there was a war on.

At last, the Military Police picked up his trail. He was tracked down to his unit, the 13th (South Lancs) battalion of the Parachute regiment. Two MPs were dispatched across the Channel to find Bob – he was two young to fight. He should not be in Normandy.

On 23 July 1944, Bob was two days from turning 17. He’d no idea the net was closing in on him. He had a war to fight, a war he’d been fighting for six weeks. His platoon was dug in at the Le Mesnil crossroads. At 10am firing broke out. This is how his battalion’s war diary recorded what happened.

“At 1140hrs an OR [other rank] of the Anti-Rank Platoon was shot dead by a sniper from the area 146725. In retaliation we attacked [the sniper’s position] with mortars and PIATs at 1400hrs.”

That was it – the OR was Bob Johns, shot dead by a German sniper. Coincidentally, I read of the death of my great uncle Ronnie in the First World War in the same way; a brief sentence in a war diary that ends with him being shot by a sniper.

A few days later the two MPs arrived in Normandy with orders to take Bob Johns home to his mum and dad. They were too late. Instead of their son Harry and Daisy received a telegram… their boy Bob was dead for king and country, aged 16.

Robin Scott-Elliot has been a sports journalist for 25 years with the BBC, ITV, the Sunday Times, the Independent and the ‘i’, covering every sport you can think of and a few you probably can’t. He threw that all away to move home to Scotland and chase his dream of writing books instead of football reports. Once there his daughters persuaded him to write a story for them and that is how his career as a children's author began. Finding Treasure Island is his latest book and is published by Cranachan.

Sunday 26 May 2024

William Shakespeare, Part 1: A Classroom Activity

Much has been written about Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon.

This week's Time Tunnellers post will instead offer an interactive and fun classroom activity: A Jumping Quiz.

Use masking take to mark out a long line on the floor. Invite as many volunteers to participate as you can fit on the line. They should stand on it. 

Explain: A jumping quiz works in the following way.

There are ten statements which you (as the teacher) will read out. The statements will either be true or false.

Pupils should think about their answer (which may well be a guess), but not give anything away.

Then you say 'Ready, steady, JUMP!' On the command, pupils should jump forwards for 'true', and backwards for 'false'. You can then reveal the answer.

As there are ten statements, pupils can keep track of their own scores on their fingers.

Apart from being fun and interactive, jumping quizzes are great for engagement: even those watching can participate by deciding on an answer and awarding themselves points if they were right.

In addition, cheating is all but impossible: you can't turn yourself around in mid-air, can you!

So without further ado, here are ten questions based on our video!

1. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. (TRUE)

2. William Shakespeare married a lady called Mary Arden. (FALSE, Mary was his mother!)

3. The Shakespeare home was on Hamley Street. (FALSE, Henley Street)

4. William Shakespeare's Dad was a glovemaker. (TRUE)

5. William Shakespeare became a player and playwright in London. (TRUE)

6. William was the youngest surviving son of the Shakespeare family. (FALSE, eldest)

7. Shakespeare's son Hamnet tragically died at the age of five. (FALSE, eleven)

8. The bedrooms in the Shakespeare house were upstairs. (TRUE)

9. The Shakespeare coat of arms above the door shows a quill. (FALSE, an arrow)

10. The schoolmaster in Shakespeare's school taught Latin and French. (FALSE, Latin and Greek)

TIE BREAKER QUESTIONS (in case of a draw between top scorers):

A. Shakespeare attended the Grammar School from the age of five. (FALSE, seven)

B. Shakespeare's portrait hangs in the National Gallery in London. (FALSE, Portrait Gallery)

Barbara Henderson is one of the regular Time Tunnellers and an award-winning author of eleven books, eight of them historical adventures for children.

Find out more on her website.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

One step from the workhouse - Ally Sherrick

My grandad – born into a working-class family in late Victorian England – led an eventful life. Sadly, I never got to hear about it first-hand as he died of ill-health brought on by his experiences as a gunner for the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, 15 years before I was born. But one of the many stories my dad told us about him was that he had been born in a workhouse in Camberwell, south London. More recent research into our family tree has revealed that several of our other ancestors also spent time in workhouses during the course of their lives. 

