Priestley's World and the World of the Play | Facing History & Ourselves
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Priestley's World and the World of the Play

Students learn about important events that occurred during Priestley’s lifetime, completing a human timeline to understand their chronology, and are introduced to the concepts of socialism and capitalism.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About this Lesson

Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls in 1945, but set the play in 1912. Learning about the historical context during and between these two time periods, and about Priestley himself, is important if students are to fully comprehend the message of the play, and if they are to start to make connections between identity, society, and the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others. By examining the world of the play and the characters’ choices and decision-making processes, students will be able to better understand and reflect on their own identities, relationships and choices. Moreover, they will start to consider how the values of a society, and its spoken and unspoken rules can impact human behaviour. Such consideration is vital if they are to become active and responsible citizens, who address and challenge the social norms that foster inequality in the present day. 

In the previous lesson, students explored wealth inequality in modern society, discussing graphs produced by the Social Mobility Commission, and drawing on their own views and experiences. This exploration laid the foundation for them to better understand the context and experiences of others, and the social inequality that Priestley explores and asks his audience to confront in An Inspector Calls. This lesson begins by introducing the historical context of the twentieth century. Students will learn about important events that occurred during Priestley’s lifetime up until 1945, completing a human timeline to understand their chronology. They will also be introduced to the concepts of socialism and capitalism, which are central to the play and to understanding Priestley’s ideological motivation as a socialist. Whilst exploring socialism and capitalism, students will have the opportunity to consider the justness and fairness of both systems, ultimately reflecting on what they think would make society a more just and fair place.

  • Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
  • Clear and Coherent Writing (Lang-AO5)
  • Critical Reading of Non-Fiction Texts (Lang-AO2/AO4)
  • Knowledge of Subject Terminology (Lit-AO2, Lang-AO2)
  • Reading Comprehension (Lit-AO1, Lang-AO1)

Students are introduced to important contextual information that will facilitate their understanding of An Inspector Calls: the sociohistorical context of Edwardian England and that which is relevant to Priestley’s life and experiences. Knowledge of these contexts is vital if students are to engage critically with the content of the play, and if they are to write in-depth analysis concerning its purpose and message. They read for comprehension and critically, reflecting on and discussing the content of a primary source. Students also learn the meaning of socialism and capitalism – two political/economic systems which are referred to in the play and which underpin its central themes. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • How does where we are from and where we live impact who we are and what we value? 
  • How can learning the historical and contextual information of An Inspector Calls deepen our understanding of the play?
  • Students will identify the social and cultural factors that impacted Priestley’s life, views and actions.
  • Students will analyse primary historical sources and examine contextual information that is relevant to An Inspector Calls, in preparation for reading the play.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 reading
  • 3 handouts
  • 2 extension activities
  • 1 homework suggestion

Priestley was born and raised in Bradford, a city that was then a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father was a schoolmaster, and he was brought up well educated, attending, first, a local grammar school and, later, Cambridge University. Bradford, however, left its mark on him for he was able to see first-hand the conditions in which some people lived and laboured. He knew of the exploitative working conditions in the factories and textile mills (his mother, who died when he was just a baby, had in fact been a mill girl), and he used his position as a writer to publicise this mistreatment of the working class. 1  An Inspector Calls is perhaps his most famous example of this work.

Priestley, who was a soldier in the First World War, wrote the play towards the end of the Second World War in the winter of 1944–45 as a response to the destruction of war and as a call to action: he wanted individuals in society to reflect on their interconnectedness to avoid such suffering from occurring again. Priestley felt that the social systems of Victorian and Edwardian society, in particular, had created conditions ripe for global conflict, and he wanted to warn against them emerging once more. Before teaching the play, it is, therefore, important for students to understand what society was like in the build-up to the First World War. 

In both Victorian England (1837–1901) and Edwardian England (officially 1901–10, though it is often extended to the start of the First World War), society was characterised by social inequality: class dictated one’s opportunities and dominated social interactions; women were regarded and treated as inferior to men (indeed, they were not allowed to vote); and industrial workers endured dangerous and exploitative working conditions, but reaped none of the financial benefits of their hard-earned work. It was also, in many ways, a period of civil unrest. The Suffragette movement, which fought for women’s rights to vote in elections, was gaining ever more traction: women demonstrated outside Parliament, engaged in hunger strikes, and put their lives on the line. Emily Davison, for example, who walked in front of the King’s Horse at The Derby, died in her fight for women’s suffrage. The working class in Britain and Ireland also took to the streets in regular mass strike actions in a period known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ (1910–14), subsequently forming the first trade unions that fought for workers’ rights. One of the most famous strikes from this period was the National Coal Strike of 1912; in this, their first ever strike, coal miners refused to work until they were granted a minimum wage. Almost one million miners participated in this strike and it lasted for thirty-seven days until the government intervened, passing the Coal Mines Act, which gave miners the right to a minimum wage. 2 Priestley uses the character of Birling to refer to these labour ‘agitations’ in the play, very much highlighting the divide between the wealthy industrialists and their workers. 

