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 was performed at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in June.

Groups of singers joined together to 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 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 that formed 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:

Following this the different groups worked to shape their ideas into songs and music for the piece. These included 56 year 3 and 4 pupils from Cawston and Foulsham junior schools who were 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 also learned songs created by Lucy and James with the guidance of conductor David Lawrence and pianist Charlie Penn.

One room at the workhouse 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 were 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 worked 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 was 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 were the core performers on the night but others were involved in helping the production in different ways. A small group from Reepham High School participated with a group of budding photographers – they attended the final rehearsals and performance and will be sharing their photographs with all the participating organisations.

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

Teachers from a further seven Norfolk schools attended a training session and received a work-pack to take back to the classroom. Children learned 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 culminating in what was a truly an unmissable experience, giving voice to people from the workhouse past.

View the photographs from the performance here.

Watch the video below of writer Lucy Sheerman, composer James Redwood and conductor David Lawrence talking about their roles in the project and how the participants took to the subject matter.