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Research project to study life in Norfolk workhouse

Published: 23 April 2024 at 16:39

Gressenhall workhouse

Anglia Ruskin University joins forces with Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse will be the subject of an in-depth research project which aims to develop a better understanding of the day-to-day lives of the inmates who stayed there.

The research will focus on the objects used by people at Gressenhall and what these tell us about individuals’ experiences in areas such as food, work, childhood, discipline, health and sleep.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) via the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme and beginning later this year, a PhD student from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) will be based at the Norfolk museum as part of the project.

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse holds a unique and fascinating collection of over 1,000 objects – including textiles, shoes, toys, cutlery and furniture – linked to the lives and institutionalisation of some of society’s poorest and most vulnerable people. 

Gressenhall was initially established as a House of Industry (1777-1836), before becoming the Mitford and Launditch Union Workhouse (1836-1930), and finally the Gressenhall Public Assistance Institution (1930-1948).

By building a picture of the day-to-day lives of people living there, the project aims to improve our understanding of individual and community identities in the workhouse, and compare this to current thoughts on welfare history.

The project will also involve archival work at Norfolk Record Office as well as studying objects held elsewhere, and is being supervised by Dr Joseph Harley, who specialises in poverty and welfare during the early modern, Georgian and Victorian periods.

Dr Harley, a Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“Workhouses were a pivotal part of the experience of poverty for millions of people during the Old and New Poor Laws, which started in 1601 and were finally abolished in 1948. However, we still know relatively little about the experiences of workhouse inmates from the perspective of their material surroundings.

“Gressenhall’s collection presents a unique opportunity to explore the materiality of workhouse life, and gain a greater understanding of how inmates, whose voices are often lost to history, would have experienced life on a daily basis and how they might have felt while living in the workhouse.”

Rachel Kidd, Curator of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, said:

“We’re thrilled to be working with ARU to offer this PhD opportunity. The student will be working closely with our extensive workhouse collections, creating a fantastic opportunity for the museum to learn more about these objects and share this new understanding with its visitors. 

“A material culture approach will help us to further understand what life was like for people who lived and worked in our building – what it looked, felt or even smelled like – and how inmates experienced things like food, health, childhood, and sleep. 

“Above all, we hope this new research will help us to continue to challenge persistent narratives about welfare history and workhouses, and explore how this history sheds light on relevant issues today.”

To find out more about the project and this PhD opportunity, visit https://www.aru.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research/ahrc-collaborative-doctoral-partnerships-phd-studentships  The deadline for applications from prospective PhD candidates is Monday, 13 May.