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St Edward’s School Western Front Living History Project: Highclere Castle Living History Project Link

St Edward’s is a Roman Catholic BESD (Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties) boys' school in Hampshire. The school's Western Front Living History Project uses a unique and extensive collection of First World War artefacts to to empower the boys to attend to their learning with renewed confidence. The project is now Working Towards Accreditation. Head of History Stephen Whelan took part in a South East Museum Development Programme supported First World War networking event. At the event, he met members of the Highclere Castle team. This encounter has opened up an exciting, multifaceted partnership with Highclere Castle that is having lasting benefits across the curriculum. Stephen tells the story:

Museum Name

St Edward’s School Western Front Living History Project

Museum Contact

Stephen Whelan, Head of History

The Project

Highclere Castle: Living History Project link


October 2013 to present

What are the Project aims?

The aims of the Highclere Castle Link are essentially driven by the rationale for our Living History project itself, summarised below:

‘The St Edward’s School Western Front Living History Project is a unique and extensive collection of artefacts that relate exclusively to the experiences of men and women on the Western Front during the Great War.

St Edward’s is a Roman Catholic BESD School whose purpose it is to empower boys who experience behavioural, emotional and social difficulties to attend to their learning with renewed confidence.

Involvement in the Project, aims to enable our pupils to

  • develop a sense of pride in their ability to speak to groups of peers,
  • work with diverse groups of people and consequently,
  • build self-esteem,
  • actively participate in all aspects of the Project as its primary function.

What is the impact of the Project?

Given the aims of our Living History Project, the impact on our boys has been considerable as we have been able to roll out the project in ways we had not foreseen at the outset.

1. Six of our pupils visited the Castle early in the autumn term to recover the Western Front Collection. They were therefore able to work alongside Castle staff who formed a most favourable impression of their courtesy and endeavour. They were given a guided tour of many rooms which would be very familiar to Downton Abbey enthusiasts. Their conduct was outstanding, prompting a very public recognition of their participation during an Awards Assembly.

2. It became clear as our involvement in ‘Heroes of Highclere’ developed, that Lady Carnarvon’s vision and attention to detail was a principal reason for the day’s success. The Castle had been a hospital for officers during World War 1 and Lady Almina had worked tirelessly to ensure that men were given every chance to recover, going so far as to hire 30 young nurses herself. St Edward’s Museum had secured the services of Susana Atkinson, a Wardrobe specialist who had designed the nurses’ uniforms for the BBC series, ‘The Crimson Field’. She agreed to make a uniform for Highclere Castle, incorporating what Lady Carnarvon knew about the unique ‘crushed raspberry’ colour of the nurses’ blouses. St Edward’s purchased both mannequin and uniform as a gift.

This link represents a really important aspect of the school’s Living History Project which seeks to help schools and local groups illustrate their own specific Great War Centenary projects.

3. During a conversation with Castle staff in the autumn term 2014 we found out that an ancient oak tree had come down during a recent storm. As a result, Mr Whelan approached the school’s Horticulture Department member of staff who agreed to purchase an English Oak sapling and plant it in the grounds of Highclere. A group of our boys travelled to Highclere and, working alongside Mr Paul Barker (Head Gardener), planted the sapling with Lady Carnarvon, who took time out to speak to the group.

4. On 3rd March 2015, Lady Carnarvon visited St Edward’s School and met staff, pupils and guests including Lucy Marder, Museums Development Officer for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Colm McKavanagh, Headmaster of Romsey School and Dan Lea, Head of History. In the course of her visit, she was formally presented with the mannequin of the Highclere nurse and a personal gift of trench art. This had been  mounted by CDT staff and boys on a plinth made out of wood from a 1,200 year old yew tree in the school grounds that had been mentioned in the Domesday Book. All the pupils who had been involved in any way in the Living History Project were invited to attend the ceremony.

5. Later in the Spring Term, selected groups of Year 10 and Year 11 pupils went across to Highclere to help their garden department plant several hundred plug-plants as part of their spring planting programme.

It is difficult to quantify the impact on the self-esteem of the pupils who have taken part except to say that pupils who have found it difficult to either engage fully in our education provision or who experience difficulty in working alongside people they do not know, have been able to network with teachers from partner schools, celebrities and, perhaps most importantly with their peers in other schools.

An assessment of the Project Link

The link with Highclere Castle has been a classic example of an educational initiative that has grown in importance incrementally. It has been of real benefit to our boys self-esteem and sense of pride at being involved with a nationally famous organisation. That it is also a cross-curricular initiative is a key to its success. It has also been of benefit to Highclere Castle and the many 100s of guests who were able to view the collection in place there last summer. Among the principal guests in attendance on the 3rd August were the German and Austrian ambassadors as well as the Bayer Leverkusen football team. As Lady Carnarvon herself remarked, it had been noticed by her guests that the school had elected to display a wide array of German military equipment in a way that reflected her focus on the armistice and the reconciliation that has since taken place.

Top Tips

I would not presume to try and tell professional colleagues what they might do to enhance the efficacy of their own specific projects. I would say, however, that being open to the way an initiative might conceivably develop, often in ways not originally foreseen, has been a crucial element of our success to date.

Plans for the future

At present, our Horticulture Department is networking with their Garden Department. We will engage in conversations with Lady Carnarvon and her staff to ascertain if there are any of her future plans, mainly concerning WW1 Centenary celebrations, that we might be able to support.

Appendix: background to the collection

Our collection has its origins in a school based project spanning several visits to the Somme and Ypres between 2002 and 2006. It was rapidly transformed into a significant collection through donations from local residents and the vision of School Managers and Governors. Its purpose is two-fold; primarily, to enable young people across the Primary and Secondary phases to better understand what it was like to serve on the Western Front during the First World War. A secondary purpose is to act as a resource for the local community to explore the experience of men in the trenches. Therefore, we welcome visiting groups and individuals and, more particularly, offer to run workshops in local schools. We are delighted to be able to add Highclere Castle to this network of affiliated groups. We have created a wide network of associated schools, local museums, Centenary Committees and private individuals, many of whom have visited the school or have arranged to borrow the collection to help illustrate aspects of their current projects. St Edward’s has been given Arts Council permission to seek formal Accreditation as a Museum and enjoys the active support of Hampshire Museum Development officers and  renowned historian, Andy Robertshaw,  currently the  Curator at Deepcut Royal Logistics Corps Museum as well as a TV presenter and author. The Living History Project will accept additions to the Collection as either donations or in the form of temporary or permanent loans. All such material will be maintained and displayed in a sensitive manner