Bring back the workhouse?

Workhouse Network

We had a really successful Workhouse Network meeting here on Tuesday 25th. The Workhouse Network is a group of workhouse museum sites that are all interested in workhouse history, together with academics, archivists and family history researchers. We were catching up with each other’s news, but also planning our Autumn Meeting which will take place on Monday 18th September at Llanfyllin Workhouse in Wales. The Autumn Meeting will be entitled “Bring back the workhouse? And will look at how workhouse sites are tackling modern issues of poverty and welfare. We are also looking at more long term plans for a joint conference on “health, wealth and welfare” next year and a research project looking at creating a touring temporary exhibition about out relief – help given outside of the workhouse.

This cartoon is called ‘Interior of an English workhouse under the new poor law act’.
It shows inmates with shaved heads picking oakum and beating hemp.

Collections Gallery

We were allowed back into the collections gallery last week and with the help of some brave souls (huge thank you to Helen and Steve Bainbridge, Sue Marsh, Terry Brown and Heather Ryder) we managed to clean all the interior shelves and the inside of the glass. We also worked on the installation of the Rural Lives temporary exhibition (almost all the images are up now) and put together all the flat pack furniture. The space is really coming together and is ready for us to start installing objects this week.

HLF monitoring meeting

We also had a meeting with representatives from the Heritage Lottery Fund. As well as being very impressed with the Collections Gallery progress, it also gave us an opportunity to review progress with the Activity Plan. It is hard to believe we only have one more year of this project!!

Rural Lives

We’re making progress in the Collections Gallery!

Although the gallery isn’t quite ready for objects to go back in the Curatorial team have taken the opportunity to start some jobs in there. Case tops have been made and will be fitted in the next couple of days. Next job is to clean the cases, Josh has made a start on cleaning the metal shelves! We will then put some plastazote in the cases to line the shelves.


Rural Lives

We’ve also started to install our temporary exhibition, Rural Lives, which features photographs of Norfolk people from the past and today.




Deciphering difficult handwriting

This week we held the first informal meeting of our volunteer research team. This team are working their way through 23 volumes of correspondence between the workhouse here at Gressenhall and the Poor Law Board (and its successors) in London. Every letter has been scanned or photographed by The National Archive in Kew where they are safely kept. The volunteers are now looking at each letter and cataloguing it. In time the catalogue and images of the letters will be published on the National Archives website so that they can be used by researchers and family historians without them needing to visit Kew. Very worthwhile and fascinating work. Many thanks to our wonderful research volunteers for their painstaking work deciphering often very difficult handwriting.

Lighting almost complete

Last week the electricians were busy putting new track lighting into the Collections Gallery. This is now complete. Whilst there are not a large number of spotlights on the track yet, what this does is gives us the flexibility to add additional lights later when budget allows. For now we have sufficient to light up the room so visitors can find their way about and not so much that the light damages the collections.

The installation of this last bit of lighting means that we now have three options for lighting – 1) no lights, 2) track lights (for normal opening), 3) central lighting focus (for activities in the central family area which need a bit more light).

There are a few problems with the case lighting which are being sorted this week, ready for installation to start next week.


Since the beginning of the project we have hired a number containers to store collections temporarily whilst everything was being moved around. Last week the collections team made a Herculean effort to remove all the objects from these containers and find permanent homes for them – mostly in the Norfolk Collections Centre. This is great as it means they can be properly cared for. The environmental conditions in the containers are far from perfect for long term storage so we are really pleased to get the collections out of them. This has now been completed with the help of Wayne from the Norfolk Collections Centre.

This week we hope to install Rural Lives – our temporary exhibition for 2017 on Friday – so hopefully we will be able to open that very soon.


Ripon Workhouse


This week has been rather quieter as we have entered the Easter School Holiday.

Work in the Collections Gallery has slowed as our contractors are busy with schools. But our case lighting is now complete and we are looking forward to the track lighting going in starting this week.


Our curator, Megan, spent a few interesting couple of days at Ripon Workhouse Museum. She was invited to speak about the Voices from the Workhouse project at Ripon Museums’ AGM. They have just purchased the main block of their workhouse from North Yorkshire Council (pictured) and are beginning to plan what they will do with it. Exciting times for Ripon.

This week we also had a catch up on all the loose ends of the project and did a review on what is still left – scarily quite a lot! It was reassuring to chat through it and to make sure that we were all aware of our roles and responsibilities in the final year of the project.


Together to the Workhouse Door

This week we say goodbye to Stuart, who has been our project manager for 2 years and will be sorely missed. Good luck in the future Stuart and you must make sure to stay in touch!

The project is still busy though even though we have one less member of staff…

Symfonia Viva and Orchestras Live – Together to the Workhouse Door

This week we have been very busy starting our Together to the Workhouse Door project with Orchestras Live and Symfonia Viva. We are working in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich, Norfolk Music Hub, Breckland & Broadland District Councils and Norfolk Arts Service.

