As autumn gets underway, another year’s Heritage Open Days have come to an end. The annual festival, incorporating thousands of events across England, is the country’s largest celebration of history and culture. It’s also one of the year’s biggest volunteer-driven events, with over 40,000 people giving their time to welcome visitors to top national heritage sites – as well as some lesser-known places accessible only during the festival.
The Thackray Museum of Medicine occupies the former Leeds Union Workhouse, one of the oldest buildings on the St James’s Hospital campus, dating back to 1861. Last year, Thackray staff and volunteers used Heritage Open Days as an opportunity to bring its story vividly to life: visitors were immersed in an interactive tour led by a costumed workhouse Matron, who began by measuring out portions of gruel for the new ‘inmates’, before whisking them around meaningful locations like the grand Victorian staircase and neighbouring Workhouse Chapel.
Another nearby building with strong ties to the museum’s history is the Moral and Industrial Training School (now the hospital’s Lincoln Wing). Here, at an institution built in 1848 to address increasing numbers of children living in extreme poverty, decisions were made that ultimately led to the building of a new Leeds Workhouse.
Talks and Tours
For our first Heritage Open Days event of 2022, held on 13th September, volunteer Lesley Collins presented a new talk on the Moral and Industrial Training School and its inmates. Combining her own research with input from other members of the volunteer research team, she traced the lives of several scholars named on the 1881 census. From a pupil who went on to receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal in WW1, to those who were unwittingly adopted as unpaid servants by local fosterers, she described the good and the bad – all of it fascinating.
Visitors were then offered the opportunity to take a walking tour focusing on another distinct period of history. The Front Line: Medical Museum or War Hospital? explored the experiences of soldiers sent here to be treated during WW1, when the building became East Leeds Military Hospital. Between this and a similar site at Beckett’s Park, some 57,000 soldiers were given medical care, sometimes from voluntary nurses trained only weeks beforehand.
Using historical objects and photographs, Josh Ward, a member of the museum’s Learning team, took visitors back to an era when injured men made harrowing train journeys back from Europe for treatment within the building’s walls. They heard about wartime wounds, the care provided and the outcomes of this treatment, as well as documented accounts from staff at the time.
Walking the Medical Mile
On 17th September, the museum led another walking tour focusing on the key buildings and sites of the local ‘Medical Mile’ – the stretch of Leeds from the Department of Health at Quarry House to the historical back-to-back housing of Harehills. The interlocking histories of these are explored in a new podcast, which takes listeners on a tour of thirteen locations, including the original Workhouse and Infirmary, Beckett Street Cemetery, and Burmantofts Health Centre.
The walk was led by lead researcher, Jess Sache, along with several of the podcast’s guests: novelist Chris Nickson, who has researched many aspects of local life in the past; Leeds Beckett University graduate, Sophia Lambert, an expert in the city’s housing; and Adam Aslam, a local youth project leader with a wide knowledge of local history.
Take your own tour – either virtually or on foot – by listening to the podcast, The Medical Mile, available now on the Thackray website.