‘What were the women doing, Miss?’ Bringing an under-represented group into a Significance study of the Industrial Revolution with Year 9

This is one in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how an article by Christine Counsell (2016) inspired me to improve my study of working conditions during the industrial revolution with Year 9. It also helped me to refine my own understanding of the concept of historical significance. 

One evening during my first maternity leave I found myself scanning school textbooks for references to mothers. This led me to re-encounter thirty-seven year old Betty Harris’s account, reported in the 1842 Royal Commission Report into Children’s Employment, of working in a mine:

“I have a belt around my waist and a chain passing between my legs and I go on my hands and feet. The road is very steep…I have seen the water come up to my thighs. I have drawn til I have had the skin off me. The belt and chain is worse when we are in the family way.”

Some further informal research led me to reread other contemporary sources that yielded fascinating evidence about life during the industrial revolution in Britain, with women commenting on large families, textile work, wage inequality and prostitution.

I decided that I wanted to include these women’s accounts in our Year 9 Scheme of Work on working conditions during the nineteenth century, steering slightly away from our usual focus on children’s working conditions. Clearly, what was happening in my own life was impacting my selection of history to teach my pupils. It had led me to change my evidence-based enquiry question to ‘why is it so difficult to find out what children and women’s working conditions were like?’

So far, so very ‘relevant’. Counsell proposes that the selection of events deemed as significant is often driven by the event’s ‘perceived relevance to [the historian’s] own time and world’. My new time and world had my kitchen covered permanently in a sticky veil of apple puree, and so it was perhaps inevitable that motherhood, a condition so transformative that it led Salinger to comment that ‘all mothers are slightly insane’, had changed the way that I approached history.

Counsell emphasised the importance of the concept of significance in her seminal article published in 2004, in which she stated that:

‘thinking about historical significance is everyone’s business and it is every history teacher’s right to contribute to the debate.’

I decided that more reflection on my new enquiry about women in the industrial revolution was needed. Despite her suggestion that if an historical event or person is ‘relevant’ to today then it is often thought of as significant, Counsell does not recommend using this criterion to ascribe significance. She gives a grave warning against using relevance as the primary method for determining the significance of an event, development or person:

‘on its own it would leave pupils with an incomplete picture of the idea of historical significance. It certainly does not explain why many events and developments are judged so significant that they live on in the history books, in scholarly debates, in TV history, in a theme park or in a heated, sensitive argument in a pub.’

Most historians would now agree that any method of determining which historical events are significant is inherently subjective. To encourage pupils to think solely in terms of ‘relevance’, however, would risk leaving them with a presentist means of ascribing significance; a process that would involve them simply imposing themselves and the values of their socio-cultural context onto history, without considering the past event, person or development in any depth. This kind of ‘immature’ (and perhaps rather lazy) thinking would lead, in the words of Wineburg, to ‘a mind-numbing presentism that reads the present into the past’.

We live in a post-empirical world, however, where most historians have now accepted that judgements are always shaped by concepts. Consequently, it would follow that the way in which historians ascribe significance to past events would inevitably be affected by what is ‘relevant’ to him or her. Is this process of selection always a somewhat thoughtless and rather unintentional by-product of an historian’s subjectivity, or is it possible to be self-conscious and logical about this process?

Thinking more deeply, I considered that two factors had influenced the construction of my new enquiry, which could be categorised under the umbrella of ‘relevance to today’. First, I had a personal interest in the topic, as a working woman and a mother; the enquiry felt relevant to my new role. I had found a connection with women’s experiences in a different time and place. This was deliberate thinking – I had consciously made the connection between my own context and a past context. This didn’t appear to be ‘contorting the past to fit the predetermined meanings [I had] already assigned it’; rather than contortion, I had ascribed significance by creating new links that I had not seen before, stimulated by new experiences in my life.

Perhaps my creation of new connections between past and present was part of the criterion of significance that Counsell calls ‘resonance’? Her five ideas for thinking about significance are as follows:


On reflection, Counsell’s criterion of ‘resonance’ appears to me to be a process of ascribing significance that is based on relevance, but a process that is considered, conscious and disciplined. To deliberately reflect on the possible impact of one’s own socio-cultural context on the way we select events as significant, and to find specific and discrete connections between present and past contexts, does not appear to me to be ‘lazy’ thinking, and uses subjectivity as a positive condition for enquiry. Rather than use the word ‘resonant’, however, I preferred to use the word ‘connections’ as my first criterion for ascribing significance.

