Telling Big Stories and Small Stories
When you put the big story with the small story, magic happens 💥
Hello, hello, hello 😘
Last week, students sat the first of their GCSE History exams. I’ve just had a nosey at the paper and it makes me so sad inside.
No matter the country, no matter the client I work with, no matter the age range, there is one thing that EVERYBODY does when it comes to teaching history …
They go top-down.
They tell the big story.
Which is not inherently terrible or anything like that. A bit like dates, it makes things neat and tidy when you take a thematic approach. “Politics,” “religion” and “gender” are popular choices. Sorting information in this way makes some conceptual sense. I get that.
But you know what I’m going to say here, don’t you?
History is a complex, and massive beast and you will not tame her with a big story …
One of the reasons why top-down history is problematic is because there is no room for nuance. It’s one-size-fits-all history. And as we established last week, telling a single story paves the way for stereotyped thinking.
So, if you’re sitting comfortably, let me tell you a big story. Well, technically, I’m blending two big stories together - one about crime and one about industrialisation - but it’s my party and I’ll blend if I want to.
Throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, the legal system and the detection of crime were very different from today:
By 1815, more than 200 crimes were legally punishable by death. These ranged from murder to stealing from a shipwreck and pickpocketing goods worth a shilling. That's about £30 in today's money, or so I’m told.
In 1829, the Metropolitan Police Act established the first police force. Before that, most towns and villages had one or two voluntary constables. Remember, too, that the population EXPLODES during the industrial period: from about 6.1 million in 1750 to 17.9 million in 1851.
Penal transportation to either the colonies in America or, more commonly, to Australia was not abolished until 1857.
What's also happening in this period is that the number of newspapers is increasing, along with an increase in literacy rates. Newspaper editors wanted to SELL SELL SELL, and printing the sordid details of the most heinous crimes imaginable quickly becomes the best way to do it.
The juicier, the better.
(Some things never change, eh?)
If you didn’t know this big story, you could easily start reading articles from contemporary newspapers and get the impression that crime is EVERYWHERE. Literally, people are being murdered in their beds EVERY MINUTE OF EVERY SINGLE DAY.
I still remember a quote from The Times in 1849 that I read when I started the research for my dissertation (about murderesses in the mid-19th century) in 2006. Literally, word-for-word imprinted on my brain. Here it is:
“It seems almost clear that a woman who would not lift her hand against a man or child will unhesitatingly drop arsenic into their food."
That’s a bold statement to make, right?
With the big story ticked off, let me tell you a small story.
It’s a story about a woman called Annette Myers. She was one of the women I profiled in my dissertation, and hers is a story that’s stuck with me.
Annette was born around 1822 in Belgium. I never found out any details about her mum, but her dad was an English baronet by the name of Sir Francis Myers. Annette didn’t have a comfortable, privileged life, though. Because her parents were unmarried (and, in fact, Francis was already married), Annette bore the social mark of illegitimacy. (This was a big deal in the 19th century).
In a bizarre twist of events, Annette ended up working as a servant in her dad’s household in London. She’s listed there in the 1841 census.
Sometime in 1847, Annette met a soldier called Henry Ducker. After a brief courtship, they became engaged. But Henry wasn’t quite the man Annette hoped him to be. She would later accuse him of spending her wages and seeing other women. She also claimed that he infected her with a sexually transmitted disease.
On February 4th 1848, Annette met witg Henry on Birdcage Walk in London. This was a Friday afternoon, just next to Hyde Park. You can imagine how many people were buzzing around.
Within seconds, Annette took a pistol from her pocket and shot Henry at point-blank range in the back of his head.
Then, she shouted, “I shall suffer for it and it will be a warning to others."
Annette was quickly apprehended by police. Henry did not survive the attack.
Now, what do you think happened to her?
Knowing the big story, you might think that Annette was charged with murder and most likely executed.
That’s exactly what I expected.
And it’s true that she was found guilty of murder but the jury recommended mercy on account of the “extreme provocation” from Henry. In fact, Annette received a royal pardon from Queen Victoria 🤯
She did, however, end up being transported to Australia but seems to have had a happy life. She married and raised a family, and never returned to London.
This is why it’s so important to put the big story and the small story together. A big story doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny while a small story is so disconnected from the bigger picture that it can become meaningless.
The goal is to integrate, not separate.
Until next time,