The Book of Centuries and How to Keep One

The Book of Centuries and How to Keep One

Editor’s Note, by Art Middlekauff

Gertrude M. Bernau studied under Charlotte Mason at the House of Education in 1894. By 1906, she was the principal of a PNEU school for girls in London.[1] One benefit of having a school in London is that they were relatively close to the British Museum. Bernau recalled later: “When I had my first school, I used to take my girls to town and meet [Mrs. Epps] there.”[2] Epps was a British Museum expert.

Mrs. W. Epps, also known as Frances Epps, leveraged her expertise to write a series of more than ten articles for The Parents’ Review from 1906–1908 entitled “The British Museum for Children.” The first article in the series suggested keeping a museum notebook:

Before starting on the study of the different departments, will you prepare your museum note-book? When you hear that you are going to examine specimens of brother man’s work, from all over the world, from all time—six thousand years ago (and more) till the present—you will feel you want a note-book in which to enter what you see and learn, so that it may all remain distinct and clear in your memory. This is the plan of our museum note-book.[3]

Epps then said to begin with “an exercise-book of about twenty-six double leaves.”[4] Evidently this plan was followed from at least 1906, but then Bernau describes an innovation that occurred a few years later:

Up to that time we had put our dates and drawings in our exercise books with lines on each page, but in 1914 we started the present inter-leaved Century Book. The first child’s book was drawn up by my niece, aged nine…[5]

Epps’s many articles on the British Museum proved to be so popular that the Parents’ Review issues containing them were eventually sold out. Bernau explains what happened next:

Mrs. Epps was therefore asked to publish them in book form, and she gladly undertook to do so, as she was most anxious that British children should understand and therefore appreciate their great heritage, the British Museum. She was unable to finish the work she had so much at heart, as she passed away in August, 1913. Having had the privilege of studying Mrs. Epps’ articles under her personal guidance in the Museum, I wished as a mark of gratitude for her kind help, and with the assistance of her family to carry through the publication of the book.[6]

In 1914, the book was published, indicating Epps as the author and Bernau as the editor. In the preface, Bernau advocated the new notebook format pioneered by her niece:

In the first chapter Mrs. Epps suggests getting a small exercise-book and keeping a “Museum Notebook.” I have found in the working that it is better to have a larger interleaved book and to proceed with it as follows…[7]

Bernau also explained that this new museum notebook has a new name:

As some of the illustrations will be taken from objects other than those found in the Museum, e.g., Cleopatra’s Needle, it has been thought better to call the notebook “Book of Centuries.”[8]

In Charlotte Mason’s final volume, published posthumously in 1925, she immortalized the name and format of Bernau’s invention:

The study of ancient history which cannot be contemporaneous we approach through a chronologically-arranged book about the British Museum (written for the scholars of the P.U.S. by the late Mrs. W. Epps who had the delightful gift of realising the progress of the ages as represented in our great national storehouse)… Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies by producing a ‘Book of Centuries’ in which children draw such illustrations as they come across of objects of domestic use, of art, etc., connected with the century they are reading about.[9]

For many years, Bernau organized tours of the British Museum and helped students develop their own Book of Centuries. By 1920, Bernau was the co-principal of a different school in London.[10] She recalls:

When Miss Flewker and I had a school in London, we had ‘Book of Centuries’ evenings when Ambleside students would come and draw in their books and we were able to exchange illustrations for copying.[11]

Bernau’s vision was for the Book of Centuries to be a person’s lifelong companion:

In accordance with the principle of the Parents’ Union School, that education should be the “opening of doors” to the great interests in life, the “Book of Centuries” may be started during school days, but it cannot be finished then, and will therefore prove a constant source of pleasure when more extensive travel provides further illustration and record.[12]

The Book of Centuries has been part of the PNEU programme since 1915,[13] and continues to be utilized in Charlotte Mason curricula today. This 1928 article remains the definitive account of its format and structure, as specified by the inventor herself.