Developing my own significance criteria

In summary, the idea of ‘connection’, linked to Counsell’s ‘resonance’, was the first criterion that I categorised under the umbrella of ‘relevance’. Second, the nature of work in the mines and mills by often pregnant women was fascinating, posing a tremendous contrast to the current care and attention provided to pregnant women today – it was therefore ‘relevant’ in that it helped me to consider British healthcare in the twenty-first century in a new light. Again, I found Wineburg helpful in shaping my reflections:

‘paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.’

When we are faced with the ‘strangeness’ of the past, according to Wineburg, our surprise and amazement helps us to ‘reconsider how we conceptualise ourselves as human beings’. The cultural distance between women living and working in the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century appeared to be very large indeed.  My new enquiry on women working in the industrial revolution therefore appears to have been selected according to the fact that it is both ‘familiar’ and ‘strange’. I had identified connection and disconnection. The latter became my second criterion in ascribing significance, and was summed up by the word ‘contrast’.

Beyond relevance: which other factors led me to judge my new enquiry about women as significant?

To further avoid accusations of imposing myself and my values upon the past, and to attempt to justify the selection of my enquiry more rigorously, I felt that I needed to build more load-bearing beams to support my construction of historical significance. I wondered if I could use another of Counsell’s five ‘Rs’ to justify my new enquiry on women’s working conditions. First, I looked at ‘Resulting in Change’. The Mines Act resulted in long-lasting change for women workers, such as Betty Harris, who were not allowed to work underground after 1842, yet my enquiry did not focus on that act. I was not interested in a particular change that affected women’s lives. Indeed, Counsell alerted teachers to the fact that certain events did not appear to have brought about much change (such as the Children’s Crusade), and therefore it was vital to ‘get beyond consequences’ in thinking about significance.

I then thought that perhaps I should reject another criterion in Counsell’s ‘5 Rs’ model: the criterion of an event or person being ‘remarkable’. Working as a woman (before 1842) in a mine did not appear to be particularly remarkable at all: one statistic suggests that 6,000 women and girls were working underground in small pits in the first half of the nineteenth century, and not one of them appeared to be unique in the way that Rosa Parks (or even Claudette Colvin) were. Perhaps, I reasoned, with my daughter on my knee whacking my laptop intermittently with a red rattle, it was because what I wanted my pupils to study was not a particular event or person – it was simply something that was happening. It was the way in which women coped with working conditions, pregnancy, family, and nineteenth century attitudes towards females.

I left that on the backburner, whilst I turned to a different way of thinking about ‘remarkable’ – that of contemporaries remarking upon the event, person or development. With ‘remarked upon’, I was back in business: women’s working conditions in mines were frowned upon so much (bolstered by exaggeration and leading questions), that many social reformers fell over themselves to report those conditions. ‘Remarked upon’ became my third significance criterion (see below), although I thought it was careful to separate it distinctly from ‘remarkable’. In my mind, these are two different criteria: men remarked upon women working in mines because it offended their Victorian sense of decency; they didn’t remark upon them because they thought that they were extraordinary.

What about the ‘remembered’ criterion in Counsell’s model? Women’s working conditions were certainly remembered – I just had to flick through the pages of several of my school’s textbooks to remind me so. Yet Brown and Woodcock suggest that this is more of an indication that someone believes the event or person is significant, rather than a criterion of how that event or person could be regarded as significant.

This left me with a final criterion in Counsell’s model: ‘revealing’. In considering Betty Harris’s story of working in a mine, I decided that I did want pupils to consider the larger picture being revealed: that of women as workers and mothers, forced to adapt to the circumstances of the industrial revolution. Indeed, my primary purpose was to shed light on ‘things about ordinary and hidden lives’. However, this was not a case where ‘the extraordinary can reveal the ordinary’. This was simply a study of ordinary women.

A question kept nagging me; much like my baby does at bath-time. Why was Betty Harris’s interview so exciting, if Betty herself was not extraordinary? I returned to my initial selection of sources. My new enquiry was stimulated at root by the re-reading of Betty Harris’s interview. I reflected that Betty Harris’s comments about her life were particularly precious to me (and other historians) because evidence about women’s ordinary lives is often very thin. Women’s work was frequently part-time, casual, and not regarded as important enough to declare; sometimes it was illegal (as in prostitution), and often women preferred to keep their wage-earning a secret.