The year 1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War, which is remembered for its stark loss of life (it is estimated that 15–19 million people died), brutal battlefield conditions (the trenches were places of disease and danger), and for the fact that as the ‘first industrial war’ it changed the face of warfare. Priestley, who joined the war effort as a soldier when he was just 19, was greatly shaped by his experiences, and felt that the war really opened his eyes to the power of class in society. In his autobiography, Margin Released (1962), Priestley wrote, ‘I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation’s fate, the best sorted out and slaughtered . . . The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of the chateau with polo mallets and beaten their brains out. Call this class prejudice if you like, so long as you remember that I went into that war without any such prejudice, free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone.’ 3

Whilst some progress was made after the First World War, society did not come far enough, and just over twenty years later in 1939, the Second World War broke out. Priestley, who was a well-established writer and social commentator by this time, was prompted to write An Inspector Calls. He wrote the play quickly at the end of 1944 and the start of 1945. The speed with which Priestley wrote the play and the fact that Great Britain was still at war meant that An Inspector Calls was first performed in Leningrad (St Petersburg) as there were no London theatres available: the Second World War meant that the London theatre scene was much diminished and the theatres which were in operation had their schedules fully programmed. Throughout the teaching of the play, it is important to remember that Priestley wrote the play as a means of encouraging us to confront the impact of our decisions and actions, both individual and collective, on others. 

When reading the play, students will also need to be able to distinguish between socialism and capitalism: Socialists believe in the redistribution of wealth, and in a society in which the government is directly responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens. Capitalists, on the other hand, believe in the power of the market and the individual; they support deregulation of industry and lower taxes as they think that this encourages creativity, competition, and progress. They support a stripped back form of government as they regard society welfare support through taxation as unfair because it does not champion the success of individuals. Socialism is often regarded as the opposite of capitalism; however, both systems can work alongside each other and in reality most modern societies have both socialist and capitalist features. In the UK, for example, we have a state education system that is funded through taxation and is available to all for free. We also have high streets of shops, which sell products and services to people for profit.

  • 1"Biography," The JB Priestley Society Website, accessed 24 March 2020.
  • 2The history of strikes in the UK,” Office for National Statistics, 21 September 2015.
  • 3 J. B. Priestley, Margin Released: A Writer’s Reminiscences and Reflections (London: Heinemann, 1962), quoted in "Education," The JB Priestley Society Website, accessed 24 March 2020.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

  1. Before the lesson begins, it is important to prepare several activities.

    • Firstly, for the human timeline activity in Part I, print and cut apart the handout An Inspector Calls Context Cards, and the handout An Inspector Calls Context Images. There are twelve context cards and fourteen images (so twenty-six items in total). Print out enough copies to ensure that each student has one item, a context card or a context image.
    • Secondly, print out and cut up the Socialism vs Capitalism Statement Sort handout for Part II of the lesson, so that students can work in groups to determine which sentences apply to socialism and which ones apply to capitalism.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson. Consider adding them to your Word Wall:

  • Socialism
  • Capitalism
  • Sufragette
  • Homogenous/Homogeneity

In Part II of the lesson, when students are asked to identify if a service is capitalist or socialist or a mixture of both systems, we have selected some intentionally ambiguous services that can be both to stimulate discussion and enable students to understand that, whilst the two systems are often pitted against one another, societies have features that are both capitalist and socialist, and that this even applies to the same types of services. For example:

  • Supermarkets: Whilst most supermarkets are thought to be capitalist, various chains exist that are a little more complicated. For example, the John Lewis partnership, which owns Waitrose, gives workers a cut of the yearly profits in the form of a bonus; whilst a chain of supermarkets known as the People’s Supermarket runs as a community interest company that is fair to both producers and consumers.
  • Transport services: These are run both by the government and by private companies that make a profit in the UK.
  • Schools: The UK has both schools that are free for students and fee-paying schools, which are referred to as independent schools. Independent schools are registered charities, so they are not necessarily run for profit, but it might be interesting for your students to consider the features of the different schools and how they fit in with the definitions of socialism and capitalism.
  • Cooperatives: There are many forms of cooperative businesses in the UK that seek advice from their members and work for the benefit of the community, either reinvesting profits for the benefits of all or dividing them between members. For example, there are cooperative banks that loan money at a fair rate and housing cooperatives that rent out affordable accommodation.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Explain to students that today they will be learning about playwright Priestley’s life experiences and the sociohistorical context of An Inspector Calls as preparation for reading the play.
  • Then write the following glossary and quotation on the board and project the questions. Ask students to choose one or more to explore in a journal reflection.

