"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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

You might also like:

Earliest human footprints outside of Africa found on sands of Happisburgh in Norfolk

Rembrandt etching rediscovered in "thrilling" find for Scottish National Gallery curator

The best art exhibitions to see in the East of England in 2014
Latest comment: >Make a comment
I would like to know why she was living in the workhouse as she was quite intelligent to be able to write as she did. was it that she was too intelligent or too near to madness?
>See all comments
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at www.culture24.org.uk are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.


    • 1 mile
    • 2 miles
    • 3 miles
    • 4 miles
    • 5 miles
    • 10 miles
    • 20 miles
    • 50 miles
    • Any time
    • Today
    • This week
    • This month
    • This year