Category Archives: English History

Talking to a young child about remembrance

I was asked to lead a storytelling session for a group of 4-7 year olds which reflected on why we remember the Great War and the symbolism of the poppy.  I saw this as a challenge of both tone and content; how to talk about a terrible event in terms which will not traumatise a very young child?  Supposing this to be a dilemma faced by many teachers and families around Remembrance Day (11th November) I thought I’d share how I did it in order to make an important conversation a little easier in the future.

I started by telling the story of The Pied Piper of Hamlyn.  In the story the town is plagued by rats which make everybody unhappy.  A Piper, capable of playing enchanted music, comes to town.  He promises to get rid of the rats and the townspeople promise to pay him handsomely.  When the deed is done the townspeople go back on their word and the Piper leads all their children away.

The story of the Pied Piper is undoubtedly a sad one but it is a great way to talk about feelings, loss and regret.  It is thought that the story was originally told to help explain a loss of life caused by sickness but I wanted to use it to contextualise the devastation of war so I then told it again.  The second time I used the structure of the Pied Piper but told a simplified version of the Great War.  Something like this…

A hundred years ago peace in Europe was in danger.  The countries of Europe would do anything for peace so cities, towns and villages sent their young men to fight; many did not come home.  It was only when the war ended and Europe had its peace that these cities, towns and villages understood the heavy price that they had paid.  When the families of those who hadn’t come home from the war went to find them they found only fields of poppies; fields of poppies that had once been ploughed by farmers, fields of poppies that had then been churned by the bombs and guns of war, fields of poppies that were now lined with silent graves.

A generation gave their lives and their loved ones for what they believed was the right thing and so we might have peace today.

They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old

Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them

We will remember them


Between 2014 and 2018 John Kirk has presented multiple storytelling relating to The Great War including Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful”, Terry Deary’s “The War Game”, Tom Palmer’s “The Last Try” and written educational workshops with Hackney Museum, Redbridge Libraries and Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow.  His Great War edutainment session Band of Brothers: a story of three liars remains available to schools, libraries and museums.  For more information contact me.

My work with museum and heritage services

Back in 2009 my father put me up to writing a show for the National Trust.  So I gave it a go.  I wrote a one man presentation based around the premise of a carnival sideshow quack called Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake in which I promised to demonstrate to the audience when the best era of history to live was.  In a 30 minute presentation I’d peel back the layers of time until we came to the conclusion “we’ve never had it so good!”.  When I look back on it, this initial piece was by no means perfect (for one thing I used to cart a small cupboard all over London tied to a shopping trolley!) but what I latched onto was the idea that children have short attention spans so I had to be constantly looking for ways to change things up.  The Professor never darkened the door of a National Trust property but he became the first of many attempts to communicate thousands of years of history to young audiences.

The Professor and his time travelling machine allowed me to showcase my ability and led to museums in Hackney, Haringey, Southwark and Bromley inviting me to run workshops for them and to write other presentations.  During the Olympics I worked with Hackney Museum to deliver an outreach presentation to school children about change in the local area.  Ever ambitious in 30 minutes I tore through 30,000 years of history!  I structured this presentation in much the same way that I’d structured the Professor’s shtick three years earlier but without a bowler hat and  lab coat and with added elements of participation.

Spin on again to 2014 and the commemoration of The Great War.  This time it was Redbridge Libraries looking for a way to enhance their pop up library events.  I had done a few bits and pieces with Redbridge and they asked for something for adults and I gave them something for children (oops!).  Again this was borough specific and instead of 30000 years we were looking in detail at just four and this time I incorporated elements of participation and roleplay into 40 minutes exploring Redbridge’s home front.  The Great War didn’t just open doors in Redbridge; in 2014 I developed sessions for Hackney and Vestry House Museum, each time cherry picking what had worked elsewhere and doing it again.

Now to the present day.  I have been working with Vestry House Museum for four years.  We have developed workshops about The Great War, the Walthamstow Workhouse, Crime and Punishment and Roman Waltham Forest.  I have developed a formula that works for the children of Waltham Forest and the feedback on our latest sessions (the Romans) has been beyond my wildest expectations.

