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The History Man – Ken Brooks

Ken Brooks, at home, last week.

Ken Brooks, at home, last week.

Ex-St Paul’s teacher and passionate local historian Ken Brooks is interviewed by John Humphries for ‘Bohemia Village Voice’. Serious childhood illness and bullying at work failed to prevent his eventual acceptance into the world of teaching … and history.  Part 1.

Ken Brooks’ four ruling passions are local history, ancient history, geology and film-making. He also has an unrivalled collection of photographs of Hastings and St Leonards, including Bohemia. Ken has written two books on local history, Hastings Then & Now and Around Hastings Then & Now. Each volume contains numerous photographs of Hastings and St Leonards, lovingly collected over a number of years. Each old photograph is paired with one taken recently to show up the changes which have taken place. Each pair is accompanied by full notes. He has been giving lectures on local history at Ore Community Centre for some years, and uses the photographs in his talks. “I am constantly updating the notes, almost on a weekly basis,” said Ken.
Where did the interest in local history start? It was at St Paul’s school, in Bohemia where Ken taught from 1968 to 1980. “I started off as an ordinary primary school teacher, and one thing I used to love to do, was to work out different topics for the children. I really went to a lot of trouble: everything from ancient Egypt to making a life-sized dinosaur. In 1971, we spent a whole year building a dinosaur! I never felt that ‘chalk and talk’ was enough to inspire the children. So when I found myself teaching the children about evolution, I asked myself how I could get the children to understand what a dinosaur really looked like, or what size it was. So I said ‘I know what we’ll do, we’ll build a life-sized dinosaur.’ At twenty feet high, it was too big to get it inside the school, so all the work was done outside the classroom. It was covered over with a tarpaulin every night. It was made from a wooden frame, covered with chicken wire, papier maché and paint. All the work was done during lunch times and break times. Mr Norcross, the head, was so impressed with it, he wanted to put it into the Hastings Carnival in 1971. I’ve even got an 8mm movie of ‘our’ dinosaur sitting on top of a lorry. We won a prize for it.”  Fired by the success of this exercise, Ken then thought of The History of Hastings as the next topic. “I went to Hastings Museum, to see if it was possible to copy some of their old photographs. They were very helpful, and I made slides, which I could project onto a screen in the classroom. This is where the idea of the Then & Now books came from. The children had seen the old pictures on the screen, and I would then take the children out round the town, to the different places, taking copies of the old photographs with us. We could then say ‘this is what it looked like a hundred years ago, and this is what it looks like now, noting which things had changed and which things hadn’t. It really seemed to inspire the children, and they really seemed to enjoy it.” How big were the classes he took out? “In those days, it was quite common to have 30 to 40 children in a class. I would take them out, sometimes just myself, sometimes with another teacher, and we never had any problems at all. They all walked in lines, in twos. It would never happen today. You now have to have one adult for every five children.” Where did Ken take them? “Sometimes to the Old Town Fishmarket, on one occasion to see the tomb of James Burton.”
How did he start to seriously collect old photographs? “The project at St Paul’s was originally planned just for one term, but I was collecting more and more photographs, slides and prints, and I really got hooked on it. It interested me so much, that I just carried on collecting. And when I left school teaching and moved into adult education, in about 1980, I started running adult courses at Hastings College on the history of Hastings, which I called Hastings Then & Now.”
  How did he get the Now shots? “I’d go round the town with my camera, the old photograph in one hand and my camera in the other, and I’d take photographs of exactly the same view. It was very important to me that I took the ‘now’ shot from exactly the same spot.” That must have caused some problems? “Yes, sometimes it was quite difficult. A hundred years ago, the cameraman could set up his tripod in the middle of the road, and of course the horse and carts would walk round him.   These days, you try standing in the same spot. You take your life in your hands. Where I really had to get the shot from the middle of the road, I would make sure there was nothing coming for some way away, and Diana (his partner) would stand there to keep a look out. Some of the old photographs were taken from vantage points which would be impossible today.”
(To be continued)

Read, in part 2 next week, how Ken risks his life to get a picture of the America Ground. 

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