Together To The Workhouse Door in Norfolk

Real stories from Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse inspire community choral project

Since April, schools and community groups in Norfolk have been working on an ambitious choral and creative writing project inspired by one of Norfolk’s best loved museums. The £90K project has brought together celebrated composer James Redwood, poet Lucy Sheerman and Sinfonia Viva with local communities to create an original oratorio inspired by the stories of those whose lives were shaped by the workhouse.

Commissioned by Norfolk Museums Service and co-produced with Orchestras Live, the project has been funded by a grant from Arts Council England along with contributions from Broadland District Council, Norfolk Arts Service and Norfolk Music Education Hub. Sinfonia Viva, Writers’ Centre Norwich and Breckland Council have also been key partners in delivering this exciting new work which will be performed at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in June.

Groups of singers will animate different spaces inside the Grade II listed workhouse (one of the most important and best preserved workhouses in the UK) with all performers coming together for an open air performance in the workhouse courtyard for what promises to be an inspiring and atmospheric event.

The project comes on the back of the major Heritage Lottery Fund supported Voices from the Workhouse project which has seen a complete transformation of the workhouse galleries at Gressenhall. This project also enabled in-depth research into the nationally important archives and collections at Gressenhall, revealing fascinating facts about the lives of inmates and staff alike – it’s these stories which form the basis of the Together to the Workhouse Door performance.

An initial inspiration day held at Gressenhall on 29 March 2017 attracted a lot of interest with participants enjoying musical warm up activities with James Redwood and the Sinfonia Viva team, a whistle stop tour of the workhouse including meeting Victorian workhouse inmates (the Gressenhall Learning Team in disguise!) and creative writing sessions with Lucy Sheerman.

Watch the video of the Inspiration Day here:

Since then the 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 junior schools who have been hard at work with Lucy and James to turn their words into songs with the help of Dave Ayre (double bass) and Christina Marroni (bassoon) from Sinfonia Viva. They have also been learning songs created by Lucy and James with the guidance of conductor David Lawrence and pianist Charlie Penn.

One room at the workhouse has particularly 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 c. 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! It inspired 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. They’ve been working on a moving dream song about playing in the playground at the workhouse and how good that would feel: “I step outside the workhouse door, now who could ever ask for more.  I’m in a different place, my heart begins to race, I see the sun…”

Alongside the children, a 16-strong choir drawn from the local community is also involved in the project, working with James and Lucy 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: “All is in good order, running like a clock.  Everything obedient, you could hear a pin drop.”

These groups will be the core performers on the night but 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.

Meanwhile, Alysham High School will take part in a costume design session on Wednesday 17 May with Emma Belli (costume designer) – from this, Emma will consolidate their designs and create t-shirts for participants and orchestra as well as costumes for the two soloists.

Teachers from a further seven Norfolk schools 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.

Together to the Workhouse Door is a unique creative collaboration which is set to culminate in an unmissable experience, giving voice to people from the workhouse past.

Find out more about the public performance on Tuesday 7 June 7pm or book tickets now.