Farewell to 2016 Voices from the Workhouse

It has been a busy year  this year! The pilot phase of Collaborate is now over – and what a success it has been. I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of our collaborators for their hard work, enthusiasm and passion for working in partnership.

The projects we have worked on have helped us to understand the museum collections in a new way. It has opened our eyes to thinking about fresh ideas and to celebrate what we do. We are really looking forward to next year’s theme – so make sure you stay in touch to hear more about Rural Lives in 2017.

Writing at Gressenhall

Following the completion of ‘The Norfolk Story Book’ this Summer 2016, Isabelle King undertook a Writer in Residence position at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse to work on a potential second children’s book ‘Children of the Workhouse.’ 

In this piece, Isabelle explains the inspiration behind ‘The Norfolk Story Book’, how she came to be on site at Gressenhall and her fascination with Workhouse history. 

For more information on Isabelle’s forthcoming book and events visit www.isabelleking.net or www.bookstalkback.com

Inspired by the Norfolk Collections Centre Isabelle wrote a series of children's stories. Now she has turned her attention to the workhouse.

Inspired by the Norfolk Collections Centre Isabelle wrote a series of children’s stories. Now she has turned her attention to the workhouse.


My first children’s book is inspired by objects in Norfolk Collections Centre, situated on the same site as Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum.

The first time I set foot in Norfolk Collections Centre, just over a year ago, I knew that I wanted to write about it. An atmospheric cabinet of curiosities, the store is full of exciting objects; Snap Dragons, a Mammoth tusk and equipment used to make mustard and toffee, to name but a few. Even though the building was open to the public, there was a sense of secrecy in the air, almost as though you, as a visitor, had stumbled into the store by accident -which I believe, is a huge part of what makes the store so utterly unique and which certainly captivated my imagination.


I am very excited to have a book launch October 2016 at Norwich Castle – three storytelling sessions will take place at 12 noon, 1pm and 2pm. All families are welcome!

Whilst in the completion stages of writing ‘The Norfolk Story Book’ I was delighted to be invited to the ‘Collaborate with Gressenhall’ day. This was a fantastic day in which Gressenhall staff and freelance creatives got together for a meeting of minds with a view to collaborating on creative projects. The day consisted of talks and activities, led by history professionals, which focused on the lives of people in the Workhouse, as well as discussions with creatives about the ways in which they could bring Workhouse history to life through collaborative projects in community spaces.

There was even a chance to touch and examine some of the museum’s objects; particular favourites of mine were some of the hand-made dolls. It was awe-inspiring to think of how many’s people’s hands had touched those objects throughout history and how these artefacts had played a part in people’s lives. It sparked some very interesting questions; who made them; who played with them; how were they made?

Naturally, I jumped at the chance to collaborate with Gressenhall and last February, taught a day’s creative writing course on site in the Learning Centre. The course was an introduction to creative writing which drew inspiration from real-life stories and images in the ‘Voices from the Workhouse’  focussing on how to create character in the narrative. I was thrilled to receive five stars from everyone who participated on the course, in the evaluation.

I suppose it goes without saying that all this work and meeting interesting people had got the creative juices flowing!

Coupled with the fact that I’d experienced such a fascinating insight to the Workhouse through teaching the course, I was eager for my next book to be based on the ‘Voices from the Workhouse’ project at Gressenhall. ‘Children in the Workhouse’ will explore what it was like for a child to be an inmate at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, inspired by real life stories.

It is extremely important to me that the book is historically accurate. As with ‘The Norfolk Story Book’ I intend to root the stories in historical fact and combine this with imaginative interpretation.

Throughout the Writer in Residence position, I dedicated much of my time to research. Thanks to the new displays at Gressenhall, I was hardly short of resources!

