Paupers, poachers and plodders

16th July 2004 at 01:00
In the first of an eight-week summer series on trips that thrill and inspire, Stephanie Northen visits the Roots of Norfolk museum to discover how our rural forebears lived, worked - and did their laundry

The gale is playing games with granny's nightie. It's tearing at the wet cotton garment Colly Mudie has just forced through a mangle and is now struggling to hang on the washing line of Union farm in Norfolk.

Her long skirt flaps around her. The sun goes in and the summer air cools.

Briefly, she really is a Victorian farmer's wife tired out by drudgery.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles could be working the nearby fields, while the workhouse across the lane beckons for those who just can't cope.

Honor Dickerson was one of those who couldn't cope. In 1837 she and her family arrived at Gressenhall, the largest paupers' palace in the county.

They were split up; men and women, boys and girls, were not to associate with each other. They slept apart, worked apart, dined apart. They could not even use the same staircase. One hour together on a Sunday afternoon was all families were allowed.

After four years in Gressenhall, Honor threw some bread to her husband in the men's yard. It was a bad move. He disowned her and the authorities punished her, although she did eventually win favour as a hard-working laundry woman. Hanging freshly mangled washing up in a gale would have been no problem for her.

By now granny's nightie is secure and Ms Mudie smiles. "I've done this in the snow," she says. Ms Mudie is education officer of Roots of Norfolk at Gressenhall, a vast, rambling museum that explores rural life past and present. Poachers, shepherds, tenant farmers, tramps, and "the most vulnerable member of society, the housewife", all have their say. The museum draws provocative parallels with 21st-century country life. There's mention of gangmasters, and an old red Vauxhall reminds us that village life ain't what it used to be. Once people could buy everything on their doorstep; now they are lost without their "limpalong" car.

The site is a beautiful 50 acres with fields, gardens, a historic orchard and country trails bang in the middle of Norfolk. The Union farm and the workhouse, says Ms Mudie, are the twin stars. The workers, agricultural archives on legs, run the farm as it would have been in the 1920s. You can rub shoulders with native cattle, sheep and poultry, all of which occasionally have offspring to coo over. The Large Black pigs are reliable sources of small black piglets. If you are very tall you can eyeball the farm's amiable giants, two Suffolk Punch horses called Queenie and George.

Chickens and guinea fowl scurry around the yards, while the numerous displays tell visitors how bread was made, how the family pig was killed (it is not a sentimental story) and what happened to the contents of the Victorian cesspit (Norfolk rhubarb always tasted good).

For decades, workers carried the produce of Union farm a few hundred yards to the Gressenhall workhouse. This austere building of soft Georgian red brick opened in the 1770s as a "house of industry" to look after the helpless and provide the capable with useful work - and did so in one form or another until 1948. Now you follow the stories of Honor Dickerson and three other residents as you walk the long corridors they walked. At the door stands "matron", a substantial figure who deloused and washed newcomers, giving them their uniform and turning them into a statistic. The tales of these four human "statistics" are sad, but the experience of learning about them is not.

The museum, revamped at a cost of pound;3.5 million in 2001, is sensitive and challenging. It shows life as it was and is respectful of those who lived here, says Ms Mudie. You can try on workhouse clothes, sit in the punishment cell, and see the triangular beds the residents slept in; they were shaped like that to squeeze more people in. Children can play games such as an unusual snakes and ladders called "see how long you can stay out of the workhouse".

The museum wants visitors to make up their own minds about the paupers'

palace. It asks if we really are any better at caring for the frail and vulnerable of society. It discreetly challenges current attitudes to "scroungers" on benefit, to unmarried mothers, the elderly and the sick.

The homeless too have their voice, in the words of a contemporary Big Issue seller.

On the positive side, education arrived sooner for workhouse youngsters than it did for ordinary children. During term time, actor Jim Carpmael turns Gradgrind and gives pupils a taste of rote learning while sitting up very straight. To his amazement girls often tell him they would prefer to be taught like this now. They say it stops bullying and prevents boys messing about.