As part of my work with the Vestry House I have gone full circle and find myself telling the story of another London borough with a view to building relationships between the museum and schools.  Between now and May I’ll be visiting 16 Waltham Forest Primary Schools, meeting hundreds of children and sharing the story of the place they call home.  My latest dash through history covers 2000 years; from the Romans to the present day.  We interview a Roman, play a multiple choice game with the Anglo Saxons, learn a Tudor inspired dance, debate moral dilemmas in the 18th Century and learn new languages in the 20th Century.  Its a lot of fun and I hope it inspires some more children and schools to visit Vestry House Museum.  For me it represents nearly a decade of work.  I feel comfortable doing it and I am still loving sharing the story of how London has developed after all these years.

Its a strange thing to spend so much of your time working in isolation so whenever I work regularly with museums and libraries I enjoy the feeling of being a part of a team.  I owe London’s museum services a great debt after all had it not been for the staff of the Hackney Museum who encouraged my madness and supported me when I went wrong I’d probably still be working in as an office administrator and these days its the team at Vestry House who put up with my daft ideas.

The person I find that I have to thank the most for my rollercoaster ride into the wild west of heritage services is not Professor Montague Rumpleseed Drake but my Dad.  He and my Mum may not be completely comfortable with some of my life choices but it’s been their faith in me that’s pushed me to be more than a jobbing actor and office temp and for that I am very grateful.  Verity is now a year old and there are likely to be big changes over the next few months and years but if I’ve learned one thing from working in museums and heritage services its that whilst none of us can accurately predict the future you can have an awful lot of fun trying to make sense of it once its in the past!

Tom Palmer’s “The Last Try” dates

The War GameFollowing the announcement of my project with Tom Palmer and Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd I am delighted to share the dates of the project.

Tom Palmer’s “Last Try”

Dates (times and venues tbc)

9th February 2016 – Hull

10th February 2016 – Hull

22nd February 2016 – Wakefield

23rd February 2016 – Bradford

24th February 2016 – Bradford

25th February 2016 – St Helens

It has taken a lot of coordinating to get this far and I’m grateful to Tom Palmer and the libraries involved for their support.  It’s a very exciting to think that next year I’ll be working in the heartland of Rugby League and I can’t wait to get stuck into the project and bring the story to life.

Today though (October 10th) it’s Grand Final Day and I’m a Wigan fan.  If you’re going to the game enjoy yourselves and I hope to see you in 2016!

A new direction

Hackney MuseumToday marks the beginning of something pretty exciting.  Today I enrolled on a university course and for the next eight months I will be studying for a special diploma in tour guiding.

Over the years I have worked with a number of museums and tour guiding is something that I had been considering for a long time so when I got the opportunity I was thrilled and I am very much looking forward to getting stuck into the course.  I see it as positive for both my personal and professional development.  It’ll allow me to meet new people and indulge my passion for London’s history whilst working toward a qualification and exploring new ways of sharing the stories of communities and places.

Doing a course doesn’t mean that I won’t be storytelling or pursuing artistic projects (on the contrary, I hope to be able to confirm the dates for “The Last Try” tour soon and I have bookings through until March 2016).  I think that taking part in the tour guiding course will allow me to reflect upon what I value and reconnect with who I am so that I become better at what I do.

So its time to knuckle down and rather than thinking solely of today giving some thought to my longer term future as, for the first time in almost fourteen years, I prepare to go back to school.

Tom Palmer’s “The Last Try”

The War GameI am pleased to be able to announce that prolific author Tom Palmer and Hull Culture & Leisure Ltd have agreed for me to present “The Last Try”.

“The Last Try” is a fictional account of the life of Jack Harrison, the renowned Hull FC rugby player who scored a record 52 tries in the 1914-15 season, and who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the First World War.

Having previously worked with Terry Deary on “The War Game” this project represents an exciting opportunity to work with another top author and library authorities with strong links to rugby and specifically rugby league.  I hope to be able to offer presentations from armistice day 2015 until the commemoration of The Battle of the Somme next July but the project will also fall at a time when England will host a Rugby Union World Cup and Hull become City of Culture 2017.