The ‘Voices from the Workhouse’ project beautifully highlights, through interactive displays, the many stories of real people who lived and worked at Gressenhall, from how they washed to what they ate and where they slept. In particular, I enjoyed listening to some of the audio interviews from Workhouse inmates, as well as the film clips of actors portraying Workhouse characters, which radiated with warmth and humanity and really brought home the fact that these people could have been you or me.

As a nature enthusiast, I was keen to make the most of my time on site and explore the Farm where I saw some beautiful Suffolk Punch Horses, piglets and chickens!

In the morning, my writer’s desk was situated in the staff offices where I could bounce some ideas at my computer screen and where I was introduced to that most vital of research devices, the staff photocopying machine which, in spite of its evident simplicity, I could never quite get the hang of!

In the afternoon, my writer’s desk was situated back where it all started, at Norfolk Collections Centre which was open to the public and I had the pleasure of chatting to visitors. It was a joy to work on the second book in the store which inspired my first!

Having explored the collections at great length, I am now in the process of writing! In the initial stages of working on this book, it becomes clear that the process will not be without challenges in the sense that these stories will differ greatly from my first book. In ‘The Norfolk Story Book’ the majority of the characters are fictional. I believe it is an uplifting book; each story celebrates local history by shining a light on the magic, warmth and fun associated with this region.

As ‘Children of the Workhouse’ is inspired by real life stories, of course, I cannot fail to acknowledge that this should be handled with sensitivity and respect. However, this does not mean that the stories cannot be without warmth, humour and humanity and I fully intend for each tale to have a positive message at its heart.

As I have learned with all writing – ‘heart’ is the key!









A city is a living thing


Stitch Like Lorina. The Lorina Bulwer workhouse samplers are incredibly inspirational and many people have been moved by the power and strength within the stitching and her words. We would like to celebrate everything that Lorina has inspired in a display. If you want to contribute to this temporary exhibition please do get in touch.

We were really interested to hear about Japanese author, translator and photographer Mariko Nagai who was Norwich Writer’s Circle writer in residence for July.

She has just posted this fascinating blog, including thoughts about the Lorina Bulwer samplers:


You can find out more about Mariko’s work on her own website:




Exploring James Vincent

Sam Ellis, a University of East Anglia biomedical science Ph.D. student has been working with us for the last three months. Here he describes some of his research into the medicine in the workhouse:

“I am coming to the end of a 3 month placement with the collections team. My day job is as a biomedical science PhD student (lab coat and everything), but for my time here I have been dipping my toes into the murky waters of historical research. Specifically, I have been both auditing the substantial range of medical items in the collection here, as well as looking into the medical care provided at the workhouse during its long history. As an example of this, I am going to give an overview of a major figure in Gressenhall’s past, Dr James Vincent.

The services of a local surgeon or apothecary are recorded here from the early days of the site as a House of Industry, but the provision of medical care became far more formalised when Gressenhall became a Union Workhouse. Alongside staff positions such as Master, Matron, and Porter, the workhouse was now required to appoint a Medical Officer to attend to the pauper inmates. Dr James Vincent was one of the first, and longest serving, to hold this post here.

Dr Vincent was a surgeon residing in Dereham, and was appointed Medical Officer in 1846 as a young man aged 25. He was likely already familiar with the workhouse, having worked with the previous Medical Officer William Warcup, both men having practised their trade from the High Street of Dereham.

The work of a medical man was very different in the 19th century, in an era before antibiotics and effective pharmaceuticals. In fact, the common term for the job was still ‘surgeon’, indicating how much of the role was via physical intervention only. What simple drugs were available at the time were unlikely to be provided for pauper patients, as the cost was expected to come out of the medical officer’s own salary (not a great motivation for liberal prescriptions). However, the sick were often given medicinal doses of alcohol, including wine, beer, porter and spirits, which were believed to give strength to the patient. In 1851 the Board of Guardians set up a special committee out of concern for the increasing expenditure on this, suggesting Dr Vincent prescribed such treatments extensively (which I’m sure the inmates appreciated).