This exciting and ambitious creative writing and music community engagement project will commission a major new oratorio which will be created by composer, James Redwood and poet, Lucy Sheerman. The new site-specific work will draw inspiration from the nationally important archives and collections at Gressenhall, one of the most important and best preserved workhouses in the UK.

Working with local schools, community groups and volunteers, Together To The Workhouse Door will animate, in words and music, some of the many rich stories and voices of people at the Workhouse, raising awareness of the social and cultural heritage of the site as well as inspiring local communities to develop their own creative responses to both the site and its unique collections. The new oratorio and collaborative work will be premiered at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse on Wednesday 7th June 2017.

Lighting installation

Wensum Valley electricians have completed the case lights in the Collections Gallery and they look fantastic. They are busy working in schools next week and will be back 10th April to start installation of the new track lighting.

Rural Lives

We have received our last prints for Rural Lives and the new prints from Jim Mortram were transferred from the Norfolk Record Office to the Design and Technical team at the Castle. The prints have now been mounted and are ready to be framed. We are almost ready to install this temporary exhibition once the track lighting is installed.

We also spotted a really good news report for our reflection area in the galleries – check it out:

Next week no work will take place in the gallery as all contractors are busy with school work. We will be planning the last year of the project on Monday (gulp!) and I’ll be visiting Ripon Workhouse Museum to speak at their AGM.



Lighting and furniture…


Lighting installation

Electricians are hard at work installing lighting into the cases. This is the first part of the work required to compete the lighting fit out for the gallery. After this is finished they will then move onto new track lighting for the room which will make it light enough for our visitors to see, but not too bright for the collections.


Furniture and interactives

We had a really good meeting to discuss furniture and interactives and we now have a shopping list. This will include a comfy sofa, desk and chairs, bean bags and storage units for interactives. We have been concentrating on finding interactives that can be used in a very flexible way and encourage intergenerational learning for our family visitors (but don’t exclude the adults). This will include two different feedback walls, toys, and trails which encourage our visitors to really investigate the objects in the cases. We even discussed having a mystery object and inviting visitors to decide what it is and write creative labels for it.

We hope you like the progress we are making!

Workhouse history masterclass

Are you one of the one in ten who has ancestors who spent time in a workhouse?

Come to our masterclasses to find out how you can find out more!

Saturday 13th May 2017


Join us for a one-day introduction to workhouse family and local history for beginners. Discover the different types of workhouse archive and how to use them to uncover the stories of those who lived and worked in Norfolk’s workhouses. Find out how to preserve your own family history records.

Speakers include archivists, curators and family history specialists from Norfolk Record Office, The National Archives and Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

Full programme of speakers including lunch and free entry to Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

£20 /£18 for Museum Pass Holders

£10 for those in full time education.

Book by logging onto and searching for masterclass.

Lottery Players’ Preview

We are really looking forward to our Lottery Players’ Preview this Sunday!

This is a a chance for us to thank everyone who plays the Lottery for helping to fund the Voices from the Workhouse project. A valid Lottery ticket for the period between March 13 and 26 must be shown on entry. One ticket will admit up to 8 people free of charge. Includes Lotto, EuroMillions, Thunderball and Lotto Hotpicks. Scratchcards are not included.

We hope you enjoy the chance to see the difference your support has made to the museum. Don’t forget to check out our new ‘Project Updates’ board to see what has been going on. We still have another year of “Voices from the Workhouse” to go and lots of exciting projects and work going on. We’ll make sure to update the board regularly so you can see our progress.

Showman’s van

This week Kelvin and Mary Thatcher have been working on our wonderful showman’s van. Unpicking the history of this home has been a marvellous experience and finding the tiny signs of everyday domestic life has really connected us to the family that lived here. My favourites are the circles left on the newspaper in the cupboard where the pans used to be kept.

The work is still continuing – so far we have repaired the door, restored the stove (which provided all the heating and cooking requirements in the wagon), made repairs to the roof and cleaned some of the windows. Taking all the black dirt from the beautiful clerestory windows really made a difference to the inside of the van, brightening it and lightening it.

We have also been struggling with ethical, conservation problems. Should we remove the vinyl sticky backed plastic from the surface of the fold down table top? How do we paint the new mouldings Kelvin has lovingly made so it is clear they are modern and restored? In general we are looking to conserve the history of the van as far as possible – including all the bodges and materials that we might not choose to use now. So the 1980s sticky back vinyl remains – as it was put there by one of the owners of the van. And we paint the new mouldings so it is clear they are restored and not original.

It has been a fascinating process and we are really excited to see how the van will look once conservation is completed.

Preparing for Rural Lives


We have had a wonderful day today preparing for our temporary exhibition Rural lives. This combines contemporary portrait photography by photographer J.A. Mortram with portraits from our historical collections. It is hoped that the exhibition will help people to reflect on their own rural lives, and the lives of those around them. There will be a space for reflection and a chance to contribute to the exhibition in our “Your Rural Lives” section.