Arriving at the British Library, I was unsure what to expect. ‘History Relived’ was promised to be ‘a fun day of social media storytelling’, and ‘an unprecedented opportunity to explore The British Newspaper Archive’. During the day, the flyer stated, we would experiment with the idea of Twitter in the 1890s – ‘what would it look like? What events would people tweet about?’
Ushered into an auditorium, we were treated to some short talks, and bombarded with a series of impressive facts about the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), not least that it gives access to over 200 digitised newspaper titles and six million searchable pages.
We were then told of our day’s task. In small groups, we were to scour the 1890s issues of the Illustrated Police News for sensational stories. How we found these stories was up to us – either by selecting a date at random and choosing the juiciest story, or by using the search function to find a story about a particular theme. Once we had a story, we were to each take the part of someone involved in the story. With an identity in hand, we would create a twitter profile for them, complete with a picture – taken from the newspaper archive if possible. The story, embellished where necessary, would then be told through the eyes (and tweets) of the characters, revealing the complexities of the characters and details of the case.
The task was simple enough, but the actuality was a little more complex. The Illustrated Police News is an absolute treasure trove, with a ridiculous amount of scandal and sensational crime stories – all illustrated brilliantly – and choosing just one was a huge task in itself. Our group wanted a story with a strong female lead, and thus we settled on a divorce case where the woman not only brought the case against her husband, but represented herself in court. The case had caused a scandal in April 1893, as the husband, Robert McKerrow, was accused of affairs with 5(!) women. I played the judge, Francis Jeune QC, PC, and it was my job to act as the narrator, as the other characters bickered around me.
With time at a premium, we decided to create the story in an ad hoc fashion, but still relied on various accounts of the case (all found on the BNA), to get (most of) the details correct. This was great fun, and it was noticeable how each small group of mostly strangers was animated in their discussions, and laughter was very much the order of the day. With the day coming to a close, we were recalled to the auditorium to present our tweeted story to the other groups. Despite the chaos that seemed to have encompassed each group, the stories were remarkably easy to follow, and genuinely interesting. Moreover, each group expressed their enthusiasm for the task, and the fun that they had in creating the story.
Clearly this was a great exercise in showing the sheer depth and range of the BNA. Furthermore, it was brilliant to see these historical sources causing so much enthusiasm amongst so many people from different backgrounds and career paths. Thus, as a one off event it was fantastic, but could it be used more widely? The participants certainly thought so. In fact, the scope for this kind of activity for schools is endless. Not only does it allow history to interact with modern life, but also allows us to consider the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of historical actors in a variety of contexts – the trial of Charles I, the dissolution of the monasteries, the causes of the First World War… Of course it isn’t just limited to fact, and the same exercise could just as easily be used when examining literary works.