Secondary Secondary History

KS3 History – measuring significance of historical events

Why do we remember some events in history and not others? Why are some events regarded as important at the time but not now?

This is what the 2010 Secondary Curriculum has to say about Significance:

  • Key concept 1.5 Significance: Considering the significance of events, people and developments in their historical context and in the present day.

Here’s an example that might help us explore this. Everyone remembers the Titanic – the unsinkable ship that hit an iceberg in the Atlantic on its maiden voyage to America in April 1912. At the time this was a devastating event, over 1,500 people died. It was also a big shock to British pride. It is credited with originating the saying ‘women and children first,’ as there were not enough boats for everybody. People still talk about the Titanic today, and not just because of the film!

Yet how many people remember HMS Birkenhead, the troop ship that sank on its way to South Africa in 1852, with the loss of around 450 soldiers?

HMS Birkenhead was carrying about 650 men, women and children to South Africa. Most were new recruits. About 3 miles off shore, at 2 in the morning, the ship hit a rock. It too, like the Titanic, had a series of watertight compartments designed to keep it afloat – in fact it was the first steam ship to do so.  In an attempt to get off the rocks the captain reversed the engines, making the hole much bigger. In 15 minutes the ship sank. The captain gave the order to abandon ship. Only three of the boats could be lowered.

Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, the senior army officer, ordered all ranks to assemble on deck and stand to attention, while the women and children were put in the boats. The men waited as the ship went down. Most died, although some managed to swim the three miles to shore through shark-infested waters. It really was the first example of ‘women and children first!’

Queen Victoria praised the bravery and discipline of the men, and ordered a memorial built at Chelsea Barracks. The King of Prussia paraded his army and in an order of the day demanded his soldiers be as brave as those on the Birkenhead. On the 50th anniversary, Thomas Hemy, a famous Victorian painter, produced a painting of the ship going down, which would have been found on most Victorian classroom walls. About the same time Rudyard Kipling, the ‘poet of Empire,’ wrote ‘Soldier an’ sailor too,’ about the event. So the event obviously had an impact both at the time and at the turn of the century. Yet no-one today remembers the Birkenhead. Why?

There are several sets of criteria for measuring significance – such as those from Ian Dawson, Partington, Christine Counsell – and it is important that students have the chance to ‘measure’ significance against these criteria. Yet it is equally important that they have the opportunity to develop their own criteria for measuring significance. That, after all, is what history is really about.

Alf Wilkinson
National Subject Lead for History, 2010 Secondary Curriculum

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