As well as caring for the sick, a regular task for the Medical Officer was attending female inmates both during and after childbirth. As many expectant mothers entered the workhouse in this period, it was a job which would have kept Dr Vincent busy, and was the primary reason for a large pay rise he received in 1848.

The records from the Guardian’s minute books indicate that Dr Vincent was an able surgeon. We know of many occasions in which he was called to perform operations of various severity. For example, Dr Vincent was required to undertake many amputations of arms or legs; often a sad necessity due to the fatal risk from infected wounds at the time. One such case was that of a 7 year old boy named Alfred Love, whose leg was amputated in 1854 due to the danger to his life of a ‘hectic fever’ brought on by infection. Happily, Alfred survived the ordeal, was provided with a wooden leg from Norwich, and was educated at the workhouse to become a successful tailor in Dereham and Fakenham.


A pre-war period bone saw in the Gressenhall collections, similar to the type of tools Dr Vincent would have used for amputations in the workhouse.

Other operations in the records include the treatment of a dangerous strangulated hernia on a patient named Thomas Key in 1876. For this and other major operations, Dr Vincent was often assisted by Dr George Taylor, who was a practising surgeon in Mattishall for 46 years.


This photo shows Dr Taylor in the late 19th century with the horse and gig he used to make his rounds, alongside his groom and gardener.

In 1879, an illegitimate child named Benjamin Newell was born in the workhouse with a cleft lip (then commonly called a hare lip). The local government board were informed, and eventually decided to decline to interfere with the condition of the boy. Fortunately for Benjamin, by this point Dr Vincent had already gone ahead and successfully performed the operation. Benjamin Newell remained at the workhouse until the age of 14, when he was sent as an apprentice to a bootmaker in Northampton.

This is just one example of how medical officers often faced a difficult and often frustrating balance between what was best for their patients, and what was ordered by the Guardians or government authorities. This is amusingly expressed in the memoirs of Dr Joseph Rodgers, a medical officer for the Strand workhouse in London and a prominent 19th century health reformer, reflecting on one chairman of the Guardian Board:

‘This Chairman did not long continue to act as such, as some months after this he died suddenly of heart disease, the only evidence he had ever afforded that he possessed one’

Dr Vincent himself had a number of run-ins with bureaucracy whilst at the workhouse, especially in the early 1870’s. Firstly, the Guardian’s minutes record that he was repeatedly chastised by auditors for his methods of keeping the medical accounts, and had to be advised on the correct way of filling up the forms (some workplace annoyances have clearly not changed between the centuries!). Dr Vincent was also pushing for sick inmates and young children to be allowed free outdoor exercise on the workhouse green beyond the walls, but was denied by the Guardians who felt it was too impractical. In addition, during a discussion of salary increases for medical officers across the Union, the Guardians decided against it in respect of Dr Vincent.

While it is impossible to know for certain, it is likely that such frustrations led to Dr Vincent’s decision to resign from the post in 1874. He was replaced by another local surgeon, Dr Stephen Moulton Hopson. However, this Medical Officer did not last long before himself resigning in 1876 in the wake of a minor scandal in the local papers regarding a (probably unfounded) accusation of medical neglect of the elderly in the workhouse. When no other candidates came forward, Dr Vincent was re-elected to the position (and at a higher salary!).

As well as treating ill patients, the medical officer was also responsible for ensuring the general health of the inmates. Dr Vincent appeared to play an active role, as the Guardian’s minutes record many of his frequent recommendations. He ensured that the old men were provided with warmer flannel jackets, and that duffle capes were made available for boys running errands off the site. He also made recommendations on varied issues including provision of wooden legs, isolation of infectious patients, purchases of stoves to heat the infirmary wards, and numerous alterations to the dietary schedule of the inmates.

