Gruel and Graft: Researching Leeds Union Workhouse

This week’s blog comes from guest author Emily Coulthard who is a Collections Access Assistant at the Thackray Museum of Medicine.

Since joining The Workhouse Network, a subject specialist network which aims to promote understanding of the history and contemporary relevance of welfare, the Thackray Museum of Medicine has been discovering more and more about its workhouse roots.

Image of Leeds Union ‘able bodied inmates’, c.1911 – Credit: St. James’ Hospital

The More Than Oliver Twist Project (2019-2021) began when six former workhouse sites joined together under the banner of The Workhouse Network, to research the lives of inmates living in workhouses at the time of the 1881 census.

From the beginning it was clear that the Thackray Museum of Medicine, formerly Leeds Union Workhouse, was in many ways a unique site involved in the project.

Image of Thackray Museum exterior – Credit: Thackray Museum

Leeds Union Workhouse was both the largest workhouse, holding over 450 inmates in 1881, and geographically the most urban based site in the project. This ensured an incredibly diverse and interesting pool of inmates for our volunteers to uncover. From the notorious Josiah Hardy a ‘disorderly pauper’ who was frequently in and out of Wakefield Prison to Mary Peddlestone, an Irish soldier’s wife who was no stranger to travel; her family even went as far as Canada.

The Workhouse research volunteers used many sources, both online and in person, to uncover the lives of the Leeds Union inmates, including resources held at the Leeds Library sites.

Lesley Collins, research volunteer and Regional Mentor for the project found the resources at Leeds Central Library particularly useful:

[The library’s] large collection of Commercial/Street Directories proved very helpful in providing information on the backgrounds of some of the people who found themselves in the Leeds Workhouse on the night of the 1881 Census. Much of that research relied upon the ten-yearly Census returns, so the Directories really helped to fill in the gaps and gave a better understanding of the lives of certain inmates.

Thackray research volunteers at their first skills session hosted at Leeds Central Library – Credit: Thackray Museum

After uncovering this research, how then do we use it?

Elements of the lives of inmates and general research about the workhouse site have been used since the project ended to inform many of the Thackray’s programs. A brand-new Workhouse display was installed as part of the recent £4 million redevelopment, whilst the education team got to grips cultivating an improved workhouse themed school’s workshop where children are given the name of a real inmate who walked on our site.

The research will also be used to form the theme of our 2021 Heritage Open Day “Gruel and Graft” where visitors will follow “Matron” and walk in the footsteps of previous workhouse inmates, including into the original workhouse chapel (now St. James’ Hospital Chapel) where former inmates attended for Sunday worship. Volunteers will be on hand to discuss their research and provide tips to any new researchers, and a selection of workhouse objects will be available for careful handling by visitors.

The aim of the initial More Than Oliver Twist project was to ensure people understood just that – living in a workhouse in the nineteenth century was more than just the image of Oliver Twist in rags clutching a meagre bowl of gruel. Through the interpretation of our dedicated volunteers, and the development of events like our Heritage Open Day workhouse tours, we continue to achieve the honourable task of bringing the stories of those paupers to life.

Join the Thackray Museum at their Heritage Open Day event, 11am-4pm, Friday 10th September 2021. Sign up for the free tours at 11.30am and 2.00pm on the day.

Find more Leeds events as part of Heritage Open Days 2021 festival and look out for the full programme of events in Leeds Libraries and Community Hubs.

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