– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

school activity: Balliol Boys’ Club

In 2014 I put together an exhibition about the Balliol Boys’ Club and WW1, and one of the derivatives of that research and curation project was an activity for visiting school groups about the Club. College archives tend to contain little if any information about the lives of children, and I hoped this rare insight into the leisure activities of those more or less their age a century ago would help to engage school pupils.


Introduction – the handout

Archival research is detective work!

Archivists work with many different kinds of historic collections to understand the people and organizations that created them. They use that knowledge to organize and describe the documents in a way that will be clear to others. In this way, archivists help to tell the stories of the past to the people of the future. Because archives are unique, they often need to ask lots of questions, and it can take time to find the answers. It is exciting work!

Can you use your detective skills to find out about the history of the Balliol Boys’ Club?


 There are clues all around the walls of the church for you to find – they will help you with answers to some of the questions. You will need to look at all the clues to put the story together.

Here are some questions you might try to find answers to:

  • How old are the photos? What date might they be from? Are they all from the same period? How can you tell?
  • What kinds of people were part of the club? How old were they? How often did the club meet? What kinds of activities did they do?
  • What happened to the club in 1914?
  • Apart from the dates, what clues can you find that these records are not recent ones?
  • What was the purpose of the club? Who was in charge?
  • When did the club start? Why? And who started it?
  • Do you think the members enjoyed their time in the club?

There is space to write on the other side of this page.



Activity leader briefing

Object: to interrogate and evaluate facsimiles of primary source material to discover the basic structure, purpose and history of the Balliol Boys’ Club; to learn about some of the textual, visual and material aspects of archival research – detective work!



Lightning potted history of the Club: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/community/memorylane/10863390.Sixty_years_of_Balliol_Boys__Club/

There is also an illustrated published history: A Short History of the Balliol Boys’ Club, 1907-1950, by Cyril Bailey, and a later update A History of the Balliol Boys’ Club 1907-1971 with John Roughley and others adding to Bailey’s work. See also here.

What this doesn’t mention is that it wasn’t founded as an after-school club like those of today. Most of these boys would have left school at 14 or so, and in the early days, this was more of a ‘working-boys’ club.’  In later decades, as education and employment rules changed, so did the purpose of the club, though its activities remained similar.


– mount laminated facsimile ‘clues’ from the collection around the building for participants to find. They could be numbered, or tell the group how many there are, so they know whether they have missed any. All contain information relevant to the questions on their sheet.

– Introduce the idea of the Club. Talk through the questions on the sheet

– give the group X minutes, depending on age, experience and ability, to discover the clues and decide what information is useful for the kinds of things they are trying to find out. The clues may raise more questions! They can record both answers and questions on the back of the sheet.

– can work individually or in pairs – hard for more than 2 to look at a clue at a time

– they should leave the clues where they find them

– gather the group to discuss their findings. Work through the questions on the sheet – discuss orally, or can use a white board, get a student to write up points if an older group.

Does the group think the Balliol Boys’ Club sounds like fun? Is it similar to activities they enjoy today? How is it different?


What do the clues show about the impact of the First World War on the club’s current members and alumni?

For older groups, consider adding some of the cuttings or reports using dated/loaded language about class and privilege. Does the club’s intent seem old-fashioned? How might it have seemed in its own day? Do they agree with it? How have society, class identity, employment, education, leisure time  changed for young people of these ages?

For older students, provide access to printed sources as well: college history, Club history, WW1 memorial book 2 vols, Poulton biography, AI Adam biography, Rae etc. This isn’t cheating of course – in the real world, researchers are expected to use secondary sources before tackling primary material. Archives can be difficult to interpret, so it’s important establish as much background/context as possible first. How do the two kinds of sources complement each other?

Add some WW1-specific material (see exhibition) during the Centenary and/or as supporting curriculum.


There is still an active club alumni association. The Balliol Boys’ Club was unusual in operating here in Oxford, with town and gown meeting face to face. Several other colleges sponsored similar efforts in London – some still do. Although the Club itself has closed, its endowment fund is still used to sponsor youth activities in Oxford.


I’ve used this activity with children aged 11-14. In addition to delivering this activity myself at St Cross, I have briefed the (previous) college outreach officer and provided her with a full set of the facsimile documents so that she could lead the event on Balliol’s Broad Street site – often more convenient for visiting school groups – and take it into schools as well. Feedback has been good!

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