The Medical Officer was also consulted when paupers claimed to be too unwell to work, and Dr Vincent appeared to be rather firm in weeding out those faking illness. For example, in 1879 an inmate named Henry Wright complained he was unable to leave his bed and perform his job picking oakum. Dr Vincent was unimpressed, and on examination discovered no reason why he could not work. Henry was punished for his misbehaviour with temporary solitary confinement and a bread and water diet.

While the records suggest that Dr Vincent was a very competent medical officer in his time here, he was not immune to some of the peculiarities of the medical profession of that era. For instance, the Victorian period saw a large rise in interest in human anatomy, dissection and autopsy. Most readers will be aware of the practise of performing surgeries in front of many rows of students and interested members of the public (hence the name of operating theatres). Dr Vincent was often directed to perform post-mortem examinations of paupers who passed away in the workhouse, usually just to confirm that it was due to natural causes. However, entries in the minute books record how sometimes the doctor himself requested the chance to perform autopsies. One such case from 1870 reads:

‘On the application of Dr. Vincent the Medical Officer of the Workhouse permission is given him to make a post mortem examination on the body of William Cullen an Idiot lying dead in the workhouse, there being no objection on the part of any relatives of the deceased and the doctor having shown a peculiar reason for making such examination.’

While the clerk does not say what this ‘peculiar reason’ might be, it appears Dr Vincent had a strong personal and professional interest in exploring the human anatomy.

It also seems that Dr Vincent was a proponent of the medical benefits of electricity, a common opinion in the medical community during the early days of electrical technology. In 1873, the Board of Guardians approved his request to purchase a new ‘Electric Machine’ for the infirmary. Such devises were designed to apply a (thankfully weak) current through targeted regions of the patient, and were thought to help treat a wide range of physical and even mental conditions. The minutes do not reveal if Dr Vincent regularly used his electric machine, or what outcomes it produced.

On the left is the machine Dr Vincent wished to order, taken from the 1873 catalogue of Arnold & Sons of London which he referenced in his request to the guardians. On the right is an illustration of a similar devise in use, taken from ‘A Practical Treatise of the Medical and Surgical Uses of Electricity’ published in 1871. In this case the current is passing between a wet sponge on the patient’s forehead and a metal plate beneath the feet.

By 1883, Dr Vincent was aged 62 and stated that he was beginning to find his duties becoming ‘rather onerous’. As such, he resigned the position of workhouse Medical Officer (for good this time), successfully requesting that his son Henry Bird Vincent was considered to replace him. Henry was also a qualified surgeon, having gone straight from Holt Grammar School to the University of London to study medicine by the age of only 16! He had worked as a General Practitioner on Church Street in Dereham, as well as holding the role of Medical Officer of health for the union (responsible for monitoring and reporting on nuisances or public health risks in the area).

Henry Bird Vincent officially took over as Medical Officer for the workhouse in February 1884, although James Vincent continued to act as a deputy for his son. In recognition of his work here over the course of four decades, the normally rather stoic Board of Guardians recorded an official vote of thanks to Dr Vincent at their next meeting. Furthermore, just before the transition they gave permission for all the officers of the workhouse to hold an officer’s party in the building (albeit at their own cost). While the purpose is not recorded, I like to think they were giving Dr Vincent a lively and clearly well-deserved send-off!


More ghosts…


James Dimelow has been researching the lives of several different people who lived and worked at Gressenhall to create a new work called “Ghosts of Gressenhall”.

He has now finished drafting and we are very excited to read his completed script and think about performances. James says:

“As you will have seen I have played around with time in order for all the characters to be able to interact with each other. I have also amalgamated both Doctor Vincents into one role.

You may also be interested to know that spun off from another past project – which has recently come back to life – a local Director is now really keen on the play, as are some local actors that I am currently in contact with. The Director has also offered help me budget the play and offer guidance with its casting too.”

