"Long and confusing" embroidered rants from a 19th century workhouse join Norfolk exhibition

By Culture24 Reporter | 11 February 2014

A chance discovery in a Durham attic has allowed a piece of angry embroidery to tell tales of life in a workhouse

A photo of an embroidered work of stitching showing two bygone men confronting
© Norfolk Museums Service
Described by curators as a set of “long and often confusing rants”, the works of Great Yarmouth artist Lorina Bulwer – a resident of the lunatic ward of the Norfolk town’s workhouse more than a century ago – are a set of elaborate, punctuation-free embroidered letters.

A photo of a man in a suit looking at a long colourful piece of embroidery full of writing
© Norfolk Museums Service
Several miles up the road, in County Durham, a wrapped example of one of them recently surfaced in the attic of a house, spanning more than two metres in length. Searching for Bulwer’s name online, its surprised finders found the blog for the Time and Tide Museum’s current exhibition, Frayed, and contacted curators who bought the work.

“We were ecstatic about the discovery,” says Ruth Battersby-Tooke, the Costume and Textiles Curator for the Service, calling the artefact “the stuff of dreams”.

“We always felt that there must be more of Lorina’s embroidered letters out there somewhere.

“It is so clear that she found the process of stitching her thoughts therapeutic that she would have made many more in the 15 or so years that she spent in the Great Yarmouth Workhouse.”

The work has gone on immediate display alongside two further pieces by Bulwer.

“The finder wanted the two pieces to come into the collections,” says Battersby-Tooke.

“Fortunately the Costume and Textile Association were extremely keen to give a grant to cover the costs of acquiring the pieces for the collection. We’re very grateful for their generous and prompt support.”

A photo of a work of stitched embroidery full of writing
© A photo of an embroidered work of stitching showing two bygone men confronting
Bulwer’s samplers resemble furious tapestries of the tales behind the workhouse. Born in 1838, she was one of more than 500 residents at Yarmouth.

“The people are real English tramps,” she inscribed of her fellow workers, writing entirely in capitals.

“Not one belong to any of my class”.

The angry tone remains consistent in words hand-stitched onto patchworks of fabrics.

Unsurprisingly, historians, psychologists and writers have been intrigued by them, with appearances in novels and academic studies.

A recent feature on the Antiques Roadshow caused several earlier ledgers from life in the workhouse – previously thought to have been lost in a fire – to come to light.


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