The poetry of hard labour

At Lochend Community High School in Easterhouse, Glasgow, our S1 English learners held a video conference with the National Archives in London. The project was called Four Days Hard Labour and allowed learners a cross-curricular opportunity between History and English to examine Victorian attitudes to crime and punishment. The session focused on how easily children could be criminalised and severely punished for what we would now consider fairly small misdemeanours.

The law is an ass

The pupils’ shock deepened and turned to sadness when they found out that the death penalty was imposed for a wide variety of offences and that children as young as twelve were executed.

The session began with a National Archives education officer showing the learners a number of documents held in the archives for background research. The education officer then led a discussion on the social and economic factors that contributed to these petty crimes being committed. The pupils studied in detail the prison record of one young boy, Henry Munday, who had been convicted of stealing 14lbs of sugar. Our pupils were staggered to find out that thirteen-year-old Henry had been sentenced to four days hard labour and a whipping. One of our English teachers, Angela Reilly, said, “The pupils were shocked that a young boy of their age was subjected to such a horrible punishment for what seemed a fairly petty crime, especially when it was undertaken simply because of hunger.”

The pupils’ shock deepened and turned to sadness when they found out that the death penalty was imposed for a wide variety of offences and that children as young as twelve were executed.

Finding inspiration in the archives

Using their notes and materials from the conference, as a follow-up pupils were encouraged to imagine that they were a child criminal from Victorian times and to write a short poem detailing their thoughts and emotions using metaphor as the vehicle for their creations. You can read some of these below.

This has been a superb way to engage young people. Jennifer Byrne, another member of Lochend’s English department, noted that her pupils “really enjoyed the session and took to the format of the video conference well”. Moving the learning away from the traditional classroom learning environment motivated the pupils in terms of the research, allowed us to continue to establish cross-curricular links with History, and undoubtedly stimulated the creativity of the young people involved.

A national treasure trove

The National Archives are a tremendous organisation to work with. They advise clearly on connecting the video conferencing equipment in school to their system and the education officers who took the bookings and delivered the conferences were very knowledgeable, excellent in working with the pupils and adept at getting them to engage with the materials. I would recommend them to any teacher looking for something a little bit different. Their award-winning resources provide excellent materials from medieval to contemporary times and links across many curricular areas.


I Am…

I am a rundown shed, withering away.

I am a single button, lost and useless.

I am dull, colourless, a cloudy sky with nothing to look forward to.

I am a melting piece of butter, melting into nothing.

I am nothing

I am prisoner 7062.

I am Caitlin Drake

By Caitlin Drake


I Am…

I am a broken, isolated shack

I am ragged clothes, dirty and used

I am a dark winter afternoon, cold and black

I am a plate of yesterday’s leftovers rotting slowly away

I am twelve years of age

I am Prisoner 1225

I am Scott Stillie.

By Scott Stillie


Liked the sound of this? Why not check out our wide range of blogs to help you get pupils writing poetry.


Gordon Fisher

Gordon Fisher is the principal teacher of English at Lochend High School. Gordon has shared some other great ideas for you to check out - have a look at a simple and fun way to get stuck into War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy here.