The War GameWorking on a project like “The Last Try” will create opportunities to discuss The Great War with school groups and young people whilst hopefully inspiring more children to read.  I am primarily offering the project to libraries with links to rugby league or rugby union in England and Wales but I have also approached the library service in Perpignan (home of Catalan Dragons) and am talking to literature festivals about potential presentations.

As ever, any dates will be posted on my website.  If you know somebody who might be interested in hosting or attending a presentation please share this information.  To find out more about my work and “The Last Try” contact me.

Clapton Orient’s War Game

This article is taken from Leyton Orient Football Club’s website.   I would like to acknowledge Steve Jenkins as researcher and author.  I post it here to mark the 100th anniversary of Clapton Orient going to war.

Clapton Orient’s ‘Brothers In Arms’

Posted: Wed 01 Aug 2012
Author: Steve Jenkins
Image by:
by Steve JenkinsHaving supported the O’s for over thirty years and being very keen on local history, the story of Clapton Orient’s involvement in the First World War has been of particular interest.I have spent nearly three years researching the background to the O’s ‘War Effort’ and I am extremely proud to be able to share this story with you.Season 1914-15 was the last prior to the Football league being suspended due to the First World War. Clapton Orient had finished in 9th position with Richard Mcfadden top scorer with 21 league goals.

People realised things were getting serious when an anti-aircraft gun was positioned on top of the ‘Spion Kop’ at the O’s Millfields Road ground, the local population then knew the threat of an arial attack was for real.

The male population of the country was being urged to ‘Join Up’ and Clapton Orient took the lead with no less than 40 members of staff volunteering their services, the first two players to sign on the dotted line being the O’s Captain Fred Parker and their Goal keeper Jimmy Hugall, all served in The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment) 17th (Service) Battalion (1st Football).

A crowd of over 20,000 attended the O’s final League match of that season on 24th April 1915 verses Leicester Fosse, they witnessed not only a fine 2-0 victory for the Orient but also a final farewell Parade of all the Clapton Orient players and staff around the Millfields Road pitch.

The anticipation and euphoria of the early days of the war soon changed when the vast majority of British and allied forces found themselves in the Somme Region of Northern France having not only to contend with fighting a fierce German Army but also having to put up with at times terrible conditions with mile after mile of decimated country side from the incessant shelling by both sides and then having to live in and amongst mud, bodies and total desolation.

One can only guess at the extreme hell Soldiers went through in this conflict.

It was during the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 that Clapton Orient lost three of its finest players: Company Serjeant Major Richard McFadden MM F/162, Private William Jonas F/32 and Private George Scott 1583.

The following article appeared in an O’s programme in November 1916.

The Club received a letter from Richard McFadden, which read:

“I, Richard McFadden sadly report the death of my friend and O’s colleague William Jonas on the morning of Thursday 27th July, aged 26.

Both Willie and I were trapped in a trench near the front in Somme, France.

Willie turned to me and said ” Goodbye Mac”, Best of luck, special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient. Before I could reply to him, he was up and over. No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly twenty years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings at this time.

Company Serjeant Major Richard McFadden.”

Richard McFadden died on the 23rd October 1916 from wounds received in the same conflict whilst George Scott was killed on the 16th August 1916.

Stephen Jenkins
Vice Chairman
Leyton Orient Supporters’ Club

Clapton Orient were the first team to enlist as a team to fight in The Great War together.  By the Autumn so many teams had followed suit that the league had been suspended.

Tributes poured in, including a special note from King George V, which stated:
“Good luck to Clapton Orient FC, no football club had paid a greater price to patriotism”


The Great Fire of Guilden Morden (Part Three)

Going on a Bear HuntThe project in Guilden Morden may be over but if you visit South Cambridgeshire you’ll find the story trail the children created.  It is now possible to discover the fateful events of 1881 by downloading the walking tour onto a mobile phone.

The Village Trail

This short but information packed narrative walk is a great way to explore a very pretty part of our countryside at the weekend or during the school holidays.