By G. M. Bernau
The Parents’ Review, 1928, pp. 224-235

The question of historical perspective and the possibility of bringing it before their scholars is much in the minds of teachers just now, and the teaching of universal history, linked together by time charts of various kinds, is being considered by educational authorities generally. The P.N.E.U. has always advocated the teaching of universal history and the Parents’ Union School has had, for thirty-seven years, foreign and ancient history as well as English, upon its programmes. A few sentences from An Essay towards a Philosophy of Education, by Miss C. M. Mason, sum up the reasons she had for advocating this wide study of history:—

“I have already spoken of history as a vital part of education and have cited the counsel of Montaigne that the teacher ‘shall by the help of histories inform himself of the worthiest minds that were in the best ages.’ To us in particular who are living in one of the great epochs of history it is necessary to know something of what has gone before in order to think justly of what is occurring to-day.


“The study of ancient history … we approach through a chronologically-arranged book about the British Museum[1] (written for the scholars of the P.U.S. by the late Mrs. W. Epps, who had the delightful gift of realising the progress of the ages as represented in our great national storehouse) … Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies by producing a ‘Book of Centuries’ in which children draw such illustrations as they come across of objects of domestic use, of art, etc., connected with the century they are reading about. This slight study of the British Museum we find very valuable; whether the children have or have not the opportunity of visiting the Museum itself, they have the hope of doing so, and, besides, their minds are awakened to the treasures of local museums.


“It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but, ‘the imagination is warmed’; we know that there is a great deal to be said on both sides of every question and are saved from crudities in opinion and rashness in action. The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before.

“Perhaps the gravest defect in school curricula is that they fail to give a comprehensive, intelligent and interesting introduction to history. To leave off or even to begin with the history of our own country is fatal. We cannot live sanely unless we know that other peoples are as we are with a difference, that their history is as ours, with a difference, that they too have been represented by their poets and their artists, that they too have their literature and their national life. We have been asleep and our awaking is rather terrible. The people whom we have not taught rise upon us in their ignorance and ‘the rabble’,—

‘As the world were now but to begin,
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
They cry,—“Choose we!”’—Hamlet.

Heaven help their choice for choosing is indeed with them, and little do they know of those two ratifiers and props of every present word and action, Antiquity and Custom! It is never too late to mend, but we may not delay to offer such a liberal and generous diet of History to every child in the country as shall give weight to his decisions, consideration to his actions and stability to his conduct; that stability, the lack of which has plunged us into many a stormy sea of unrest.”

Every child’s “Book of Centuries” should bear witness to “a liberal and generous diet of History.” From ten years old and onwards the P.U.S. children make these books, “putting in illustrations from all history studied during the term (Bible, English, French, General History).” Their books also bear witness to some special study in museums each term. The children should be free to enter on their pages events and drawings which have interested them in their wide general reading of History (that “inexhaustible storehouse of ideas”) and of Literature. As time goes on the pages become fuller, and fascinating historical facts are discovered which shed light on contemporary and consecutive history in each century. Children get accustomed to treating their “Books of Centuries” as companions to all their reading. They use the local resources of museums, they find information in newspapers, bringing cuttings and illustrations which bear on the special period they are studying. Present day discoveries are watched with interest and noted in the twentieth century page or in the early century with which they are concerned. Thus History, in a “Century Book,” is a live thing of the present, past and future tense. Each book is an individual work of intelligence and very often, of art.

Though “The Book of Centuries,” as such, has only been part of the P.U.S. programme since 1915, its earlier form of a “Museum Note Book” dates back to 1906. The late Mrs. Epps advocated in her British Museum for Children the keeping of a note-book, each page representing a century, in which one could draw sketches of objects in the museums, and write notes of the principal events.

“The Book of Centuries” should be fully drawn up according to the following directions before any illustrations are made. This will then prevent future mistakes which may arise through leaving too few or too many pages. The book consists of forty-eight blank leaves, i.e., ninety-six pages, for drawing, and a corresponding number of lined pages.

