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A ‘treasure-trove’ of stories from the Victorian workhouse at Gressenhall are crafted into song to give a voice to the inmates from years gone by

PUBLISHED: 12:21 23 May 2017

School children from Foulsham and Cawston take part in an inspiration day to write a new song inspired by those who lived at Gressenhall workhouse.  Pictures: Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse

School children from Foulsham and Cawston take part in an inspiration day to write a new song inspired by those who lived at Gressenhall workhouse. Pictures: Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse

Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse

An ambitious £90,000 choral and creative writing project, inspired by one of Norfolk’s best loved museums, comes to fruition next month giving a voice to people from the workhouse past.

Inspired by the stories of those whose lives were shaped by the workhouse at Gressenhall, schools and community groups have come together with celebrated composer James Redwood, poet Lucy Sheerman and Sinfonia Viva to create an exciting new work to be performed on June 7 and 8.

Commissioned by Norfolk Museums Service, the project has been funded by a grant from Arts Council England along with contributions from Broadland District Council, Orchestras Live, Norfolk Arts Service, Norfolk Music Education Hub, Sinfonia Viva, Writers’ Centre Norwich and Breckland Council.

Groups of singers will animate different spaces inside the Grade II listed workhouse before an open air performance with a professional orchestra and soloists in the workhouse courtyard for what promises to be an inspiring and atmospheric event.

Thanks to a major Heritage Lottery Fund which has seen a complete transformation of the workhouse galleries at Gressenhall, in-depth research into the nationally important archives and collections at Gressenhall was undertaken, revealing fascinating facts about the lives of inmates and staff alike. It is these stories which form the basis of the Together to the Workhouse Door performance.

Different groups have been working hard to shape their ideas into songs and music for the piece. These include 56 year 3 and 4 pupils from Cawston and Foulsham primary schools.

One room at the workhouse captured the imagination of the Cawston children – the refractory or prison cell where inmates were sent to be punished. One detail on record from 19th century inmate Harriet Kettle – who claimed she passed the long hours locked in the refractory by squeezing a rat to make it sing – made quite an impression, inspiring the lyrics: “Dirty water leaking, it’s pitch black! A fat rat squeaking, scratch, scratch scratch!”.

Meanwhile pupils from Foulsham have been thinking about the constraints of workhouse life in a different way, particularly the wall which divided families as men were kept separate from women and children.

Alongside the children, a 16-strong choir drawn from the local community have been working on a song about the Visiting Committee who made decisions about how the workhouse should be run. This explores the discipline and regimentation of workhouse life at a time when routines were ruled by the clock.

Ms Sheerman said: “Gressenhall Farm and Museum is a place full of moving and inspiring stories. It has been an incredible opportunity to bring them back to life for this uplifting piece. Everyone I have worked with has inspired me with their talent and dedication - I can’t wait to see it all come to life during the performance.”

Mr Redwood said he found Gressenhall to be a “treasure-trove of stories and objects” and added that he was looking forward to an inspirational performance.

While the core performers on the night will be performing on a specially constructed stage in the courtyard at Gressenhall, others are involved in helping the production in different ways. A small group from Reepham High school are participating with a group of budding photographers – they will attend the final rehearsals and performance and will share their photographs with all the participating organisations.

Aylsham High School has taken part in a costume design session with designer Emma Belli to create t-shirts for participants and orchestra as well as costumes for the two soloists.

Teachers from a further seven Norfolk schools - Caston Primary, East Harling Primary, Edward Worledge Ormiston Academy in Great Yarmouth, Holly Meadows in Pott Row, Parkers Primary in Saham Toney, Stoke Holy Cross Primary and Woodlands Primary Academy in Great Yarmouth - have attended a training session and received a work-pack to take back to the classroom. Children are learning some of the songs in school supported by workshops with Norfolk Music Hub and Norfolk Voices.

Tickets for the public performance are available here or by telephone on 01362 869251 (Box Office open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

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