Our museum building began its life as the Leeds Union Workhouse. The workhouse officially opened in 1861 and was built to serve a growing number of unemployed, homeless, and destitute people in the city. It was designed to accommodate 300 males and 450 females in separate wings and was managed by a board of elected ‘Guardians’.
In 1944, St James’ Hospital took over the last of the workhouse buildings. They served as part of the hospital for many years until the 1990s. After over 130 years of service to the sick and poor of Leeds, the workhouse building was considered unfit as a modern hospital.
You can learn more about the history of our building in our new galleries, workhouse collection, and through our newly developed learning programme.
Schools can experience what it might have been like to live in Leeds Union Workhouse with our ‘Life in the Workhouse’ school workshop which was developed using research that our wonderful research volunteers have produced. This will be available when we can open our doors again.
We hold a small collection of workhouse-related objects as part of our main collection. Our favourite item relating to this period in the building’s history is the pair of children’s boots from c.1885 which have ‘Leeds Union Infirmary’ inscribed on the side. These shoes are currently on display in our foyer.
The Thackray Museum of Medicine is proud to be a member of The Workhouse Network, a subject specialist network that brings institutions that were workhouses into contact with archives, libraries, researchers, historians, creative practitioners, welfare institutions, charities, and universities, to promote the understanding of the history and contemporary relevance of poverty, welfare, and the poor.
More Than Oliver Twist Project, 2019-2021
The More Than Oliver Twist project provided training for six workhouse sites to research the lives of inmates in their institutions in the 1881 census. Our volunteers researched and wrote the biographies of over 300 of our 446 inmates, uncovering their fascinating stories. From the combined research of all six sites, a digital exhibition was created.
The project was funded by Arts Council England and supported by Nottingham Trent University and The National Archives.
Thackray is continuing research on our workhouse inmates and we hope to be involved in future projects which will help to uncover more about our fascinating history,
The Workhouse Network: https://www.workhousenetwork.org/
More Than Oliver Twist exhibition: https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/the-workhouse-network