Amazing archives: working with local history at GCSE and beyond

Heather Sherman (@HeatherLaws88) teaches history at York College. In this blogpost, Heather persuades us to use local archives to improve our teaching of GCSE topics and to prepare students for further study. Heather argues that local archives challenge, diversify and humanise broader narratives, she explains how to go about contacting your local archives, she generously gives a link to a workbook you can take and use with students, and she provides useful links for organisations that can help.

Why is it important to go local with big GCSE topics?

The British Association for Local History has highlighted that history enhances the life of a community and the life of individuals (BALH, 2021). Bringing local history into big GCSE topics, for example, those focused on public health, can really help turn ideas that students find more abstract into tangible ones. One of the main benefits that I have found of using archival research in my teaching is the power of local sources to challenge national, overarching narratives. It’s important that we as history teachers and our students can understand and grapple with national narratives, but it’s also important to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to interpreting the past. To put this into context, I teach a course at A Level on poverty and public health in Britain c.1780-1939. One of the national narratives that is highlighted throughout the course is the reluctance of the government in London to concern itself seriously with the improvement of public health in the North of England even after the Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875. Another overarching narrative is that once the Germ Theory had been discovered by Pasteur, people began to let go of the miasma theory. I found a report in the York Explore Library and Archives where the Local Government Board (the central government body responsible for the implementation of the 1834 Poor Law and elements of the 1875 Public Health Act) had commissioned Dr Airy (later a pioneer in the study of migraines) to investigate an outbreak of Typhoid in York in November 1884 (the outbreak had started in July). The local Medical Officer of Health for York had earlier informed the Local Government Board of the outbreak and put the cause down to the “condition of the sub soil water” (Airy, 1885, p.1). Dr Airy challenged this in his report, arguing that “the inhalation of sewer air…is capable of causing typhoid fever” (Airy, 1885, p.8). Here we can see two broader narratives being challenged. Firstly, that the central government can be seen here to be taking an active interest in public health in the north of England. Secondly, that the discovery of the Germ Theory did not lead even professional doctors to easily let go of the miasma theory of disease even 20 years after Pasteur’s breakthrough. Going local allows us to see how the context of bigger events, acts and laws affected where we live, work or study, and how our local area reacted to these.

Why is using real archive material important?

Opening a new textbook with its glossy front cover, crisp pages and its new fresh of the press smell is always fun. Reading a document that is hundreds of years old in its original format is even more fun. Textbooks are packed full of primary sources – photos, images, text (original or translated). Often these are presented in neat boxes, cut down, sometimes edited, in modern font, and seem as shiny and new as the book itself. Being able to see a source its original format (albeit photographed) – its creases, its colour, any annotations scribbled in someone’s historic handwriting – suddenly makes something that might have seemed abstract real. It comes to life as a historical source and brings the topic alive for students. They can see how something they have read or been told about affected their local area. It allows the humanity of history to shine through. Students realise that they are studying real people, real places, and real pasts. It allows us all to access something that goes beyond, but crucially enriches, the content outlined in an exam board specification. It is also a great way to stretch students and prepare them for further study – expanding their vocabulary by introducing them to terms that are archaic and unfamiliar, encouraging them to make inferences from unfamiliar sources, and getting them to make links between local history and overarching narratives and themes to see where it fits in with and challenges what they already know.

How I approached my local archives:

It was really easy! I emailed them using the main contact email on the York Library and Explore Website and told them what I wanted to do and what I wanted to research, and they put me in touch with one of the Civic Archivists who is a specialist in the area. I used their online archive search catalogue at first to look for relevant documents and then accessed them in the reading room. However, what I’d really recommend doing is meeting with an archivist if possible and talking to them about what you want to do. My first research trip was useful but frustrating as I knew what I wanted to research, but there were such volumes of amazing source material it was hard to go through them all and find out what ones would be most useful to the course I teach and the GCSE courses on public health in Britain. On my second research trip I met with Julie-Ann Vickers, a civic archivist with an expertise in the collection I wanted to access resources from. I talked to Julie-Ann about the types of sources I wanted to use, and she was able to go then and there to get a selection from the archives that I could look at with her and discuss. To be able to have these conversations, ask questions and look at the documents with an expert was amazingly productive and much more fruitful than my first visit. Julie-Ann was then able to recommend further sources and their specific references so that when I went back a third time without her there, my research was still focused and productive. Julie-Ann was also amazing at proof-reading my final resource pack to ensure that I had all the references to the original documents down correctly.

Free resource pack to use

Here is the GCSE resource pack that I have created from my research and work with York Explore Library and Archives: GCSE Public Health York Archives Material_Teacher Pack. Although York may not be near to you geographically, students should (hopefully!) be familiar with York as a key northern city and will hopefully enjoy using documents from an area that was and still is so key in the study of poverty and public health. If it is relevant to a course that you teach, please download the resource and adapt/ tweak as you think best to use with your courses and students. York Explore Library and Archives have kindly given permission for the sources to be shared and used for teaching purposes. I’ve created it as word document rather than PDF, so that it is easy to adapt for different needs and put the sources into different resources (please do keep the archive reference with them if you do this to acknowledge the origin of the source). The GCSE specifications I’ve designed this resource pack to relate to are outlined below, although you may find other areas of the GCSE specification where they might be useful. However, they are not limited to GCSE use! The sources can be used at KS3, GCSE and A Level so please do use and adapt to whatever area of your course you feel they would be useful in. And even better, if you have time when the archives open again, get in touch with your local archives and see what resources they have that can enrich the courses you teach. It really is a fantastic opportunity to develop your own historical research and knowledge, and to enrich the course for your students.

GCSE Specifications this resource links to:


  • Section: Industrial Britain c.1700-c.1900
  • Enquiry: Revolution! Why were there such huge changes in the people’s health, 1750-1900?
  • Content links: Urban living conditions in the early 19th century – housing, clean water and waste.
    • Examples: Urbanisation and slums, water supplies in towns and cities and its effects e.g. cholera.


  • Content links: Public health reform in the 19th century including the PHAs and local initiatives.
    • Examples: Other government action, local initiatives.


  • Paper 2 Section A: AA Britain: Health and the people c.1000 to the present day.


  • Paper 1: Thematic study and historic environment (1HI0/11) – Medicine in Britain c.1250 – present:
    • c.1700-c.1900: Medicine in the 18th and 19th century Britain.
    • Approaches to prevention and treatment – Public Health Act of 1875.
    • Case studies – Fighting cholera in London 1854 – significance of Snow.
Other great resources to help think about how to incorporate archival material into your classroom

About Us | British Association For Local History (

Using Archives / Historical Association (

Making History: Using Archives in the Classroom / Historical Association

The British Association for Local History (BALH) / Historical Association

aarc_35_3-4_x2626ht453850482.pdf (


Dr Airy’s Report: Reproduced from an original held by City of York Council/ Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual, York: Y/HEA/2/5/3. From the collection – City of York Report on the compulsory notification of infectious diseases.

About Us | British Association For Local History ( [accessed 11/02/2021]

You can find lots more help and ideas for building local history into your curriculum by searching ‘local history’ at the HA website. For example, this article from Martin Spafford. Watch out for the results of the 2021 HA Teacher Fellowship into local history as they are shared too.

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