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New exhibition presents textile art pieces exploring 150 years of workhouse nursing history alongside moving stories of the nurses’ working lives

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Making the Rounds: Stories of Workhouse Nurses Told in Textiles

Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse

9 March – 3 November 2024

  • Six new artworks by Norfolk-based textile artist Connie Flynn commissioned for the exhibition
  • Result of year-long collaboration with a team of volunteer researchers
  • Over 60 new biographies of nurses who worked at the site revealed by research telling the story of 150 years of local welfare history
  • Loans and new donations connected with nursing at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse also on display
  • 50% discount entry to Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse for NHS workers until 31 May 2024

Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse opens its doors for a new season on Saturday 9 March with a new exhibition which tells the story of nursing history at the site.

The result of a year-long collaboration between Norfolk-based textile artists, Connie Flynn, and a team of volunteer researchers, Making the Rounds is a moving exploration of 150 years of local welfare history.

Artwork by Connie Flynn, courtesy of the artist, © Norfolk Museums Service.
Artwork by Connie Flynn 2, courtesy of the artist, © Norfolk Museums Service

Featuring the biographies of nurses who worked at the site, painstakingly researched by the volunteers, alongside Connie’s thoughtful responses to this important history and items loaned or donated by family members, the exhibition gives a fascinating insight into the early days of the nursing profession and how it changed over the decades between the late 19th century to the mid-20th century and the dawn of the NHS.

Between 1777 and 1948, Mitford and Launditch Union Workhouse – now Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse – was home to some of the most vulnerable people in rural Norfolk. Its purpose was to provide accommodation, food and work for ‘paupers’ who did not have enough money provide for themselves. The NHS had not yet been created, and many people turned to the workhouse because of illness, old age, disability, mental illness, or as a safe place to give birth. It was run by just a handful of paid staff, and the day-to-day care of the sick and vulnerable inmates fell to the nurses. They were often overworked, undertrained, and isolated.

Now research by the Gressenhall volunteer team has given us an insight into their lives, putting faces and names to a previously anonymous workforce. Women such as Mary Wallin who was born in Birmingham and began her nursing career at the age of 18 as an Assistant Nurse in the children’s ward of Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. Mary – who was also known as Polly – arrived at Mitford and Launditch Union Workhouse (as Gressenhall was then known) in 1895 with glowing references. During her two and a half years at the site, she rose to become Head Nurse at 28, becoming good friends with Ellen Winter, the previous Head Nurse, who give her a birthday scripture book which is on display in the exhibition. Mary’s great niece, Madeline Ahad, was interviewed as part of the project, adding to the richness of our portrait of this hard-working nurse.

Nurse Mary Wallin, courtesy of Madeline Ahad
Nurse Eileen Olive Woods, photographed at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse, © Norfolk Museums Service.

The nurses’ stories are also brought to life by loans and new donations connected with nursing at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. These include a nurse’s belt belonging to Nurse Eileen Olive Woods (1932 – donated in 2023), the birthday scripture book mentioned above (1895 – loaned by Madeline Ahad) and nurse’s chatelaine owned by nurse and wife to Gressenhall Medical Officer, Mary Duigan who volunteered in the workhouse infirmary during the First World War (loaned by Cllr Philip Duigan).

Birthday Scripture Book given by Nurse Ellen Winter to Mary Wallin, © Norfolk Museums Service.
Chatelaine owned by Nurse Mary Duigan, loaned by Cllr Philip Duigan, © Norfolk Museums Service
Medicine bottles used in Norfolk, Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse collections, © Norfolk Museums Service.

Through the exhibition, visitors can explore the amazing stories of women who dedicated their lives to caring for some of the poorest people in rural Norfolk and find out about the pioneering careers they forged for themselves. As a thank you to the present-day NHS workforce, the museum is offering NHS workers 50% admission to Gressenhall until 31 May 2024.

Cllr Margaret Dewsbury, Cabinet Member for Communities, Norfolk County Council says: “This moving exhibition celebrates the dedication of our museum volunteers. Their valuable research is an important new window on this aspect of Gressenhall’s history, while Connie Flynn’s sensitive art works show how history continues to inspire contemporary reflections and responses. We’re sure visitors will be moved and surprised by the stories which have come to light.”