Significance and source availability

I appeared to be ascribing historical significance to help make sense of the larger sweep of history, involving all the actors, including women and children. Sources like the interview with Betty Harris provided me with an opportunity to open up a ‘window’, to use Counsell’s terminology, into women’s lives. The window was possible due to finding access to rare sources about women.

Do we need to recognise the fact that significance is impacted by the amount of evidence available? Events, people and phenomena can only be studied in depth if evidence about them survives. The historian Tosh states:

‘history can be said to embrace the human experience of every place and period. No part of that past can be dismissed as falling outside the proper domain of historical knowledge. But how far it can be made the subject of well-founded research depends on the availability of historical evidence…what he or she can actually achieve is determined in the first instance by the extent and character of the surviving sources….the study of history has nearly always been based squarely on what the historian can read in documents or hear from informants.’

Sources are an historian’s raw material, and he or she cannot work without them. Judgements about significance appeared to me at this point to involve an interplay between:  source availability, including the number of contemporaries who felt that the phenomena was worth remarking on; an historian’s own socio-economic context, and how he makes connections and contrasts with the past; and aspects of the past phenomena that appeared to be particularly revelatory (in terms of this enquiry) or remarkable and resulting in change (in other enquiries). Consequently, the idea of source ‘availability’ became another load-bearing beam to support the selection of my new enquiry as significant:


I felt more and more that these beams crisscrossed each other, as well as reaching upward to support and justify my enquiry:


Can it be significant when things stay the same?

Why had the subject of my enquiry, (working women in the industrial revolution), only met two of Counsell’s criteria for historical significance? Perhaps it is because, as Allsop recognised in the design of his own significance enquiry, no particular mnemonic or definition can be seen as the ‘right’ one. More importantly, in my mind, was the fact that my focus was not on an event or person (which is what Counsell, Phillips, and Brown and Woodcock have focussed on): it was on something that happened, every day. I was not interested in working conditions as a development (although of course it was continually developing, with women working in nearly all of the new industries born out of the industrial revolution). I was interested in women’s experience as a continual happening, or what Counsell deemed ‘phenomena’.  My interest lay in how the daily lives of women played out:  struggling to balance long days in the mines or in the mills with feeding, washing, and caring for their children. This was not World War I, or Josephine Butler, or the Holocaust. My enquiry was not a study of an event or a person. Instead, I wanted my pupils to consider something that just happened – day after day.

I decided that the key word was ‘continual’. I appeared to be selecting this aspect of social experience as worthy of study because I was interested in those aspects of women’s lives that stayed the same. I was searching for continuity in history. I thought very hard: was this a case of searching for continuity with today – another attempt to link my new identity as a mother to the millions of mothers who had gone before me? If so, then this was, again, a case of ascribing significance based on ‘relevance to today’, as I had already explored. Acceptable, perhaps, as one of many ways to ascribe significance, yet on its own it risked being presentist, and potentially rather ahistorical.

Corfield argues that continuity (what she also calls ‘through-time persistence’) is an important yet often ignored dimension in the framing of historical time.  In another published work focussed upon the second-order concept of change and continuity, Counsell encourages teachers to make pupils curious about the temporal quality of human experience in the past. She argues that students should consider what change and continuity meant to contemporary individuals, with fears, hopes and longings aligned with their context and with their own past. My interest in Betty’s experience of working in a mine, and of her difficulty in balancing work and motherhood, was, I realised, more than a presentist ‘relevance to me today’. I was interested in how women experienced their work and their role as mothers – what were Betty Harris’s fears and hopes when working in the mines? To me, Betty’s experience was worthy of study due to the fact that it represents a valuable opportunity to investigate what Counsell calls ‘meaning-making’: how women living during the industrial revolution made meaning out of their working lives in the ever-growing industrial towns.

In summary, my enquiry into these women’s experiences would hopefully make students curious about broad historical developments, rather than single ‘groundbreaking’ events, such as World War I. Hunt argues that significance is a meta-concept, and my reflections appear to bear this out: it was the opportunity to study historical continuity, another key second-order concept, that posed the final load-bearing beam in building my new enquiry.

How did I encourage pupils to grapple with my new criteria?

I had concluded that I was using unique criteria to ascribe significance to the history of women’s experiences of the industrial revolution, and now I needed my pupils to grapple with the idea of significance when applied to past ‘happenings’. To simply outline the criteria I used to select the enquiry on women’s working conditions to pupils, and then move on to the source-based enquiry, would have risked the pupils thinking there was some kind of fixed consensus about how significance is determined. For pupils to consider historical significance at a higher level, I needed to demonstrate that ascribing significance is a process of reasoning, which shifts according to the subject, rather than being a given condition.

