Building a wall to break down barriers

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The Voices from the Workhouse project has redeveloped our wonderful building to tell the stories of the workhouse through objects, documents, sculptures and projections. Upstairs, the Collections Gallery is undergoing a fantastic transformation to showcase yet more objects from Norfolk’s rural past.

Alongside both these elements we’ve been running an extensive learning and engagement program to raise awareness of the museum’s new look and to encourage visitors to share their creative responses to the stories and objects on display. Some of these activities and projects have taken place here at the museum, and others have reached out into the local community. Some did both!

One such project was called ‘Brick By Brick’, inspired by the beautiful red bricks of the workhouse. What secrets do the walls hold? What could they tell us?

Lots of groups of different ages and abilities got involved. Participants were treated to a short talk and/or a tour of the workhouse which stimulated discussion on themes like rural isolation, poverty and institutions. It was easy to make connections to contemporary issues about how we look after the poor today.

After the talk and discussion, there were two activities. Firstly, the group placed wooden figures on a workhouse map. The cute little figures were extremely appealing to all ages, and the large-sized map made a very striking visual prop.

Locating and relocating the workhouse figures according to status, age and gender naturally provoked a lot of discussion relating to the issue of ‘difference’ in its many forms.

Then, each participant made and decorated a hollow ‘brick’ in whatever way they chose that made it meaningful to them. Inside each brick they were invited to put words, a picture or an object to represent their secret, wish or dream.

The ‘Brick wall’ was displayed, as promised to participants, at GFW during October half term 2016 in conjunction with another Learning & Engagement project and the GFW Collaborate exhibition, encouraging all those who contributed to visit the museum.

In April 2017 an additional Brick By Brick outreach session went to HMP Wayland, where prisoners in the PDU and PIPE units engaged fully with the idea of walls holding secrets! One of the prisoners wrote up the session and his final comments demonstrate how the message of the project had been successfully conveyed to participants:

When staff at Gressenhall workhouse museum present this talk they ask the group participating to make cardboard bricks – and then to decorate them in a way that tells their story. With the increasing numbers of cardboard bricks the museum is continuing to pass on the whispered stories of people’s lives. So yes, the walls can talk, as we heard in this session and the story continues to grow proving that we are more than a ‘Brick in the Wall’”.

‘Brick By Brick’ was just one of many community learning & engagement projects at Gressenhall. Watch out for our partnership making phonecase tweets with Mind later this year!!


History of the Binder

In this addition of my blog I will be talking about the binder and knotting mechanism. The binder is a later improved version of the reaper. The reaper was an implement that just cut the crop, rather than combining it with the processes of cutting and tying it into sheaves.

Picture 1 - Binder

The binder was invented in 1872 by Charles Withington. The binder cuts the cereal crop a couple of inches of the floor and ties the cut crop into sheaves. These sheaves are then ‘stooked’ in the field, resembling tipis, by the farm labourers who are following behind the machine. The stooks were then left to ripen out in the field before they were carted in.

Picture 2 - Carting Corn

The original binders used wire to tie the sheaves, but this gave various problems during operation and also when it came to harvest, so, William Deering then invented a binder that used a twine knotter that was invented by John Appleby.

The knotter is a bit like the sowing machine: the machine pushes a needle in and pulls loops in nanoseconds as it passes by. In the same way, the knotter on the binder loops the twine around the cut crop onto the knotter beak, which then opens and grabs the twine as a knife cuts it to length. The beak then turns to tie the knot and releases once it has done its rotation. This all happens in the space of a second. Below is a picture of the knot the knotter mechanism produces.

Picture 3 - Tied knot

The knotter mechanism revolutionised agriculture and the same mechanism is still used today. There have been variations on the knotter, for example, August Claas adapted the knotter with a limited floating beak. It was then patented in 1921 and is still used in their bailers to this present day. Below is a picture of the CLAAS logo on one of their combines. You can see the knotter needle and beak is used as part of the company branding.