Image of workhouse records showing list of names of inmates

        Workhouse record showing names of my grandad and great-grandmother

I remember learning something about the workhouse system and why it came into being in history lessons on the Industrial Revolution at school. First created through the enactment of the New Poor Law in 1834, three years before Queen Victoria came to the throne, it replaced the earlier ramshackle system of assistance or ‘poor relief’ for those who couldn’t work due to age or disability, in operation since Elizabethan times.

Drawing showing paupers on the street

Victorian 'paupers' 
(Photo of original drawing in Southwell Workouse - Ally Sherrick)

Under the law, a network of hundreds of specially designed institutions were set up to give shelter to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Commonly referred to as ‘paupers’ or ‘the destitute’, these were people who couldn’t afford to feed or clothe themselves and who would otherwise have ended up living, and in many cases dying, on the streets – forced to beg or else turn to a life of crime to support themselves. They included the unemployed, the elderly, unmarried mothers, women whose husbands had deserted them and people with physical or mental disabilities. In the absence of unemployment benefit, state pensions and the health and social care provided by the modern welfare state, unless they were granted money or help to continue living at home – ‘out-relief’ – the workhouse was their only recourse.

Drawing of elderly women inmates sitting on benches in workhouse

Elderly women workhouse inmates 
(Photo of original drawing in Southwell Workhouse - Ally Sherrick)

Workhouses were a contradictory blend of things. On the one hand they were designed to provide much needed support in the form of food, clothes and a roof over the head to those unable to look after themselves. But through their policy of separating families – wives from husbands, parents from children – and the heavily-supervised regime of dull routine and gruelling manual labour able-bodied inmates were expected to undertake – they were also intended to act as deterrents, discouraging people from regarding them as an alternative to employment and pushing them instead to do all they could to fend for themselves.

Drawing of men making bricks in workhouse yard

Gruelling manual labour was expected of all able-bodied inmates
(Photo of original drawing in Southwell Workhouse - Ally Sherrick)

Photo of fragments of rope picked apart by hand known with sign explaining oakum-picking

Oakum-picking was a particularly tough job, often carried out by women inmates 
(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

Institutions were run by a Governor, or Master, and a Matron who was responsible for overseeing the women and children and ensuring the provision of nursing care. They reported to a committee of unpaid Guardians, elected by each parish from amongst local ratepayers, whose taxes funded the workhouse. Regional Inspectors would visit the workhouses on their patch to check they were abiding by the rules set out under the New Poor Law. Though many were well-run, there were sadly also examples of inmates, like poor Oliver Twist and his friends in CharlesDickens’ novel of the same name, being badly treated and insufficiently fed, plus instances of staff corruption too. A combination of factors – the general stigma associated with having to go into a workhouse in the first place, the loss of independence and tough conditions once inside, and stories of harsh treatment and brutality – meant that most people regarded them as a place of last resort, to be avoided at all costs.

(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

Family ancestry research has revealed that like Oliver Twist, my grandad was born in a workhouse to an unmarried mother – my great-grandmother – who was admitted when she was in labour at the age of 17 years. In late Victorian England, to fall pregnant when you were unmarried was frowned upon and meant that you risked being cast out into the world by your family with no means of support. My great-grandmother’s own mother had died when she was tiny, and for her, it seems that seeking admission to the workhouse infirmary to give birth was probably the only real option to get the help and care she needed. The records suggest that she was in the workhouse for less than a month and then left – presumably with my grandad. We don't know where they went after. Perhaps back to the family. But if they had stayed longer, what would life have been like for them as inmates? Last summer I had the chance to find out on a visit to an incredible survivor from those times.

Photo of main entrance to Southwell Workhouse and Infirmary

Main entrance to Southwell Workhouse and Infirmary (Photo: Steve Smith)

Southwell Workhouse in Nottinghamshire, now in the care of the National Trust, is one of the earliest and most complete examples of a 19th century workhouse to survive in the country. Largely unaltered from its original construction in 1824, it provided the prototype for all other workhouses under the New Poor Law system.

Poster showing workhouse rules for Southwell Workhouse

Workhouse rules 
(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

Visitors today can explore all aspects of workhouse life from the work rooms, exercise yards and dormitories used by the inmates, to the infirmary – where the sick were cared for and women, like my great-grandmother gave birth – and staff quarters. I could easily write a whole series of blogs on what I discovered on my visit, but as space is tight, here are just a few insights into what it was like to be a child inmate.

Photo showing beds in dormitory in Southwell Workhouse

Inmates slept in shared dormitories 
(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

You may be admitted with your parents after they sought financial help from the parish, or else as an orphan or because you’d been abandoned – a sad reality for many children born into poverty in those days. Or maybe, like my grandad, you ended up being born there because your mother couldn’t get medical attention or support anywhere else. On admission, your clothes and any other belongings you might have with you would be confiscated, fumigated and stored away to be returned to you when you were eventually discharged. In their place you were given a workhouse uniform, usually made of coarse blue cloth.

Kept apart and sorted out

If you were admitted with siblings, you might be allowed to stay together, depending on your age. But if arriving with your parents, you would be separated from them since all able-bodied adults capable of work but who weren’t in a job (known in Victorian times as the ‘undeserving poor’) were regarded as a bad influence, including on their own offspring!

Your parents could request to see you, on a fixed day of the week, and always under the supervision of the Master or Matron in charge.

Like the adult inmates, children were divided into classes. These were:

·        Boys aged 7-12 years (later 7-15 years)

·        Girls aged 7-15 years

·        Children under 7

A strict timetable

Just as for the adults, you would be expected to follow a strict timetable. You would get up with the rising bell (6am in the summer, an hour later in winter), put on your uniform, get washed, make your bed and empty your chamber pot. Prayers and breakfast would be followed by lessons in the classroom. Dinner was served at 12 noon with time for recreation followed by work-related training in the afternoon. This was followed by supper at 6pm with a little more time for recreation, then prayers and bed at 8pm. Sunday was a day of rest as were Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Photo showing part of laundry at Southwell Workhouse with various implements

Laundry work was carried out by women and girls 
(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

Reading, writing and arithmetic

As a child inmate you had one advantage over other working-class children in the early days of the workhouse system at least, receiving a basic formal education long before it became compulsory in wider society. If you were under seven, you would be taught in mixed classes. If older, you would find yourself in a class of either boys or girls taught by a school master or mistress. The main subjects, taught for three hours each morning, were basic arithmetic, reading and writing with religious instruction given by a chaplain. 

Photo showing blackboard in workhouse classroom

(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

In the afternoon, you could expect to be given ‘industrial training’ – most likely gardening for the boys and needlework, cookery or working in the laundry for the girls. In this way, the thinking went, you would be better equipped on leaving to find employment, whether in domestic service or working in a factory or on the land. And the authorities hoped, less likely to end up back inside the workhouse again.

Food, but not so glorious …

Breakfast was a simple meal of bread and gruel – a type of thin porridge.

Dinner – the lunchtime meal – was usually made up of boiled meat, peas and potatoes or else soup or suet pudding with portions carefully weighed out according to the age category of the child – so the youngest children got the smallest amount of food.

Supper was a repeat of breakfast – with bread and more of that tasty gruel!

This sort of fare might sound boring by our modern standards but, provided the workhouse was well run and the inmates were given what they were entitled to, it was a reasonably well-balanced diet, though perhaps a little lacking in Vitamin C.

The only variation in the menu was on Christmas Day when you could look forward to a meal of roast beef and plum pudding.

The end of the workhouse

The Poor Law was brought to an end in 1929 and workhouses – now known as ‘institutions’ – passed into the care of local authorities. Any children remaining in them were moved to specialist homes though unfortunately this meant they often saw their parents even less than they had before. Things changed again with the introduction of the Welfare State in 1948 and many former workhouses became state hospitals in the new National Health Service.

As for the workhouse infirmary in Camberwell my grandad was born in, it is now a smart-looking residential apartment block, something he would find hard to conceive of I’m sure. 

Workhouse stories

Besides Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the experience of children in workhouses has also been brought to life by a number of brilliant children’s authors writing in more recent times. Two of my favourites are:

Street Child by Berlie Doherty about a young boy called Jim Jarvis who is carted off to the workhouse with his sick mother. After her tragic death, Jim escapes and ends up in further peril on the streets of Victorian London.

TheTwisted Threads of Polly Freeman by Pippa Goodhart which charts the life of a young girl called Polly, sent to a London workhouse after she and her ‘Aunt’ – a thief – are evicted and made homeless. From there it follows Polly on a journey to Quarry Bank Cotton Mill in Cheshire where she is sent to become a mill-girl apprentice.

Photo showing book covers of Street Child and The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman

(Photo: Ally Sherrick)

Writing Challenge

Imagine you have been forced to enter the workhouse for the first time. Ask yourself these questions:

Why did you have to go there?

Have you come in with your parents? What do you feel about being separated from them if you have? And what about your brothers and sisters?

What are your first impressions of the place? Think about things like the strict rules and routines; the lack of privacy and having to share sleeping quarters; the sort of food you’re given to eat. What do you make of having to go to school? Perhaps it’s for the first time? And what sort of work are you given to do in the afternoons? Are the Master and Matron kind to you, or do they make things a whole lot worse like they did in Oliver Twist?

Do you miss your life outside the workhouse, even though it must have been hard. And do think you might try and run away? Or is it better to stay where you’ll have a roof over your head, food to eat and the chance to learn how to read and write?

Write your thoughts down, then have a go a turning them into the start of a story, a diary or perhaps a comic strip.  Happy writing!  

Photo showing author Ally Sherrick standing outside Southwell Workhouse and Infirmary with allotment gardens in foreground

Ally outside Southwell Workhouse and Infirmary
(Photo: Steve Smith)

Source material for information on the New Poor Law and life in a workhouse comes from 'The Workhouse Southwell' Guidebook published by National Trust.

Ally Sherrick is the award-winning author of stories full of history, mystery and adventure.

BLACK  POWDER, her debut novel about a boy caught up in the Gunpowder Plot, won the  Historical Association’s Young Quills Award. Other titles include THE BURIED CROWN, a wartime tale with a whiff of Anglo-Saxon myth and magic and THE QUEEN’S FOOL, a story of treachery and treason set at the court of King Henry VIII. Ally’s latest book with Chicken House Books, is VITA AND THE GLADIATOR, the story of a young girl’s fight for justice in the high-stakes world of London’s gladiatorial arena. It has been shortlisted for a Young Quills Award.

For more information about Ally and her books visit  You can also follow her on Twitter @ally_sherrick

Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Victorian art of correspondence - by guest author Alison D Stegert with resources


Mobile phones, FaceTime, WhatsApp, social media… It’s hard to imagine the world without instant communications, but if you ask any older person, they will tell you that staying in touch has not always been as easy as it is today.

The Dawn of Modern Communication

Let’s go back 150 years to the middle of the reign of Queen Victoria. The 1800s was a century of change and innovation. Industry, transportation, commerce, and medicine all saw rapid advances, and so did communications. How did people stay in touch in the late 1800s?

A new communication system was Samuel Morse’s telegraph, a system of electrical pulses sent along a wire. The pulses – dots and dashes – formed an alphabet called Morse code. A specially trained telegraphist tapped the message onto the wire and, at the other end of the wire seconds later, another telegraphist transcribed the message. The number of words determined the price of the telegram, so they were often abruptly short. Delivery of the message cost an additional fee. People found telegrams expensive and inconvenient, so they didn’t take off as a common means of staying in touch in the 1800s.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s freshly patented telephone entered the communications scene. This new-fangled device allowed for instant, real-time, person-to-person communication across a distance, but it took another fifty years for telephones to become common in homes, changing forever how people communicated.


Sample of Copperplate By George Bickham - The Universal Penman,
published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, Public Domain

The Heyday of Handwritten Letters

So how did nineteenth century people stay connected? They sent handwritten letters through the post. What we call “snail mail” today was then surprisingly quick – more like “hare mail.” Mid-century reforms enhanced the British postal system, making it cheap, fast, and very convenient.

Up until the late 1830s, a letter was paid for by the person it was addressed to, and the pricing wasn’t easy to calculate. In 1840, a teacher named Rowland Hill suggested big changes to the postal system: the pricing should be simplified, and the sender of the letter should pay. He invented prepaid, adhesive postal stamps called Penny Blacks, which cost one penny for a letter under half an ounce sent anywhere in the United Kingdom. Pillar boxes were introduced, making letter sending very convenient, and trains shortened delivery time across distances. From 1897, mail was delivered to houses, not just to local post offices.


