Our Island Stories
Penelope J. Corfield proposes a new and inclusive long-span history course – the Peopling of Britain – to stimulate a renewed interest in the subject among the nation’s secondary school students.
The Peopling of Britain is a challenging concept for which the time is ripe. It will take the form of a new long-span course for secondary school children studying history, a subject that should be compulsory to the age of 16. After all, history (along with geography) serves to root people in time and space: an essential element of personal and civic belonging.
A long-span course on the Peopling of Britain from the Ice Age to the present day will offer a crucial perspective upon changes and continuities over many centuries and will complement other course components with shorter timespans. In this way the proposal responds to the criticisms, from both Left and Right, that Britain’s current history curriculum is too episodic. And it focuses upon an approach that sidesteps a pre-determined narrative of either flag waving or indeed flag burning.
Narratives always provide good ways of holding people’s interest: what comes next? A stimulating long-span story framework is ideal for teenagers who have already studied different periods of history in microcosm. By then they are ready to confront a more expansive view of the past. And crucially the Peopling of Britain is an inclusive story. Everyone who lives here has a part in it.
Biologists consider that human life in the British Isles resumed after the Ice Age with settlements of Celts sharing a common ancestry with the Basque people. The region attracted successive waves of newcomers, including Teutons, Scandinavians and Latins. The new arrivals often came with the sword, but many remained to farm and to intermarry. The Norman Conquest of 1066, for example, was a violent, traumatic event that became a settlement. Over time the majority of Britons found themselves speaking the fecund English language, which fused its German and French components into a hybrid tongue that has become the world’s lingua franca.
Later migrations to Britain have included Walloons, Huguenots, Jews, Irish, other Europeans, Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians, Africans and South Africans, Americans (from North and South), Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Middle Easterners, through to Poles, Latvians and Romanians (and many others, from almost every part of the globe) into the early 21st century.
Such a narrative has at its heart not only movement, welcome, cultural interchange, toleration and intermarriage, but also battles, conflict, cultural misunderstandings, resistance and quasi-segregation. Individuals and communities can trace their roots and study those of others. The multiplicity of issues range from those of identity; of religion; of cultural sharing or separation; and of public policy on immigration.
One pioneer of wide-span courses was the local historian Sylvia Collicott, whose book Connections: Haringey Local-National-World Links (1986) has proved highly influential. Other examples include Rosie Sheldrake and Dale Banham’s Exploring Migration Through the Lens of History (2007), which uses evidence from the Ipswich Oral History Project, run by the Ipswich Caribbean Association (ICA), to study the human experience of immigration from the West Indies. Teachers in other regions can highlight different local projects and timespans as appropriate. In all cases the personal, familial and communal nature of migration means that there is great scope for documentary and/or oral history exercises.
Three big historical themes can be highlighted. One is the force of continuities, which are often ignored or under-studied. The human species has a marked propensity to travel, to settle and to reproduce, ever since our long-distant ancestors came ‘out of Africa’. And there have been repetitious mixtures of resistance and/or welcome to incomers. It is instructive for students to understand the contrasting conditions that produce conflict as well as those that produce cooperation.
Another aspect of continuity is the human capacity of both host and migrant groups to sustain community traditions and religions through time, despite upheavals. By contrast students can also appreciate the harm that is done when cultural continuities are abruptly broken, as happened to African populations taken without warning from their homes and enslaved in a different world.
At the same time students can examine gradual changes in the form of the long-span developments in the timing and scale of population migrations; and the eventual cultural impact of newcomers, including their contributions to transformations in the hybrid English language. One essay project in this vein could be to study the borrowing of words from many different languages which are now incorporated into daily speech. Another might relate to culinary traditions and adaptations. The legacies of population mingling are legion and lend themselves to interdisciplinary projects within a historical framework.
Then there are moments when rapid population movements generate overt confrontations. Invasions are one obvious example, or riots within communities over immigration. Specific case histories can be studied, whether the Norman Conquest in 1066 or the very different ‘bloodless’ invasion by the Dutch William of Orange in 1688, largely peaceful in England but with subsequent fierce fighting in both Scotland and Ireland. For those who like rousing narratives of battles, there are plenty to study, just as there are ‘softer’ themes for those who prefer peace-making.
Moreover there are possibilities to explore major changes going on within the UK today as, for example, nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland campaign for further devolution or independence. These issues benefit from study in a historical context, bearing in mind long-term identities and the long-term mingling of peoples. I have a first cousin with a Scottish clan name, a Scottish father and an English mother. He has lived all his life in England. Is he a Scot? That’s for him to say. But he won’t be able to vote on Scotland’s constitutional future, unless the residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are similarly allowed to vote on a referendum issue that affects us all. Such debatable questions of residence, migration, intermarriage, identity and constitutional rights are part of Britain’s living history.
Finally, it is apparent that, should such a concept gain support, it will need a team of teachers to develop it into a viable course and to trial it locally. But the time is ripe for all schoolchildren to understand the historic peopling of Britain, not least when the National Archives and ancestry.co.uk encourage us to track our migrating families; when Euroclio, the European Association of History Educators, chooses ‘People on the Move’ as a major theme for its on-line educational programme; and when, among Britain’s prominent figures, the Queen has English, Scottish, Danish and German ancestry, as well as a Greek consort; the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury was born in Wales to a Welsh-speaking family; the Archbishop of York has Ugandan heritage; Britain’s prime minister has some German-Jewish ancestry; the leader of the opposition has a Polish-Jewish father born in Belgium; the deputy prime minister has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife; London’s mayor has some Turkish ancestry; the governor of the Bank of England has a Finnish-speaking Swedish wife; and the secretary of state for work and pensions has a Japanese great-grandmother – and when, among the wider population, over 350 different mother tongues are spoken within Britain today.
Penelope J. Corfield is a freelance historian, lecturer and consultant on history and education.
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