As part of their History topic on Victorian Gateshead/Newcastle, the children from our Y5 class visited the Ouseburn area of Newcastle and the Victorian Tunnels to investigate the world of Lizzie Dowson, who died of lead poisoning in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley in 1891, aged eighteen. The past is normally marked by momentous events or by the actions of people with power and influence, but history is actually everyone’s story. Although Lizzie’s death may not seem significant in the broad sweep of history, the tragedy embodies one of the main historic themes of the Victorian era –

  • how massive industrial growth brought dire living and working conditions in its wake
  • but how these were gradually countered by rising improvements in safety standards
  • and a new sense of government and corporate responsibility.

Lizzie’s death did have a historically significant outcome – the scandal of young women’s deaths in the lead industry was stopped by rising concern over press reports of inquests like hers. By the end of Victoria’s reign women were no longer employed in lead works and the dangers of working with lead were well known.

An Account of some of the highlights of the day by Nathan, Emilia and Oscar from Y5.

The class were split into two groups – group 1 went into the tunnels first. Mrs Thompson had to wear a hard hat because the ceilings were very low. We all had to pickup torches as we went in because it was very dark. Instead the tunnel it was dark and damp and the smell was awful because of a near by sewer. We went deep enough to see the blast walls which would have protected the tunnels from collapsing if there had been a bomb. We could still see the Canary Yellow paint on the roof of the tunnel which turned Salmon Pink if there was a gas attack. We also sat on the 3 tiered bunk beds – the top bunk was for children and the bottom one for those men who had to go out to work. Group 2 stayed inside the classroom with the ARP warden and Basil McLeod, an 88 year old who was 10 when WWII began. He was fascinating to talk to and also brought with him his original Identify Card and Ration Book. Everyone got to try on a tin helmet and gas mask. It was really interesting and we learn a lot of facts. It was strange to think how little food families had to live on! It was a great visit and we learnt so much, especially about poor Lizzie Dowson and the manufacture of white lead which led to her death from lead poisoning at the young age of 10.

 

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