    Glossary: Flanders refers to regions in the North of France and Belgium in which many battles were fought during the First World War.

    Quotation: ‘Perhaps because of my upbringing, my 21st birthday lost in the Flanders mud . . . I could not be entirely serious about anything, except the well-being of our society itself.' —J. B. Priestley

    • What might Priestley mean when he states that his ‘21st birthday [was] lost in the Flanders mud’?
    • What impact do you think the experience of war had on Priestley’s identity and what he did with his life following the First World War?
    • What standout experiences have you had that have impacted the way you view the world? Explain your answer.
  • Have students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, before selecting some students to share their ideas with the class. 
  • Divide the students into small groups and give each group a copy of the reading Letter from the Trenches . Read aloud the letter as a class and then ask the students to discuss the following questions in their groups: 
    • What happens at the time of year that Priestley is writing his letter? How does this make you feel? 
    • Priestley became a soldier in the First World War at the age of 20. How is his age reflected in his letter? 
    • How does Priestley’s letter depict war? Which descriptions stand out most vividly? Explain your thinking.
    • How does Priestley’s letter contrast war with day-to-day life? What impact does this contrast have on you as a reader? 
  • If there is time, invite students to share their responses with the class.
  • Note: before teaching the timeline activity see Notes to Teachers (above) and prepare the materials.
  • Ask students to mindmap everything they know about what happened between 1900 and 1945, and then quickly share their mindmaps with a partner. 
  • Tell students that they will be making a Human Timeline of significant events in Priestley’s life, which are fundamental to the understanding of An Inspector Calls. Pass out one context card or image to each student from the handout An Inspector Calls Context Cards and handout An Inspector Calls Context Images. Then invite students to move around the room and find the other students whose card or image relates to theirs. Each group should have at least one image and one context card, but there may be more than one context card and/or image in each group. If necessary give students the following topics to guide their grouping, but ideally, challenge students to create categories on their own.
    • J. B. Priestley 
    • First World War
    • Second World War
    • The Miners
    • The Titanic
    • The Suffragettes
    • King George V
    • The Great Depression
  • Give students a few minutes to share their cards/images and decide where they each think their image or card falls in relation to the others in their group, and which year or time period their image or card may relate to. 
  • Next, invite the students to line up in chronological order to create a human timeline. To help students, you may want to invite the student who has the earliest date on their card to start off the class (in this case it would be the context card referring to the birth of J. B. Priestley), and then have different students follow on from them. 
  • Students should share the content on their context cards/images as they join the timeline. As more students join the timeline, invite those who have already presented to move to a different spot if they think their initial guess was incorrect. Continue this process until all of the students are standing along the timeline. Challenge students to consider any connections between events as the timeline grows.
  • After everyone is standing in a human timeline, project the actual timeline on the board to help students identify the proper placement of events and move any students who are in the incorrect spot.
    •  13th September 1894 – Priestley was born in the industrial area of Manningham in Bradford
    • 6th May 1910 – King George V becomes king 
    • 26th February 1912 – The National Coal Strike begins as miners demand a minimum wage
    • 14th April 1912 – The Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage
    • 4th August 1914 – Britain joins the First World War after Germany invades France through Belgium
    • 6th February 1918 – Women over 30 who meet a property requirement gain the vote
    • 11th November 1918 – First World War is declared over 
    • 2nd July 1928 – Women gain equal voting rights to men
    • 1929–33 – The UK is hit by the Great Depression; industrial and mining areas are particularly badly hit
    • 1st September 1939 – Second World War begins after Germany invades Poland
    • 5th July 1945 – An Inspector Calls is first performed in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in the Soviet Union
    • 2nd September 1945 – Second World War ends (though Germany surrendered months before on 30th April) 
  • Ask students to return to their seats and then lead them in a wraparound to share one fact or idea that they learnt during the lesson.

