Hope and despair
It seemed to us that the differing light levels there would be in The Workhouse in May and October would give contrasting atmospheres that would lead themselves to two different but complementary Museums at Night events. I started by thinking of them as Stories of Light and Dark, but these quickly became Stories of Hope and Despair.
We have a flourishing research group at The Workhouse and one of them in particular became my own ‘research terrier’ – digging away in the archives to uncover some amazing stories. Truth really is stranger than fiction!
For the performances I relied on the workhouse learning volunteers who do role play with schools and have branched out into living history and storytelling. They’re a great team to work with and never seem phased by my unusual ideas!
I began by writing rough drafts of the stories to give them an idea of what I wanted and then passed these to the cast so that each could develop the story with their own individual voice. All the costumes are made by the workhouse sewing group.
Selecting stories of hope
Even the Stories of Hope were pretty dark – a mother accused of murdering her child, for example, and another’s husband who was killed when a steam-threshing machine blew up (the newspaper report was graphic to say the least!) Yet another came into the workhouse when her husband was transported for stealing a sheep. He was definitely guilty – the police found the pieces under his bed!
These were people with unusual histories, and we know about them now because of reports in newspapers, or inquests, or workhouse correspondence. It was good to learn that at least some of the inmates who sought and found refuge here survived and even flourished.
Involving our visitors
The premise of the evening was that The Workhouse would show off its good side to the Southwell ratepayers (the audience) and explain its role in keeping their Poor Rates down. The desire to pay less tax is something that taxpayers throughout history have wanted! The audience met staff who explained how they ran the system, including the schoolteacher who had some notable successes amongst his pupils.
The feedback after the May event was great – people were genuinely amazed by these real stories of real people.
Sinister stories for October
Our Sinister Stories Evening is part of Museums at Night in October when the days will be darker, and we will be presenting a rather different view where the tales do not have such happy endings.
We will explain the unpopularity of the Poor Law system, and meet Master and Matron who are not so happy to welcome visitors. They are under strain because they, along with the schoolteacher are the staff responsible for nearly 200 inmates, who are either old and ill, with varying degrees of mental illness or very young – children or perhaps women who came in to give birth, just as Oliver’s mother did in Oliver Twist. We’ll hear about a woman whose child died of starvation (or did it?), a woman whose son met a macabre end, two old men once affluent who ended on hard times and a shop-lifter who ended in a lunatic asylum.
We hope that our visitors will leave with a deeper understanding of the roles that workhouses played in people’s lives.
Jane Tappin is the Learning Officer at the Workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.