Well done to the staff and pupils of Guilden Morden Primary School and all those who helped to make the trail a reality (Cambridgeshire IT Services and GM History Society).

Great War Workshops in Hackney and Walthamstow

Private PeacefulApart from all the wonderful stories I have been telling to children and adults at festivals, libraries and schools this year it has also been my absolute pleasure to work with two of East London’s brilliant local museums.

Earlier in the year I worked with Hackney Museum to develop and present Hackney to Ypres, which was presented to coincide with their exhibition “Writing Home”.  In the session we considered and contrasted the letters of soldiers from Hackney with the work of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke as well as presenting discussion and role play activities.

Since then I have worked with The Vestry House Museum (sister museum to The William Morris Gallery-Museum of the Year 2013) in Walthamstow to develop a session to compliment their exhibition “Raids, Rationing and Riots”.  Building on the work I did in Hackney we have developed a session that incorporates multimedia, role play and analysing sources in a local study.

Leading a Highwayman Workshop

Both sessions (aimed at Years 5-7) require participants to look at sources and use inference and deduction skills as they consider what life was like in East London during The Great War.  They also include drama games and activities which help to make the sessions dynamic.

Feedback on both sessions has been very encouraging and I hope they will have a lasting legacy.  Having presented Private Peaceful and The War Game I can safely say that these workshops helped my understanding what happened 100 years ago!  It has been wonderful for me to work with two such outstanding museums.  I will take a lot from these experiences and commend these sessions to schools in and around the area.

I also commend the difference that an arts practitioner can make to a child’s understanding of a topic.  The workshops people like me offer to organisations can introduce, consolidate or enhance a child’s learning.  My approach is playful and energetic as groups learn through doing and enjoying.  Over the years I have used drama to unpick Darwin and Evolution, Shakespeare, the History of Highwaymen and even healthy eating.  Could I help to unlock that tricky subject?  Try me.

The Great Fire of Guilden Morden (Part Two)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Time to bring you up to speed on The Great Fire of Guilden Morden project.

As you’ll recall from my previous blog on this three month project  last year I was contacted by Guilden Morden Primary School who were looking for a creative partner for a Heritage Lottery funded project.  Working over 12 weeks between May 2014 and July 2014 the school would devise and develop a creative response to The Guilden Morden Fire (22/5/1881).  This creative response would be documented using web based, digital technology.

The project has now finished so it seems appropriate to reflect on what we got up to in my final weeks in Cambridgeshire…

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Week Six

Polishing our story – I worked with the groups to consider the structure and language we might use in our poetry and scenes.  We explored atmosphere and how it might effect the urgency of our words (particularly as our story is about a fire).  We began rehearsing our scenes and thinking about how we could use transitive verbs to help a performer better understand character and events.  Elsewhere we explored the local legend of Jack o’Legs and the area’s connections to agriculture.

Week Seven

Staging a Chorus – The group continued to think about how vocal expression could bring the story to life.  Conscious of the looming deadline to create a piece of community theatre this week I also introduced some basic ideas about Greek Chorus Work.  With the youngest classes we set up a water relay race as we explored the difficulties the Fire Brigade might have faced in 1881.

Week Eight

Rehearsals – With two sessions scheduled this week we staged the main structural elements of our story; the scenes and poem.  It is worth mentioning that most of the ideas for the words and actions came from the children rather than from the teachers or myself.  It was very important that the children felt this was their project and that my role was to challenge and enthuse them.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Week Nine

More Rehearsals – Working with each group for short bursts to ensure they didn’t disengage from the story we continued to rehearse the groups.  As we began to bring the different elements of the story together the process became very technical and I confess to confusing myself at times!  Despite this the group took things in their stride.

Week Ten

Show Time – For the first time we brought all 73 performers together and on two sweltering afternoons the children presented their story to their families and community.

The Great Fire of Guilden Morden is documented by the school here but this is a taste of what we came up with…


“It was a charming summer’s day in the year of 1881.

In Guilden Morden, the golden hill in the marsh,

the sun’s warm rays are dancing on the faces of children playing outside.

