By Hannah Salisbury, Community and Learning Officer (West), Suffolk Archives

In March 1857 Abram Moss was sentenced to 3 years detention for stealing peas. He was just 9 years old, and his detention was to be at Kerrison’s Reform School in Thorndon, near Eye in central Suffolk.

Abram’s entry to this institution is recorded in the school’s admission registers. His entry further tells us that Abram could neither read nor write, and that his father was an agricultural labourer with six children depending on him.

Each entry in the book reads like a miniature Dickens novel. The links between crime and poverty jump out on every page; 9-year-old Robert Balls, for example, arrived at the school in 1860 after a conviction for stealing coals. His entry tells us he and his siblings were ‘left destitute very often. Sometimes in the Union (i.e. the workhouse)’.

These records form the basis for one of our new learning resources on crime and punishment at Suffolk Archives. When introducing younger children to the archives and the ways we can find out about the past, it is always good to start with something familiar that they can make an easy connection with. Having a personal story which they can relate to and care about makes things even better. The records of Kerrison’s Reform School are ideal for this. Not only are they packed with individual stories, but they are also the stories of children.

Some of the children in the records can be followed over several years. Records often include some detail about the child’s background and family life, and what happened to them after they left the Reform School. Abram Moss, we can find out, left the school in March 1869. He later became Ostler at the Swan Inn in Lawshall, and the school received very good accounts of him.

Having started with individual stories, we can then move to consider wider questions. What are the links between crime and poverty? Did the Kerrison Reform School do any good for the children who were sent there?

The online resource we have published for schools includes:

  • Teachers’ notes with background information and ideas for activities
  • A presentation to introduce the activities
  • Sample pages from the Reform School admission register (along with transcripts, there is some tricky handwriting and many abbreviations!)
  • Worksheets which can be used to interrogate the records and look for patterns, such as the average ages of the boys being admitted and their levels of literacy

The same principles of starting with an engaging story rooted firmly within historical records in our collection – and making those records accessible to younger audiences – are also present in our other recently-published crime and punishment learning resource. This one is based on the case of John Ducker, the last man to be publicly hanged in Suffolk.

Ducker was convicted of murdering Police Constable Ebenezer Tye in Halesworth. Newspaper reports about the case go into enormous detail, quoting different witnesses verbatim, particularly about the inquest following PC Tye’s death.

Reading them is very immersive – you can almost feel you are attending the inquest. I wanted to bring some of that immersive experience to older primary school pupils, but the length of the articles along with the language used and level of detail made them unsuitable for sharing directly. I also wanted to create something interactive which the children could get involved with.

So, I took the content from one very detailed newspaper article (the image is an extract in the Ipswich Journal about the inquest after PC Ebenezer Tye’s death) and created an activity where one child takes on the role of Coroner, with a script to read, and other children take on the roles of different witnesses. All the information they share when their turn comes is taken directly from the newspaper article, with witnesses sharing what they saw, and police officers telling the audience what evidence they found. At the end the class is asked to decide what they think should happen next, before finding out what actually did happen next.

When this activity is done at the archive, we can then show pupils the big impressive broadsheet newspaper volume where all the information they have just heard came from, to further reinforce understanding about how we can find out about the past.

Again, having started with a specific story we can discuss the wider questions it raises; did John Ducker get a fair trial? Could the police have done more to keep their officers safe? Why do they think people went to see public executions?

These resources are two of several which have been developed as part of outreach work accompanying the building of The Hold, our new archives centre in Ipswich. A whole series of resources has already been produced, with more on the way. The resources are free for teachers to download and are fully editable so they can be adapted to suit different groups.

The two resources discussed here are available for download, while information on all of our resources can be found on the Suffolk Archives website.


Main Image: Photograph of boys at Kerrison’s Reform School in Thorndon, Suffolk (Suffolk Archives: K681/1/451/11).

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