A play inspired by the true story of William Towers (shown here), a 12-year-old boy sent to Wandsworth Prison for one month of hard labor in 1872 for stealing two rabbits, was created and performed last year by students at the Royal National Institute of the Blind New College Worcester and young people from LOOK: The National Federation of Families with Visually Impaired Children.
"Prisoner 4099" was facilitated by staff at The National Archives and has now been made available online as part of the Archives' Learning Curve website. (Read the press release here; the Learning Curve also has "exhibitions" on Victorian Britain, the British Empire, crime and punishment, and nineteenth-century politics.)
The project began in 2004 when staff from The National Archives met sixth formers and teaching staff of RNIB New College Worcester. The National Archives wanted to use its historical records to create an exciting project for children and young people. The blind and partially sighted students involved in the project examined original documents and learned about the treatment of children in prison during the nineteenth century. Many of them visited the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. They also made a special trip to The National Archives in London.
"We were keen to get involved as it provided an ideal opportunity for our students to broaden their appreciation of the nature of sources, and to link up with other students," said Jeanette Normanton Erry, head of history at RNIB New College Worcester. "The project also demonstrated how students with a visual impairment can use primary sources independently and work as equals alongside their fully sighted peers."
Along with a recording of the play made by Youthcomm Radio, a project of Worcester County Council, the "Prisoner 4099" website includes information and images related to life in Victorian prisons and to Wandsworth Prison in particular. It also provides links to documents at The National Archives and General Register Office, including Towers' birth certificate and charge sheet.
This is an exemplary project that combines several best practices in history education, archives outreach, use of technology, and community inclusiveness. I highly recommend the website to parents and teachers interested in learning how they might partner with a local museum, archive, or library to enhance the teaching and learning of history.