Birds sit amongst the fresh green leaves of silver birch trees

singing their beautiful songs,

and a gentle breeze carries cares and worries away.

Peace reigns over the village, fields and lanes.

None suspect what is to pass on that terrible Sunday.”


From start to finish this was a special experience.  The staff and all the pupils were wonderful to work with and I will truly miss being a part of the school.  I take away a lot of memories and a folder of thank you messages from the children which I will treasure.  Most of all though I leave this project inspired by the potential of young people and certain that creative practitioners have a future within education so long as schools remain willing to take creative risks, commissioning projects where the outcomes are more difficult to quantify.  So long as there are teachers like those at Guilden Morden Primary School creativity has a very bright future.

Interpreting The Great War

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

In the course of telling “Private Peaceful” I ran question and answer sessions in order to contextualise the story, the presentation and The Great War.  Questions ranged from “How do you remember all the words?” to “Why do the innocent always have to die?”.  In Lambeth a teacher asked a very interesting and current question which went along these lines: many modern authors take the standpoint that The Great War is wrong and therefore is it appropriate to approach the conflict with this literature?  The session was some weeks ago but I have been pondering my answer ever since.

As Britain prepares to commemorate the beginning of The Great War, how it is interpreted has become a controversial subject.  Historians and politicians have attacked books, film, television and stage productions for painting The Great War as simply a tragic waste of life and reinforcing the idea of lions (the regular soldier) lead by donkeys (the officer classes).  My favourite subject at school was History and this year, as well as Private Peaceful, I am currently working with Hackney Museum to present a series of workshops considering Hackney’s part in The Great War, so I thought I might use my blog to reflect upon the debate.

In 1914 Britain goes to war and thousands of men volunteer to join the fight.  These men volunteer because they believe they are doing their patriotic duty by defending William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” (Jerusalem) from a very real threat of invasion.  Men from across the country rally “For God, Harry, England and St George!” (Shakespeare, Henry V) convinced it will all be over by Christmas.  Of the six million who go to fight 700,000 will be killed.

Of the men who went to fight the likes of Wilfred Owen reflect more bleakly on this patriotic fervour:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.” (Wilfred Owen)

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

Compare this stark description with the poetry of Rupert Brooke concerning the duty and sacrifice of the English and you quickly see why the Government of the time preferred his take on events:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.” (Rupert Brooke)

In the years after the war, many soldiers offered up their artistic thoughts on the conflict(notably, Journey’s End and All Quiet on the Western Front).  Whilst these are artistic interpretations of events this generation wrote from personal experience.

The recent controversies seem to surround works like Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder.  Those involved in their production had little or nothing to do with The Great War and yet offer their audience an opinion on the worth of the conflict.  Michael Morpurgo writes about The Great War, describing the conditions in the trenches with a palatable harshness which draws in a younger audience and yet he and others are attacked by politicians and historians for insome way, distorting the events.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

Surely though, this is the role of art.  Surely, art should challenge our ideas and make us re evaluate our world.  Oh!  What a Lovely War juxtaposes songs from the period with striking statistics about The Great War to stunning effect whilst the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth is in my opinion some of the most poignant television I have ever watched.

As a nation we don’t know that much about The Great War.  By this I mean that many of us went through our whole school careers without learning about it at all.  I only began to study it when I took History as a GCSE subject when I was in Year Ten.  You might perhaps argue that for many, it has been left to artists to fill in the gaps.

There are some excellent public chronicles of The Great War but very few people have ever made a mainstream (book, television, stage, film), artistic defence of First World War leaders and their actions besides pointing out their errors and lampooning them.  Perhaps I’m wrong but it would seem that the leaders themselves remained almost silent on the matter (or perhaps their point of view has been drowned out).

It is right that we address how much is known about The Great War and there are risks of confusing art with fact.  I believe that modern interpretations of how The Great War was fought and its consequences do have a place within the classroom if only to demonstrate how our thinking has changed over the last century.  Rather than criticising their use maybe the debate now needs to be shifted to how these interpretations are counter balanced so that the alternate view, that war in 1914 was just and right, registers with modern students and the wider public.