We must start at the beginning of the book and head the first lined page “Prehistoric Periods.” Under this it is as well to write a list of the four Periods—Palaeolithic or Old Stone, Neolithic or New Stone, Bronze, and Early Iron—explaining what is meant by each. As the time of the Prehistoric Periods varies in each country, it was thought better to group them all together at the beginning of the book, although there are peoples such as some in the Pacific Islands, who are still in the Stone Age. On the other side of the lined page write “Palaeolithic Age,” and there enter any suitable notes describing this period, which can be gleaned from the Guide to the Stone Age, published by the British Museum.

So much for the lined pages of descriptive notes. Now let us turn our attention to the blank pages for the illustrations. On the first page put the words “River Drift,” on this can be drawn a copy of the fine specimen of a flint implement found with some elephants’ bones in Gray’s Inn Lane, London, at the end of the seventeenth century, which find was the cause of the study of prehistoric remains. On the next drawing page write “The Caves” (see specimen page), and here put illustrations of the harpoons, tools, needles, etc. On the next page put “Kitchen Middens,” and here we shall draw the oyster shells, knives, etc., found in the huge refuse heaps accumulated on the sites of early settlements. On the next page “Flint Workings,” with the chalk lamps, miners’ picks, and sections of a chalk mine. Head the next page “Palaeolithic Art,” illustrations for which are plentiful, e.g., the pebble engraved with a stag, a dagger with a carved handle in the shape of a mammoth. On the next page “Neolithic Age,” showing the more elaborate and polished implements of the Later Stone Age. Then on the next page “Bronze Age,” with illustrations of bronze implements, etc., and a section of a “Round Barrow.”

Now we must turn to the last ten blank pages at the end of the book. These should be kept for small maps of countries mentioned in the main part of the book, such as the N.W. coast of Europe in the Palaeolithic Age; Egypt; Babylonia and Assyria, including Syria and Persia; Greece and Asia Minor with the north coast of Africa, a plan of Athens; the Roman Empire, a plan of Rome; Roman Britain, plan of Roman London; a map illustrating the English Conquest of Britain; Anglo-Saxon England; and so on, ending with maps of Europe, before and after the Great War. On the lined pages opposite the maps could be written a small description of history as illustrated by the maps, or a mention of the centuries in which reference to these countries can be found. The choice of what maps should be included rests with the owner of each separate book. These are only suggestions.

Then we must turn to the twelfth lined page from the end. Between the two top lines write a large “20th Century, a.d.”; from here work backwards, writing at the top of each lined page respectively, “19th Century, a.d.,” “18th Century, a.d.,” etc., till the “1st Century, a.d.” Continue then from the “1st Century, b.c.” till the “54th Century, b.c.” We have now only five pages left, and as there are so few known dates so far back in the history of the world, there is no harm in grouping ten centuries together on each page, i.e., the one after the 54th would be the “64th to 55th Centuries, b.c.,” then “74th to 65th,” “84th to 75th,” “94th to 85th,” “104th to 95th.” I understand that there have been discoveries of objects made as far back as the 100th Century, b.c., so this will cover that period and leave a margin for discoveries perhaps still to be made of a yet further back period. We have now—except in the last few pages mentioned—for each century a lined page on which the facts are to be put according to date, and a blank page for the illustrations of that century. As there are twenty-three lines on each page and two have been taken up by the heading, a line must be drawn on the eleventh line from the bottom of the page to divide the upper half from the lower half, so that there are only twenty lines left for the dates. This will mean that each line stands for five years, and so an event which happened in the third year of an a.d. century would be put on the middle of the first line; one which happened in the forty-second year will be put on the ninth line down, the second place in, and so on (see specimen 16th Century, a.d. page).

It must be remembered that while in the A.D. centuries the earlier numbers are at the top of the page (i.e., in the 1st Century, a.d., the two top lines represent years 1 to 10 a.d.), in those of b.c. it is the reverse, and the earlier numbers are at the bottom of the page (i.e., in the 1st Century, b.c., the two bottom lines represent the years 10 to 1 b.c. Care must be taken, too, to place the dates correctly, e.g., the Magna Charta would be placed at the end of the third line of the 13th Century, a.d. Unless this is pointed out, children often make the mistake of putting it in the 12th.