Penny Black sheet of six (wikipedia public domain image) 

These reforms started a correspondence craze. By the turn of the twentieth century, the General Post Office handled an estimated 2,740 million pieces of mail – a ginormous increase from the 76 million pieces of mail sent back when Penny Blacks were first introduced.

The mail was delivered between six and twelve times a day in big cities like London. That’s a lot of postie visits! It meant someone could post a letter to someone across town, and they could receive it about two hours a later. There was enough time for them to post a reply, and have it delivered in the same day. It’s not instant messaging, but it’s pretty good!

International mail was a different story back then. For example, letters sent to India or Australia in the early 1800s could take months. Imagine getting important news from home – like a job offer, a birth or a death – late by a few months!

This Victorian love of letter-writing spawned things like illustrated greeting cards, post cards, and Christmas cards. Beautiful handwriting was prized, and a lovely, loopy script called Copperplate was popular. Victorian pens were fitted with metal nibs that were dipped in bottled ink.

Queen of the Handwritten Word

Queen among the letter writers of the Victorian Era is Queen Victoria herself. No one knows exactly how many letters she wrote in her lifetime, but some of her surviving correspondence has been bound into over sixty volumes (books). Between her mountain of mail and her daily journaling, it is estimated that she wrote an average of 2,500 words a day – or approximately 60 million words in her time as queen. That’s a lot of letter paper and ink!


Queen Victoria Writing with Abdul Arim (Wikipedia. Public domain)

Queen Victoria is the HM in Her Majesty’s League of Remarkable Young Ladies, a book set in 1889 London and starring Winifred Weatherby, a 14-year-old wannabe inventor. The story includes lots of different forms of correspondence: calling cards, letters, telegrams, Morse code, news articles, and something called a telautogram.


Telautograph (National Museum of American History;
Smithsonian Institution, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Telautograph was an extraordinary but forgotten Victorian invention that reproduced and transmitted copies of handwriting and line drawings across telegraph wires. Invented in 1889, Elisha Gray’s Telautograph was an early forerunner of the 1980s fax machine. Read the book to discover if this amazing invention helped or hindered Winifred in her role as gadget maker for Queen Victoria’s league of young lady spies.

Writing Challenge 1: Snail Mail

Snail mail is super fun! The best way to increase your chances of GETTING a letter is SENDING a letter.

Your challenge is to write a real letter to post to someone you know. It’s a good idea to pick someone who is likely to reply. (Hint: Grandparents and older people are usually thrilled to receive a letter and to write back.)

The only rules are:

Write your letter by hand. It doesn’t have to be long!

Use traditional letter writing conventions:

A traditional salutation: Dear _____, / My dearest ____, / etc.

A message (Ideas: something about you, questions about them, something you’re proud of, etc.)

A traditional closing: Yours truly, / Your loving (grandchild), / Warm regards, / etc.

Your signature: Can you do a Copperplate style signature with lots of lovely loops? Have a go!

Address the envelope and affix a stamp. You might have to ask for help if you don’t know the address. And you might need to ask for a stamp from your parent or carer. Don’t forget to write your return address on the envelope!

Post it in a Royal Mail pillar box and smile because your letter will brighten someone’s day!

Challenge Two 2: Code Cracking

(International Morse Code alphabet (Wikipedia: Public domain)

Can you decode this Morse code message?

.. - / .. ... / ..-. ..- -. / - --- / .-- .-. .. - . / .-.. . - - . .-. ...

I  T    /    I  S   /

[It is fun to write letters]

Try writing your name in Morse code.

Alison D. Stegert has worked as an innovative school counsellor, a bumbling waitress, and an intrepid English (EFL) teacher, but writing kids’ books is her dream-come-true job.

Her latest book, Her Majesty’s League of Remarkable Young Ladies, was published in the UK in July 2023 and released in Australia by Scholastic in 2024. The book is the result of Alison’s 2021 win of the international competition The Times | Chicken House | IET 150 Prize.

Aussimerican Alison is a long-term resident of Queensland, where she serves as state director of the Queensland branch of  SCBWI Australia East and the chief scribe at the Sunny Coast Writers’ Roundtable.

Instagram & Threads: @alison_stegert_kidlit
X: @Alison Stegert


The rise & rise of the Paralympics - by Robin Scott-Elliot

That the Paralympics rose out of such a dark place, from the ashes of the Second World War, wounded men and a fugitive from the Nazis, says ...