Rachel Kidd, Curator at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse says: “It has been an absolute pleasure to work on this project. I am blown away by the amazing stories that our volunteers have helped to uncover as well as the beautiful, creative way Connie has responded to them. The topic is hugely important. It helps us understand the different ways that ordinary people were able to access medical care before the NHS. It also sheds light on how these hard-working women, many of whom started life as workhouse inmates, were able to forge careers as nurses at a time that many people would assume women did not have careers. The research is a fantastic resource going forward”.

Artist Connie Flynn says: “As a textile artist, it has been fascinating to hear about the lives of the workhouse nurses through the stories found by the museum’s researchers. 

“The textile works I have made for the Making the Rounds exhibition have been chosen as a tool to respond, interpret and represent stories of the workhouse literally held within sheets, bandages and uniforms. Cloth is a powerful material which can holds stories and memories, it can also reflect roles or identities and represent periods of time. As workhouse objects are rare, the nurses have left few objects behind, so the textiles made form a new layer of understanding and meaning.”   

Dauna Coppin, volunteer researcher says: “I have researched more than twenty nurses for this project and found each and every one fascinating. It has been very satisfying, just starting with a name and a date or two and ending up with a comprehensive history of their life.

I discovered a lot about one nurse in particular. I was lucky enough to meet Madeline Ahad, the great niece of Mary Wallin, who worked for the Mitford and Launditch Union Workhouse as Head Nurse, from 1895 until 1897. Madeline, who grew up knowing Mary very well, shared memories of her great aunt. She showed me many of Mary’s photographs and possessions, including her fine lace work and drawings. This gave me even more of an insight into Mary’s character and personality.

Researching for this project has been extremely fulfilling and the compelling nature of it inspires me to want to continue.”

The opening of Making the Rounds marks the start of the new season at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse with an exciting programme of special events throughout the year. Highlights for spring include:

  • Free entry for all mums on Mothers’ Day (Sunday 10 March)
  • Easter holidays ‘Ready Steady Grow!’ activities (28 March – 14 April)
  • Earth Day (Friday 12 April)
  • May half term activities (25 May – 2 June)
  • Blossom Day (Monday 27 May)

Exhibition details

Making the Rounds: Stories of Workhouse Nurses Told in Textiles is on display in the first floor exhibition gallery at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse from Saturday 9 March – Sunday 3 November 2024.

NHS discount applied on presentation of current NHS ID – 50% off admission until 31 May 2024. Discount is for ID holder only. Not valid in conjunction with any other offers

For further information and to book tickets: www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/gressenhall-farm-and-workhouse

About the artist

Norfolk based-artist Connie Flynn’s multi-media practice has evolved through experimentation and combining traditional techniques with modern practices. Working with both hand and machine techniques, she continues to develop her practice. 2022 marked thirty years of exhibiting throughout the UK and abroad. Connie has formal teacher training, BA (Hons) in Art and Education, and is a qualified art therapist. In 2015, Connie completed a BA (Hons) Contemporary Textile degree in Shetland as a way of learning new skills and combining them with other techniques. She finished her third year with a distinction. Connie has extensive experience of artist residencies in museums, schools, and community contexts. She has experience of working with individuals and groups to support them in developing skills and confidence in making art. Connie continues to exhibit her work, offer talks, and run workshops.

About Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse is a workhouse museum, rural heritage centre, 50-acre estate and working heritage farm. It contains the ‘Voices of the Workhouse’ permanent exhibition exploring the lives of some of the poorest people in society. The Museum of Norfolk Life explores life in the county including its rural past. Outside you can explore historic gardens, orchards and an adventure playground. Gressenhall Farm is a working heritage farm where people can learn about and get up close to, the history of farming in rural Norfolk. It raises rare Norfolk breeds including Suffolk Punch horses, Large Black pigs and Norfolk Horn sheep. It is part of the award-winning Norfolk Museums Service.

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