There are about five double blank pages in the latest “Books of Centuries.” These can be used for drawings of the ancient gods in the earlier part, and architecture of the period in the later part of the book, or for collections of drawings, the owner may wish to make.

Indian ink (waterproof) should always be used for the drawings, and occasional coloured illustrations are very effective. It is permissible to paste in good engravings, or photographs, where the subject is too difficult to be drawn, but this should be done only occasionally, as it is apt to make the book too bulky. As the book should be a life-long interest, children had better leave the more difficult subjects till they are old enough to do them justice. Naturally one page is a very small space in which to illustrate the whole of a century, and yet it is a mistake to leave two pages for some centuries, as I have seen done in some books, as it does away with the whole idea of the book; therefore each should choose what she considers the most characteristic events, planning out the arrangement of the page, as far as possible, before drawing. In this way no two books will be alike, and there is great interest in comparing them. It has been found a good plan for each to carry out one idea of illustration throughout the book, e.g., one will illustrate ships; another, weapons; another, musical instruments, costumes or ornaments of different periods; these over and above the usual illustrations of the various events in each century.

As few boys are able to continue a “Book of Centuries” after leaving the home schoolroom, I should suggest that they should keep a “Book of Periods” instead, giving a page to the Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Ancient Briton, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, etc.

I often wonder whether it would answer to keep a “Family Book of Centuries” where most of the children are away at boarding school, letting each add his or her contribution while they are at home for the holidays initialling it and dating it. I have kept a “School” Book to which each child, who has her own “Book of Centuries,” adds her contribution during her last term.

The “Book of Centuries” is a great joy to the owner, and even in these busy days it is possible to find some time, however short, to add an illustration from time to time. Children always take a keen delight in their books. There is no need to be an artist in order to have quite an interesting book—neatness and accuracy are essential though. Tracing should not be allowed, as the books then lose the individual touch. Museums will be clothed with fresh interest to keepers of these books, who will be able to recognise objects, which have already become familiar old friends through their “Books of Centuries.”

The accompanying reproductions are taken from three different “Books of Centuries.” The first—that of the page in the Prehistoric part headed “The Caves”—is by a P.U.S. pupil who has kept a book since 1920, when she was ten years old.

The second—that of the “6th Century, b.c.” and its accompanying notes—is from an Ambleside Ex-student’s book.

And the third—that “of the 16th Century, a.d.”—is from the book of a P.U.S. pupil who is now ten years old, illustrating the period studied in last term’s English History (Programme 109).

The following books, etc., are recommended for illustrations, though I am sure the reader will find many others on the bookshelves with suitable copies in them:—

Any of the Official Guides of the British Museum.
Outline of History, by H. G. Wells.
Webster’s Early European History, The Birth of History,
The Dawn of History (all published by Harrap).
Piers Plowman Histories, Junior Book IV.
Illustrated Helps to the Study of the Bible.
Breasted’s History of the Early World.
Pictorial History, by H. W. Donald, and The “Suggestions” Historical Illustrations, Sets A., B., C., D. (both published by Charles & Son, Paternoster Square).
A History of Everyday Things in England, by M. and C. H. B. Quennell.

[1] Now out of print.

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Endnotes for the Editor’s Note

[1] The Parents’ Review, vol. 17, p. 633.

[2] G. M. Bernau, “Century Books,” PUS Diamond Jubilee Magazine, p. 42.

[3] The Parents’ Review, vol. 17, p. 269.

[4] Ibid., p. 270.

[5] G. M. Bernau, “Century Books,” PUS Diamond Jubilee Magazine, p. 42.

[6] The British Museum for Children, p. iii.

[7] Ibid., p. iv.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 175.

[10] The Parents’ Review, vol. 31, p. 391.

[11] G. M. Bernau, “Century Books,” PUS Diamond Jubilee Magazine, p. 43.

[12] The British Museum for Children, p. v.

[13] The Parents’ Review, vol. 39, p. 225.

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