We are really excited to hear that a performance of the play might be possible – more news as we get it. You can find out more about James and his work on his website:






Arcelia - soulful folk combining guitar, cajon, bass, piano & original songwriting to create                     a unique sound have been working on a workhouse song inspired by Gressenhall

Arcelia – soulful folk combining guitar, cajon, bass, piano & original songwriting to create a unique sound have been working on a workhouse song inspired by Gressenhall

Critically acclaimed soulful harmony group, Arcelia, is set to bring its lo-fi sound and original song writing to Norfolk this summer – and will give the first performance of a song which has been inspired by the archives at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. The band explain more below:

“Penned by the band’s songwriter Gavin Alexander, the new song aims to capture a slice of the lives of the people who were living in the workhouse between 1834 and 1948.   The first live performance of the song will be at a special gig to be held in the chapel of the museum and will kick off the Workhouse Experience weekend on Friday 12 August.

Gavin said, “ It’s been wonderful to plunder the fascinating mix of social history, politics and very human stories of desperation and weave them into a new song for us to premiere in the chapel,  which would have been a very significant space for the residents as it was the one place family members who had been segregated could meet up.”

Arcelia comprises the three very different voices of Gavin Alexander, Teresa Gallagher and Simon Foster blended with guitar and cajon and with Martin Elliott and Perry White on acoustic bass and piano.

Describing themselves as ‘lo-fi soulful folk’, Arcelia has built up a loyal following of music fans in their native Kent and London, regularly joining Chris Difford of Squeeze on his solo dates throughout the UK.   Simon Foster is also a member of the acapella outfit, The Flying Pickets, which delights huge audiences across the UK and on the Continent.

Audiences for the two Norfolk gigs lined up so far are likely to be much smaller than Arcelia is used to but, as vocalist Teresa Gallagher explains, the band has a special love of playing quirkier venues.

“For us it is all about people getting together in more intimate, unusual places where we can share our music and exchange ideas in an informal atmosphere.

“On this ‘Pin Drop Tour’ we’ve played  in people’s homes,  village halls and even on boats! We love the intimacy that the smaller spaces bring,” she said.

Arcelia plays Starston Village Hall on Thursday 11 August and Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse on Friday 12 August at 7.30pm.  Tickets cost £10 and are available from the workhouse reception desk or online from  https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/arcelia


Workhouse children

Artist Graham Rider created this piece inspired by the theme of children in the workhouse.

Artist Graham Rider has been working on a piece inspired by the theme of children in the workhouse. Graham says:

“Essentially it is the painting of the child’s uniform, plus replica cloth ball on a small plinth and framed mock accession sheet which alludes to the absence of the child.  The placement and hierarchies are important to the way it is viewed, as is the white wall, as when I came to photograph the painting on the brick wall it ‘disappeared’ and made no impact.

What became of the child? I think also the concern is different to a Museum display but uses some of the techniques but leaving the painting resting on the floor makes a comment about the lack of presentation about this item.

I certainly got a lot from working with the Museum and thank you again for giving me access and helping me.”

Creative Collaboration

We are really pleased to be working with Rebekah Bainbridge and international artist Kate Egglestone-Wirtz on an access project for young, local artists this summer. Rebekah explains more:

“We have decided on the week commencing 22nd August for 5 days across which participants will take part in various workshops and develop their ideas for works to be displayed via the projectors around the museum.

I have secured funding from Nelson’s Spirit to cover travel costs for participants. We are looking at an age range for participants of 15-19, which includes years 10-13 in school/college.

A rough overview of the week is:

  • Monday – Welcome and tour / Workshop with Kate
  • Tuesday – Research workshop with Helen / Researching areas of interest
  • Wednesday – Developing and experimenting with ideas
  • Thursday – Developing and experimenting with ideas
  • Friday – Presentations of ideas / Action plan for event”

Get in touch if you would like to take part.


Workhouse dolls – made by visitors

Our visitors have got creative – inspired by the workhouse dolls in our collection. Together with artist Fred White they created these amazing larger than life versions over May half term.