Ethel Pooley could sympathise. She is well used to boys messing about; some of the naughtiest have even climbed into bed with her. The widow Pooley, a life-size stuffed model, is resplendent under a quilt in Cherry Tree cottage, just outside the main workhouse building. The little house represents country life in the 1930s, with its wind-up gramophone, cooking range and privy with newspaper toilet roll. The kitchen garden, cared for by volunteers, is a beautiful courtyard where flowers, fruit and vegetables are watched over by a splendid black-gloved scarecrow.

This is not the only garden on the site. There is a wilderness garden, water meadows on the farm for pond-dipping, a main courtyard with copper beeches and picnic tables and a small adventure playground, also great for picnics. With so much space, Gressenhall rarely feels crowded.

Four centuries of life on the land is commemorated in the workhouse's former dining hall. A great pink threshing machine dominates, but almost more impressive is archive footage of the harvest. You hear the authentic voices of Norfolk agricultural labourers. "Those old boys, they really did work hard. They didn't worry about the heat like we do. They wore corduroy trousers and long pants. I used to strip off and complain of the heat and my dad, he'd say, 'Well, yes, you will be hot, taking your clothes off and letting the sun get to your body like that'."

Don't miss

Queenie and George, the Suffolk Punch horses

These two fantastic chestnut beasts live and work on Union farm. They pull ploughs and crowds with equal aplomb. The Suffolk Punch was bred in East Anglia for strength, stamina and its docile nature. They are moderate eaters for their weight and hard-workers that plod the fields from the age of three until their mid-20s. One of the highlights of the year for visiting schoolchildren is a special Victorian day, when they go potato picking with Queenie and George. The horses tow a potato-spinner and the children grub up the spoils, 3lb of which they can take home for tea.

The reusable coffin

Fancy going to your grave in a coffin attached to the side of a Norton motorbike? This bizarre relic from the 1920s, on display in the workhouse, was designed to save money when the law said people had to be returned to their parish for burial. The idea was short-lived though; even the Gressenhall guardians decided such treatment of newly departed inmates was insensitive, and halted it.

Norfolk notes

Holiday visits

Gressenhall's numerous special summer events include family days on the Victorians (Mondays and Thursdays), Bugs and Beasties (Tuesdays and Fridays), and Art Attack (Wednesdays). There is also a storytelling extravaganza on August 6 and 7, harvest festival and horse-drawn reaping on August 8, and the biggest apple festival in the east on October 24. A Village at War event will be held on August 29 and 30.

Roots of Norfolk at Gressenhall, tel: 01362 860563, is on the B1146, three miles north-west of Dereham. Open daily until October 31, 10am-5pm (until 5.30pm, July 18 to August 31): adults pound;5.70, concs pound;5, children (4-16) pound;4.40, under-4s free. Facilities: shop, cafe, family activities, playground, picnic areas, baby change. Workhouse trails and cart rides available most days.

Educational visits

The museum has an extensive education programme for all ages and abilities and catered for 10,000 children in 2003. It opens in March purely for school visits. Education officer Colly Mudie and her team are happy to help schools plan their visit to Gressenhall, which supports national curriculum history, environment, science, citizenship, art and literature. Teachers can take classes to special events, request individual sessions, or opt for a self-led visit. Study packs are available for all age groups, from reception classes up to GCSE and beyond. For further information, contact Colly Mudie, tel: 01362 869256 or email:

Anywhere else like it?

* Acton Scott historic working farm, Church Stretton, Shropshire, tel: 01694 781306; l Cogges Manor farm museum, Witney, Oxfordshire, tel: 01993 772602; l Museum of Scottish Country Life, East Kilbride, Glasgow, tel: 01355 224181; The National Trust Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire, tel: 01636 817250. Search under Places to Visit, enter the Workhouse on

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