Picture 4 - Claas Logo

Ben Preston – Heritage Farming Apprentice

Porter’s Lodge: Then and Now

Having been Visitor Services Trainee at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse for over three months now, I have spent many days in our museum shop processing tickets and museum passes whether it’s an event day, ‘A Day With A Difference’ or an ordinary day. This also entails greeting visitors and informing them about the layout of the site. Not forgetting serving visitors wanting to pay for items selected from our vast array of gifts and workhouse paraphernalia, ranging from postcards to furry toy animals!

However on the quiet days, which are usually either rainy days or the day before an event, I usually have a spare minute to wonder what our museum shop was originally used for. It has always had the name of Porter’s Lodge. When Gressenhall was a Victorian workhouse, people would ring the bell or the knocker on the porter’s gate in order to gain admittance to the workhouse. The porter was always on duty to admit inmates or visitors to the site. I feel that nowadays, the Visitor Services Assistants in the shop are faced with a similar duty to that of the Porter those many years ago. All visitors, whether they are here for the day, simply using the café or meeting with a member of staff, enter the site via the Visitor Services Assistants in the shop. Here, we’re the first point of call for anyone entering the site. We greet people, process their tickets and allow their admission, as the porter did in Victorian times.

Serving visitors in the shop

Serving visitors in the shop

Once inmates had been admitted to the site, they were escorted to the Receiving or ‘Itch’ Ward where their clothes were removed and they were given a bath, a medical examination, and some workhouse clothes. Nowadays, we similarly give visitors their tickets and provide them with information regarding facilities and the layout of the site so they can have an efficient and enjoyable experience. Then and now, Porters Lodge has been a place where people have been admitted and sent on their way to discover the site and embark on the adventures that Gressenhall has in store for them. It has always been a passage through which newcomers have passed in order to discover the unknown and gain a new experience.

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I often consider what people’s thoughts were as they walked up to the wooden gates of the workhouse in Victorian times, and I’m sure that this is something that many visitors and members of staff have thought about. How did people feel once they’d knocked on the porter’s gate and were waiting for a response? Once they’d been admitted, what were their first impressions? Although these people were experiencing these thoughts and feelings centuries ago at a time when Gressenhall was strikingly different from how it is today, their experience is not as faraway from our current visitors’ experience as you might think. Today, what are visitor’s thoughts as they walk up the path to the shop? What impression do we give visitors as they walk into the shop and see us sitting behind the tills? What hopes do they have about the day they are about to experience at Gressenhall, similarly to people hoping for a better experience when they knocked at the porter’s gate long ago? Porter’s Lodge was and still is a place of first impressions. It is a place where people begin a new experience and begin to embark on a journey to new discoveries.

So this little building on the right hand side of the courtyard named Porters Lodge Gift Shop is not a building to be taken for granted. It is and always has been a place where newcomers have entered the site and gained first impressions of Gressenhall, hoping for a good experience. We know that throughout history, not all newcomers to Gressenhall did receive the beneficial experience they were hoping for when they first arrived at Porters Lodge. Some may have felt privileged to be receiving shelter, food and work, but others had a more unfortunate experience in store for them. But at least nowadays we know that we can meet visitors’ expectations of an enjoyable and memorable experience at Gressenhall.

Lydia Bartlett

Visitor Services Trainee

Library and Archive – history in the making!

As ‘Skills for the Future’ Library and Archive Trainee my new project for 2013 is to collate, sort and progress the history of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum itself.

This is going to be an interesting project as the museum now has over 35 years of its own history.  Visitors who came in the 1970s are now bringing their grand-children to visit with them.


In the Library at Gressenhall, there is a collection of newspaper cuttings, leaflets, plans, documents regarding research for temporary exhibitions and posters which have been saved over time.

I am also very lucky to be able to speak to the original curator, who has been working with the Museum on another project and ask her about the time she spent working here.


I want to create not only a documented history of the museum, but include a history of the people who have made it the museum it has become.

One of the ways of doing this is to talk to anyone who has volunteered, worked or even visited the Museum and ask them to write about their time here, or to undertake recorded interviews. The exact process is yet to be decided, but if you have any exciting or interesting stories to tell about your links with the museum, then please do not hesitate to contact me: