Written by Laura Bailo, Visitor Experience Volunteer
For months now, I have been a visitor experience volunteer at the Thackray Museum of Medicine, and it has been an amazing experience. I’ve met some wonderful people, interacted with visitors who always have interesting stories to tell, and gotten to know a great museum.
So, when we were offered the chance to help with the Heritage Open Day and learn about a different aspect of the museum, I jumped at it.
One of the things that makes the Thackray so special is not just the contents of the museum, or the people that work in it (although they are pretty special themselves!) – it’s the building that hosts the museum. The building wasn’t purposefully built as a museum, and neither was it originally medical in nature. The Leeds Union Workhouse was built in 1858 and was opened in 1861, and the Heritage Open Day was an opportunity to know more about this history.
It is an aspect the museum itself hasn’t forgotten. Their small display acknowledges the past of the building with information posters about who was there before and a few workhouse objects. And, when you visit, pay as much attention to the building as the exhibition and you will note the original staircase with its beautiful tiles.
During the Heritage Open Day, visitors had the opportunity to see and even handle those workhouse objects for themselves. The objects on display were a pair of mustard spoons from Bramley Union (probably used to administer medicine, not mustard), a pair of women’s shoes from the 1930s, a pair of children boots from the 1880s worn in the Leeds Union Workhouse, and a photograph of the Workhouse’s fire service from 1900-1910. We saw quite a few daring visitors donning gloves and looking at these objects, marvelling at the pieces of history they were holding in their hands.
Visitors (and myself!) also had the chance to have a chat with the amazing Workhouse research volunteers, who have done an incredible job of researching the workhouse inmates from the 1881 census and figuring out their life stories. I’m in awe of how much information they have been able to find and put together. Listening to the inmates’ stories told by these people who have invested so much time in looking at their lives is an extraordinary experience. If you’re curious to explore their work, you only need to look for “Leeds Union Workhouse” in eHive.
The highlight of the day for me, and for other visitors I’m sure, was following Matron on a tour of the Workhouse. Matron took us back to 1881, telling us about the first meal that was served in the workhouse, but warning us not to get too excited, because celebration days are long over. She told us the history of ten of the inmates that were living there in 1881 (again, their lives researched by the workhouse research volunteers). She taught us how to make gruel (yummy!) before we devoted time to religion in the chapel, and finally she took us to the old dormitories (now the Cutting Edge Gallery). It was an amazing way of learning about the history of the building, the people that had inhabited it at some point, workhouses in general, and even about human nature. It was a one-day only event, but hopefully the museum will decide to do something similar in the future, because the history of the building is too rich to ignore.
If you want to know more about the history of Leeds Union Workhouse, head to the Thackray Museum to read our display and to have a chat to any staff or volunteers, we will all be happy to tell you what we know!
And, on the way, you get to see and explore a great museum of medicine – I may be biased, but it is a good one!
The Workhouse Network: https://www.workhousenetwork.org/
Heritage Open Days: https://www.heritageopendays.org.uk/