Story-telling exemplar: Victorian chimney-sweep

I told this story to a Year 5/6 class who were about to begin the Victorians.

The story
This is a favourite of mine, about a sergeant-major who could neither read nor write (he had told no-one this) and had ten children, the youngest a beloved tiny Benjamin.

In 1854 he was called away to fight in the Crimea. His family watched him leading the band, playing a big bass drum, down to the docks and on board ship. Then they set to to fend for themselves. Although his wife applied to the barracks for his wages, they said that without his signature nothing could be done.

Soon the family was facing hard times; all the children had to work and little Benjamin was taken on by a chimney sweep. He suffered lots but grew skilful so that there came a day when he was put up the Buckingham Palace kitchen chimney, which had killed fourteen boys. It was touch and go but he finally came out at the top and heard the faint sound of a drum - the army come back from the war.

The sweep shouted at him, but he shouted louder for his returning dad, who dropped his drum, beat the sweep, rescued Benjamin and the other boys, washed them in the fountain at the front of the Palace and took them all home.

His wife could have killed him, but when he emptied out a sack of coins - all his accumulated wages - she knew they could live, if not well, then happily.

The story took nearly half an hour to tell, but then the real work began.

I asked the children if they had questions to ask anyone in the story. I would be that person and answer for them.

At first the questions were vague: 'How did it feel up the chimney?' However, soon they were in hot pursuit of the sweep: 'How could you have been so cruel?' I responded hotly: 'Without me people die of smoke or fire and without my pay the children and their families would starve.'

The children argued back vigorously. I responded that I had been viciously assaulted in the course of my perfectly legal business and had my boys stolen away. The children wanted to see whether I could recruit any more, but nearly all those I measured were far too big. So I finally took my case to court, demanding compensation. Two judges turned me down, to my great wrath.

In this exercise the children had a chance to take active individual parts. This they enjoyed and they learned a lot about speaking and listening. Above all, they were beginning to learn about points of view, sides to an argument, and problems of fairness and balance.

by John Fines, edited by Jacqui Dean

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