The following section outlines an introductory lesson on women’s working conditions that focuses on the second-order concept of significance, and which acts as a bridge between the evidence-based enquiry on women’s working conditions, and previous enquiries studied by pupils as part of our Year 9 ‘Industrial Revolution’ scheme of work.

At the start of the lesson, I asked pupils to remind me of the criteria that we had used to decide whether Brunel deserved his ‘great’ reputation. We had used a class-constructed model of significance criteria that formed the acronym ‘GROMIT’:


I asked a few pupils to remind me of where and how Brunel’s achievements had met the criteria. I then told the pupils that the work of Brunel would form a key part of a new textbook on the Industrial Revolution, to be released the following year. Next, I explained that the editors of the new textbook had met with a couple of snags before they could send the new textbook to press. The author of the section on Brunel, a chap called Mr Clarkson, had sent in too many pages and his chapter would need to be cut down. Another author, meanwhile, who I introduced as an exotic young woman named ‘Mrs Wolobo’, had not sent in her textbook pages at all, and had not been heard of for several weeks, having not responded to several emails and phone calls. One of her colleagues thought that she might be in Argentina, but she was not sure and it may have been Albania.

One of the textbook editors had been sent to Mrs Wolobo’s office to find out what was happening, I told the pupils. There, they had found the textbook pages, ready to go to print, along with the following: a picture of a baby on the mahogany desk, several tea-stained documents poking out of the antique drawers, a red rattle lying on the floor, and a list on the back of a supermarket receipt of things that appeared to justify Mrs Wolobo’s reasons for writing her enquiry on women’s working conditions. The textbook editor returned with Mrs Wolobo’s work. What should the editorial team do? Should they miss out Mrs Wolobo’s section on women’s working conditions, and give the extra pages to Mr Clarkson and his Brunel enquiry? Or should they include the section on women anyway?

I encouraged my pupils to be the ones to tell me that they needed to know more – they needed to look at the textbook pages and at Mrs Wolobo’s list. Here they are! I exclaimed (you can download the resource below). I told them that I had transferred each criterion onto a separate card. The pupils’ task would be to match up parts of the textbook pages to the different significance criteria cards. Can Mrs Wolobo’s work be defended and justified? Was the enquiry worthy of inclusion?

I then asked pupils a key question: where did Mrs Wolobo begin with her ideas for including a textbook section on women’s working conditions? Did she begin with the sources? Or with her own personal agenda? I wanted to see if pupils could begin to connect Mrs Wolobo’s decisions about ascribing significance together, and help them to realise that ascribing significance is often a rather messy, organic and constantly developing process of reasoning.

The lesson ended with a class discussion about whether to include the chapter in next year’s textbook.

Download my resource: ind-rev-women-sig-activity

Main reference: Counsell, C. (2004) ‘Looking through a Josephine-Butler-shaped window: focusing pupils’ thinking on historical significance’ in Teaching History 114, Making History Personal Edition, pp.30-34. Find it HERE.

Other references:

Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p.12.

Brown, G. and Woodcock, J. (2009), ‘Relevant, rigorous and revisited: using local history to make meaning of historical significance’ in Teaching History, 134, Local Voices Edition. Find it HERE.

Tosh, J. (2006). The Pursuit of History. (3rd ed.).  Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Allsop, S. (2009), ‘We didn’t start the fire’: using 1980s popular music to explore historical significance by stealth’ in Teaching History, 137, Marking Time Edition. Find it HERE.

Phillips, R. (2002), ‘Historical significance – the forgotten ‘Key Element’?’ in Teaching History, 106, Citizens and Communities Edition. Find it HERE.

Corfield, P.J. (2007) Time and the Shape of History. London: Yale University Press.

Counsell, C. (2011) ‘What do we want students to do with historical change and continuity?’ In I. Davies (ed.) Debates in History Teaching. London: Routledge, pp.109-123.

Hunt, M. (2003) ‘Historical significance’. In M. Riley and R. Harris (eds) Past Forward: A vision for school history, 2002-2012. London: Historical Association, pp.33-36. Find it HERE.

Bates, D. (2012) ‘The scandal of female miners in 19th-century Britain’ in BBC History Magazine, Issue 10.

One Comment Add yours

  1. dradcarroll says:

    Really enjoyed this I am going to use as model for masters level writing with science pgce students


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