Part II Activities 

  • Explain to students that in this lesson, they will be continuing their exploration of the context of An Inspector Calls by gaining a more in-depth understanding of socialism and capitalism. Priestley was a self-described socialist, and both systems are referenced throughout the play.
  • First, project Priestley’s statement and the questions beneath it on the board, and ask students to discuss the questions in groups or pairs.
    I have taken my typewriter to the factories, the mines, the steel mills. . . . I wrote some of the first detailed accounts of the depressed areas. Having been brought up on the edge of it, I knew what life was like “back o’ the mill”. . . . I grew up among socialists. I watched the smoke thicken and the millionaires who made it ride away. 4  —J. B. Priestley
    • What sorts of injustices did Priestley witness and experience growing up?
    • How did Priestley’s experiences and upbringing shape his actions and views of the world? How did they influence his identity?
  • Lead a short class discussion, inviting students to share their ideas with the class.
  • 4‘The Delight That Never Was’, from Delight (1949), quoted in "Education," The JB Priestley Society Website, accessed 24 March 2020.
  • Explain to students that one of Priestley’s values was socialism, and it is important to understand what this means as it is relevant to the content of the play. Then explain that socialism and capitalism are both political and economic concepts that dictate how a society is organised, and that most societies have features that are both socialist and capitalist. These features often coexist harmoniously in societies and indeed, many people desire a society that contains features of both systems, rather than a pure version of one.
  • Divide students into groups and pass out the envelope with the cut-up sentence strips from the handout Socialism vs Capitalism Statement Sort to each group.
  • Give the students five minutes to work in groups to decide which statements belong together in an ‘idea sort’. The aim of this task is to find similarities between the statements and sort them into two categories. Students do not need to be told the definitions of the words yet.
  • Lead a class discussion and invite students to share their ideas and explain how/why they sorted the statements into two categories. Ask them to comment on the similarities and differences that they notice, and how these might impact individuals and groups in a society. Then explain which ones belong under the heading capitalism and which ones belong under the heading socialism. (The information is provided in the accompanying PowerPoint. It is worth noting that there are some statements that could fit into both, depending on how they are interpreted. For example, both capitalism and socialism can lead to homogeneity in what people consume; both can have systems of taxation; and both can benefit a few at expense of the majority, notably those in power.)
  • You may want to ask students to consider why, in modern society, some people support capitalism and, others, socialism, or why many societies opt to have a mixture of both.
  • Finally, ask students to discuss these questions in pairs:
    • From what you know so far, which features of socialism and/or capitalism do you think are the most just and fair? Why?
    • What factors do you take into account when assessing how just and fair something is?
  • Next, give each group one of the following services to focus on, and ask them to use the information from the statement sort activity to consider whether it is a socialist or capitalist service, or has features of both. The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to understand that these systems can coexist and that both systems can provide the same and/or similar services. If your students are not aware of cooperative models of business, you may wish to share some of the information contained in the Notes to Teachers (see above).
    • The National Health Service
    • Public library
    • Supermarket
    • School
    • Book publisher
    • Car factory
    • Roads and motorways
    • Transport services
  • Project the following questions to guide the group discussions:
    • What is this service’s main purpose?
    • How do you think this service is funded? (through taxation or customers, a combination of the two, or from another source of funding)
    • Is this a socialist or capitalist service, or does it have features of both systems? What makes you say that?
    • How just or fair do you think this service is? What factors do you take into account when answering this question?
  • After groups have had a few minutes to discuss their systems, ask each one to share their service and a highlight from their group conversation. Then discuss the following questions as a class: 
    • What new, different, or deeper understanding has arisen about services in the UK, how they are funded and their purpose? 
    • Can you think of any examples to add to the list of services that are both socialist and capitalist? 
    • Which of the services discussed do you think is the most just and fair? Why? 
  • Time allowing, you may want to ask students to come up with different reasons why, given that modern societies have a blend of both systems, some people want their society to move further towards capitalism and others further towards socialism.
  • Now, ask students to think about themselves in a journal reflection. Project the following questions one at a time so students have a chance to consider each one:
    • What do you think a just and fair society would look like? 
    • What structures would need to be in place for such a society to exist? 
    • Priestley wrote about the injustices that he grew up witnessing. If you were to record and publicise something which you felt was unjust and needed to change, what would it be? Why? 
  • Have students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, sharing one response that they feel comfortable sharing.

Extension Activities

Explain to students that they will be watching a short video about class in 1914 Britain. Ask them to take notes in their books during this video, noting down three things that they found interesting and any questions that they had. Play the BBC video The Class System in 1914 Britain (4:22). After watching the video, give students the opportunity to reflect on its content in a Think, Pair, Share activity.

  • What did people believe about Britain before the First World War? Why?
  • What was one of Britain’s most valuable commodities? Who profited from this?
  • How did the lives of the working class differ from those of the wealthier classes?

Project the following questions on the board and either give students a piece of paper on which to write their answers or ask them to respond to the prompts in their books based on what they learnt in the Human Timeline activity:

  • What do you think prompted Priestley to write the play in 1945?
  • Why do you think he chose to set the play in 1912?

Homework Suggestion

Give students the handout Socialism vs Capitalism Feature Match to complete for homework. It can be reviewed at the start of the next lesson if desired, and can be stuck into their books as a useful point of reference when reading the play.

Materials and Downloads

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