Michael Rosen Workshop on Victorians for Rhythm, Rhymes & the Railways

Michael Rosen gets poetical about Cambridge for Cambridge City Council Public Art funded project called “Rhythm, Rhymes & the Railways”

A Historyworks production delivering Singing History and Creative Workshop for 450 Cambridge School Children hosted  at Coleridge Community College on Friday 3rd November 2017

“Rhythm, Rhymes & the Railways”

The well-known poet and broadcaster, Michael Rosen, author of over one hundred books and writer of hundreds of famous children’s poems, including We’re Going on a Bear HuntChocolate Cakeand No Breathing in Class, who is a former British Children’s Laureate, has been working with children across Cambridge primary schools as poet-in-residence for the Historyworks project called ‘History Beneath Our Feet’. 

The Project is led by Helen Weinstein of Historyworks who has been researching diverse Cambridge histories to inspire poems and songs about Cambridge people and places. Her history walks for schools have allowed exploration of subjects about the building of the railways and their impact on the workers and families in the Mill Road area, giving inspiration to school children to write their own poems and songs about ‘History beneath your Feet’. 


 Helen Weinstein, Creative Director of Historyworks says: “This project has been enormous fun to see the children be creative with words, with song, with rhythms – all inspired by taking the children on walks around Cambridge  - using the five senses and connecting with quirky history stories – I don’t think any of the children will ever forget having such an astonishing time with Michael Rosen.  The Rad Hall at the Coleridge Community College was humming, literally, with the new Cambridge songs, and with the children learning to make noises for poetry and body percussion, culminating in their co-creation of a freestyle poem led by Michael Rosen. 

Historyworks is committed to connecting people in Cambridge to the places where they live, work, and study, using artistic practice and using digital platforms.  Celebrating creativity with the astonishing wordsmith, Michael Rosen, was certainly a very apt way to make a noise about the past to mark this inspiring city!”

Michael Rosen joined myself and the Historyworks music team in Cambridge this week for the workshop by  performing some of his well known poems and helping the children invent further lyrics about ‘My Cambridge’ with the team from Historyworks teaching the children new songs and rounds, inspiring children to play with words and ideas.  Songs have been commissioned by Historyworks for children to enjoy on a wide variety of topics about Victorian Cambridge included several railway numbers, including Eagle Engine Number Nine, One Railway Track, which will be performed by primary choirs and adult community choirs at the Mill Road Winter Fair on 2ndDecember “Rhythm,Rhymes & the Railways” when we’ll host a free concert to make history fun and accessible and memorable!"


The project Historyworks has offered to Cambridge schools is called ‘Creating My Cambridge’ and Michael Rosen’s contribution to the children’s project has been to write his own new poems with historical topics chosen by the children with help by Helen Weinstein, a Professor of Public History, Director of Historyworks.

Michael Rosen performed his new poem about the Railways coming to Cambridge in 1845 which he performed in front of hundreds of children, and the new poem is called Cambridge Excursions to London and Back which has a chorus which the children have been reciting and will sing at the Mill Road Winter Fair:

“Oo – woo - Phssht.”

The poem is based on Victorian posters offering cheap day excursions for people to travel beyond Cambridge  in August 1868 to the Crystal Palace Fireworks in London; and in August 1876 cheap day trips to the seaside at Walton-on-the-Naze.


Michael Rosen also performed a poem about the Victorian mining boom in Cambridge, when the Cambridge Greensands were dug up to mine for Coprolites. This stinky history has linked to the primary children studying the Victorian era and the expansion of Cambridge, because the area on Newmarket Road and Coldham’s Common was covered with factories to make bricks and tiles for the Victorian housing boom nearby in Romsey, Petersfield, and Coleridge.  Clay pits were dug on the Commons to make the bricks, and this led to the discovery of fossilised faeces known as coprolite.  There was a boom in coprolite mining in Cambridgeshire in the 1850s to 1880s, including on Coldham’s Common, which became a site for extensive coprolite mines, because when the fossilised poo was ground up and mixed with acid or water, it could then be used to make fertiliser, to grow more food to feed this expanding population.

This astonishing story has been a huge inspiration to Michael Rosen who has written a poem for the children about the Pterosarus, a flying lizard which flew above Cambridge at the time of the dinosaurs. Michael Rosen’s lyrics have been arranged by Cambridge composer on the Historyworks project, Bethany Kirby, who set them to music.  The words are:

Flying Lizards in the Sky

Wide Wings take them High

Flapping and stopping, leaving their droppings,

The years pass and the grass grows

The grass grows and the years disappear

Here we are, we stand right here

Here we are, we stand right here!


“I’m working in Cambridge as a kind of ‘poet in residence’ with Historyworks…  We’ve been using history, looking and learning about the people and places of the past in a local area to inspire history…

I really believe that connecting children to the past all around them is important.  History is right here: inside us with our memories, under our feet in the streets, houses, buildings, gardens and parks.   This was the message at the workshop with the primary children. We can explore this history through photos, old papers, and books.  We can write this history as poems which are personal or public, sing-song or plain, rhythmic or rhymey and it all becomes fun!  And we did all this in Cambridge TODAY! Hundreds of Us! Great! 


Michael Rosen says: “Poetry is a way of saying who you are, what you care about, what you wish for and one of the ways of doing that is to connect yourself to a place.  Today, we’ve written a huge poem with over 400 children co-creating and performing a new Cambridge poem together.  I came up with the chorus, to give the children a repeating rhythmic riff, “The Victorian Feast on Parker’s Piece, The Victorian Feast on Parker’s Piece”, to which we started to add verses describing the food and the entertainments put on for this special day in 1838 when over 15,000 were fed with huge quantities of beef and mustard and bread, washed down with beer, and followed by plum puddings.  The children found out about the attractions to put in their poem by using the posters of the time, finding fun competitions enjoyed by Victorian children such as biscuit-bolting competitions, riding a greased pig, and dipping for slippery eels!

It was inspiring to see the young people coming up with hugely imaginative ideas and lyrics to write our new poem together. It has been very rewarding to be hosted by Historyworks and co-create with children across Cambridge this week and to see their poetry they are in the process of composing. Also, I’ve been moved by their words and imaginative personal take on Cambridge histories.”


‘ I am thrilled that we are working with History Works to put on such an amazing events at our school! Having over 400 Primary school children with us today, joining our own Year 7s, as History is brought vividly to life through poetry, song and movement has been wonderful! And, the icing on the cake: Michael Rosen, poet extraordinaire - wonderful!’


Tony Davies, Headteacher at St Matthew’s comments:  “We have been delighted to have the Historyworks team to come and sing with the children to learn about the coming of the railways through song, and to work with our Year 5s and Year 6s this year as part of our programme of creative writing and history which we’ve done with Professor Helen Weinstein learning about the Victorian past of our local area and teaching the children about landmarks on a trail from their schools all the way into the Guildhall on Cambridge’s market place.

Last Friday the workshop with Historyworks and Michael Rosen at the Coleridge Community College was totally stunning, and the children got so much out of it, they were really buzzing afterwards. The walk through Victorian Romsey and across the railway bridge was very apt for a ‘Rhythm & Railway’ history-themed creative writing workshop. Michael Rosen shared his own poems with rhythm and showed the children how to write their own poems using rhythm and rhyme. It was an event brilliantly organized by Historyworks and wonderfully hosted by their singing and movement leaders of Helen Weinstein, Mario Satchwell and Rebecca Powell.”

You can below a slideshow/photo album below or by clicking HERE

Created with flickr slideshow.
Michael Rosen Workshop on Victorians for Rhythm, Rhymes & the Railways


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