“Our Island Story”
Ever since the new edition was announced, the response has been overwhelming. We have received many letters, emails and telephone calls from people who remember the original book and the pleasure they derived from Miss Marshall’s wonderful tales of Alfred and the cakes, the Wars of the Roses, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak, the Great Fire of London, the Charge of the Light Brigade and the drama of Elizabeth and Essex – ‘May God forgive you, I never can!’ But there is also a serious underlying purpose to the book. Henrietta Marshall knew all about the importance of the institutions of a free society, and explains thoroughly why we need to make sure the state cannot imprison people without trial, or force them to worship God in a particular way, or extract taxes without allowing people a say in the running of the country. Now that the teaching of institutional and political history is so weak in many schools, Henrietta Marshall’s message is of vital importance – and not just for the 7 to 11-year-olds the book is aimed at!
Another really interesting thing that emerged from responses to our projected new edition was the fact that so many people remembered the original illustrations – Charles I walking to his death (above), the little Princes cowering in the Tower (below) and the rest. We were fortunate to obtain, from John Clare, Education Editor of the Daily Telegraph, who has given this project his complete support, a valuable first edition of the book from 1905, and he even let us cut it up to remove the illustrations for scanning!
One of the reasons for this enthusiastic response is that the new edition of Our Island Story represents a return to a way of teaching history that has been out of fashion amongst educationalists for a while. Narrative history, in which children are taught that things happened in a certain order, and that one thing grows out of another, has been largely abandoned for an approach to history that is best described as the mosaic method in which the big picture is broken down into lots of tiny segments. Individual themes like slavery or the status of women are presented without any chronological context. There is no sense of a chain of events that have brought us to where we are today. As a result, surveys have discovered that young people have little or no idea about such key events in our national story as Magna Carta, the Civil War or the Great Reform Bill. Earlier this year the Historical Association complained about flaws in the curriculum and examination system which, it claimed, encourage ‘excessively narrow content’ with a ‘poor sense of chronological context’. In the same month, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority complained of a ‘modular approach [which] may have fragmented the learning approach’, and a ‘less thoughtful, less intellectual approach to history, which fails to provide strong foundations for undergraduate study’.
Henrietta Marshall will soon set them straight! Every chapter is headed with the name of the reigning monarch. Wars and revolutions, plagues and inventions, great men and women, all parade through these pages, giving the young reader a brilliant picture, simple but accurate, of the way in which our ancestors made us the people we are today.
But perhaps the most appealing thing about Our Island Story is the way in which Henrietta Marshall weaves legendary tales of King Arthur’s Round Table and King Alfred burning the cakes into her history, on the basis that ‘they are part of Our Island Story, and ought not to be forgotten, any more than those stories about which there is no doubt’.