Variety is the spice of rural life
PUBLISHED: 10:50 22 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:50 22 May 2015
It is almost 40 years since Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse opened to the public as a museum. KATHRYN CROSS finds that while the bricks and mortar remain the same there is always something new and interesting to discover on the 50-acre site.
When you stand in the courtyard and look up at the red brick facade, with the neatly painted white sash windows and distinctive clock it is hard to believe that anyone could have suffered here.
But for more than 100 years Gressenhall Museum was a workhouse, a place of toil and hardship for the poorest of the poor, with basic rations, strict rules and regulations and where families were separated.
It was designed to be a place that only the most desperate would wish to enter - how times have changed.
It is still a bustling hive of industry but in 2015 it is simply a fun and fascinating place to spend a day.
History of Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse
In 1776 the combined parishes of Mitford and Launditch bought Chapel Farm at Gressenhall to build a ‘house of industry’ for the poor. Poor families were allowed to live together and earn money from their work.
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act led to the transformation of the house into a workhouse. The aim was to keep costs low by making life for the paupers so unpleasant that people would do everything they could to avoid having to live there.
A new system of classification separated men, women and children - families were only allowed to see each other for one hour on Sunday after church. Unmarried mothers were housed in a separate building as they were thought to be a bad influence.
Work for men included breaking stones, pumping water, carting gravel and oakum picking (taking small strands of fibre from old ships’ ropes), and domestic chores in the kitchens, laundry and female wards for women.
The only benefits were the health care and education for children between the ages of five and ten.
Inmates were fed on gruel and watery porridge and had one good meal a year on Christmas Day.
Anyone disobeying the rules could find themselves sent to the refractory cell, also known as the dungeon. Any paupers who died there were buried in the workhouse burial ground with no headstone.
The workhouse closed in 1948.
After a short time as a home for the elderly, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse opened as a museum in 1976.
I have been covering events and previewing exhibitions for Gressenhall since I started working in the EDP’s Dereham office 13 years ago and every time it has been an absolute pleasure to visit.
From meeting land girls and lumber jills who helped the curators with one Second World War exhibition, to following excited children around the farm as they are taught about agriculture through the ages, there is always something new to learn and facts to share with my colleagues back in the office.
I’ve witnessed a Victorian lesson in the schoolroom, seen bread made in the Cherry Tree Cottage, watched the stunning Suffolk Punch horses ploughing a field and even reported on a broadcasting of the Radio 4 show Gardeners’ Question Time from a marquee in the courtyard.
More recently I had a preview of this year’s temporary exhibition focusing on the inspiring members of the Women’s Institute which is celebrating its centenary and learned how the research into its history was carried out and the causes it has championed over the years, with a chance to view the objects, photographs and memorabilia that had been collected for the display before it was opened to the public.
Last week I spoke to operations manager Hannah Jackson about a wildlife event that was held on the May Day bank holiday which saw hundreds turn out to enjoy sunshine and nature in the extensive grounds.
This bank holiday has a completely different feel as it turns the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s to explore the music, fashions, food and lifestyles of a different era.
Apple Day in October remains the most popular event of the year and this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“It is our biggest single event,” said Hannah. “The first one in 1990 was an apple-picking event and was one of the first apple days in the country as part of an initiative to promote local distinctiveness. It has grown enormously since then. The next biggest event is our Village at War weekend in August, which started in 1999. The idea is to put on events that interest all the generations across the board so people will visit us at least once a year.”
Schools use the museum as a valuable learning resource and in a year 10,000 pupils will pass through the gates to learn something new.
“The new history curriculum now covers pre-history and our neolithic sessions have been really popular because it seems quite a difficult topic for younger children to get their heads around,” she said. “The play area means children can explore natural play and a family easily can spend a whole day here.”
It’s just one of the reasons this place is so special, there is such variety and although its themes must always have a link to rural life it does not feel like it is constrained by it. The team puts in such a huge amount of work to make sure every event and exhibition is prepared and organised to perfection to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
My last visit was before the first opening date of the season and the whole site was a buzz of activity with decorators getting every inch spick and span and artifacts being transferred from archives to displays.
Curator Megan Dennis told me it is often feels busier in the winter months than during its open season. She has worked at Gressenhall for the past six years and loves every minute of the job which gives her the opportunity to research so many different aspects of rural life.
“The temporary exhibitions usually take a year to 18 months to put together from the first idea to the opening,” she said.
“The WI exhibition was quite complicated because we were working with partners and a lot of the collection was not in our archives.
“We get the ideas for the exhibitions from different places and people come to us with ideas and we always welcome them. We are already working with the Norwich Society for an exhibition in 2018 looking at Norfolk’s rural pubs. It started from a collection of plaster plaques, sculpted pieces by an artist who lived in Norwich who worked for different breweries and depicted different rural scenes. The Norwich Society are interested in him as an artist but we can explore the role of Norfolk pubs as community hubs.
“In a couple of years we will be working with photographer Jim Mottram who does contemporary rural photography around the area which will be interesting and something very new to Gressenhall. We would say it has contemporary relevancy.
“An exhibition is a really tricky thing to put together and you need to think what the exhibition is for and who will come to see it.
“We have a family audience so we do as much as we can with pieces and objects rather than words which makes life hard when you have spent a year researching it and you know a lot about the subject and you have to condense it. At the same time you don’t want to over-simplify it or make it a cartoon. You need to get the points across.
“We like to use people’s own words. In our Women’s Land Army exhibition people told their stories and that is the best way to get their ideas across to visitors.”
Heritage Lottery Funding has allowed Megan and her team to completely rethink how they display the workhouse artefacts.
“The Voices from the Workhouse project is really exciting,” she said. “I have been here six years and this is the first time I have been able to have an influence on what is displayed in most of the museum. We hope it will be open next year as the first phase of new displays and lots of exciting interactive stuff. It has been so much fun finding out about people who lived and worked here. Some are sad stories and some are happy and some are unexpected. It may have been a workhouse but it was a place of safety, even though it was strict. One in ten of us is supposed to be descended from someone who lived in a workhouse so it touched so many lives.”
While it is important to remember its past it is wonderful that a place that was once full of such sadness now brings so much happiness to thousands of visitors every year - and reminds us how lucky we are.
To find out more about Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse visit the website: http://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/visit_us/gressenhall_farm_and_workhouse/index.html.