A dramatic presentation of an incident in Middlesbrough life from the 1880s has been put together by pupils of Corpus Christi RC Primary School.
They researched the heart-rending story of the three McDonald children who were abandoned on the streets of Middlesbrough at Christmas 1882.
Using documents from Teesside Archives they came up with their own interpretation of events which they then turned into a theatrical production.
The tale is one of desperation, tragedy, a rescue, and a happy ending - of sorts. The three McDonald children – a 13-year-old girl, her two younger brothers and their mother came to Middlesbrough from Manchester. They were searching for the father who had gone on ahead to find work.
The mother, unable to find him, abandoned her children and disappeared in a state of mental depression. They went into the Middlesbrough workhouse but the policeman who admitted them wrongly wrote that they were only to be housed overnight. The children were turned out of the workhouse the following morning – December 24, 1882.
They were found by a Church of England curate in Linthorpe Road and were taken to the home of his vicar, Rev John Bealy, who looked after them over Christmas. The Rev Bealy then wrote a strong letter to the workhouse guardians. The children eventually found homes and employment in the town – but there is no record of them ever seeing their parents again.
The pupils from Corpus Christi School looked at the story with staff from Teesside Archives as part of a £43,900 Heritage Lottery-funded schools across the region.
The aim was for children to discover the treasures within their local archives collection and use drama to explore past events in North-East history.
Jacqui Bareham and Michelle McCarthy, the learning and access officers at Teesside Archives, came up with the real-life story of the McDonald children from the archives as part of the regional project.
To support the pupils’ study they produced digitised sources, including the letter from the Rev Bealy to the workhouse guardians.
Working with drama specialist Terry Wilkinson, the Corpus Christi pupils then created their own dramatic interpretation of the story. In their version the three children are looked after by a neighbour while their mother heads to Middlesbrough in search of her husband. The children escape the clutches of their ‘minder’, who has only taken them in for the money, and make their own way to Middlesbrough where they do not find their parents but, after their night in the workhouse, are adopted by the curate and his family.
The aim was to show the pupils how past events can be interpreted through a range of differing viewpoints, and that the past is not a set of received facts over which there is no disagreement.
The pupils then gave two presentations of the story to the school, parents and local residents. Scenery for the production was made by the children working with local artist Lesley Brewer-Wright.
The resources and children’s views about this incident were also put online.
Jacqui Bareham, learning and access officer at Teesside Archives, said: “This was a great opportunity to bring together the school and local community to work with archives material and develop a greater understanding of their locality and the riches of their past.”
Colleague Michelle McCarthy added: “This is the second regional education archive project that we have embarked on. The aim is to increase the children’s knowledge and ensure they obtain new skills such as creating the website.
“The project was an excellent way to develop a sense of community and active citizenship. Understanding the relevance of the past on their lives can be a lasting positive influence on the children’s personal development.”
Mrs Gamesby, deputy headteacher at Corpus Christi School, added: “The children thoroughly enjoyed the project. It was learning in a fun way. As well as improving the children’s speaking and listening skills it enhanced their writing skills, especially for the boys. The children really empathised with the characters and have become more confident with public speaking. We look forward to doing more work such as this.”
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) enables communities to celebrate, look after and learn more about our diverse heritage. From our great museums and historic buildings to local parks and beauty spots or recording and celebrating traditions, customs and history, HLF grants open up our nation’s heritage for everyone to enjoy. Since 1994 it has supported more than 26,000 projects, allocating over £4 billion across the UK.