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Workhouse chapel, Gressenhall

Mitford and Launditch workhouse chapel

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Mitford and Launditch workhouse chapel chapel from the cottage garden

    Workhouse chapel, Gressenhall
CHAPEL   All England is divided up into parishes. The parish system is ancient, dating back to Saxon times and based on original manorial territories. When the Church of England was created in the middle years of the 16th century, it carried on this system, not least because the parish had become the central unit of administration in the country. Until well into the 19th century, the Anglican parish church was an arm of the state, administering the law, taxation, charity and justice. A series of reform acts in the 1830s created a system of civil parishes based on the original boundaries. Over the couple of centuries since, church and civil parishes have gone their divergent ways, the boundaries of each changing according to priorities. Some parishes have been subsumed into others and new ones created, until the maps of the two kinds of parish no longer match. But still, the tradition is there.

In the days before the reform acts, church parishes were responsible for the relief of the poor. A poor rate was levied on those with incomes to pay for it. Generally, the parishes took their responsibility for the poor seriously. This commitment was rooted in both the Catholic communitarianism of the late Middle Ages, and the pious regard for charity of the puritans of the centuries after.

But, as revolutions in agriculture and industry began to bite, the social structure of England became much more volatile, and the winds of fortune blew more violently, and in uncertain directions. The law, which dated back to Elizabethan times, ruled that the parish was responsible for the relief of the poor who had been born in it. This was not necessarily those who now lived there. Consequently, if a family fell on really hard times, they had to return to the village where one or other of the adults had been born.

This system made sense in an age where nobody strayed far from home. But as the 18th century went on, there was greater mobility, and an ebb and flow of population across the country. If a recession bit hard, parishes might find themselves faced with a duty of care that they were ill-equipped to provide. Parish poorhouses were one solution, but another, which made more economic sense, was the creation of a House of Industry by a group of parishes banding together, usually across the Hundred, a Hundred being a larger unit of administration.

Here in Gressenhall, in 1777, the Hundreds of Mitford and Launditch came together to incorporate a magnificent House of Industry. It was one of many built in England during the decade. Houses of Industry, or workhouses, were intended to be self-supporting; farming and manufacture would provide an income. Sheep were kept, barley and vegetables were grown. In return, the parish would provide education and food, although at Bulcamp House of Industry in Suffolk it is recorded that the food was provided entirely from the farm run by the inhabitants. Families lived together, and when children reached the age of thirteen they were apprenticed by the incorporation. In general, and given that life was generally poor and uncertain out in the wider world, Houses of Industry in the 18th century do not appear to have been unpleasant places.

By the early 19th century, however, England was deep in a recession, and thousands of ex-soldiers discharged after the Napoleonic Wars were becoming a drain on the Parish welfare system. Agriculture was in a slump, and in desperation people sought work in the growing towns. The Population increased, and those seeking relief often had to return to a rural parish with which they no longer had any family connection. The number of inmates arriving at a workhouse from an increasingly wide area, and consequent overcrowding, led to terrible outbreaks of disease. In 1834, for example, more than a sixth of the inmates of Gressenhall House of Industry died of cholera and scarlet fever. It was no longer possible for the poor rate levied by many parishes to pay for the relief of the poor.

It became clear to the authorities that more must be done to dissuade the poor from knocking on the workhouse doors. The result was a change of emphasis. In 1835 came the Poor Law Act. In Suffolk, at Bulcamp House of Industry, in the chilling words of White's 1844 Directory, 1000 was expended in altering the workhouse, so as to admit a better classification of the inmates. The word classification, of course, meant segregation; husbands were to be separated from their wives, children from their parents, the deserving from the undeserving poor. The farm at Gressenhall was sold off, and any idea of self-sufficiency was forgotten. The men were put to work on a treadmill that ground corn, or made to pick oakum, which shredded their hands. The workhouse was no longer to be a place to which people would come willingly; from now on, it should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility wrote the Reverend Millman; it should be administered with strictness, with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity. It was evil done in the name of good.

Through the long Victorian era and into the 20th century, conditions would gradually improve, until by the end of the First World War workhouses were largely superceded by the beginning of the welfare state. Apart from a brief use as a barracks in the First World War, and a Prisoner of War camp in the Second, Gressenhall Workhouse continued providing for the unfortunate, as a hospital for elderly women until the 1960s, and then for a while as a homeless families unit, until it was finally closed in the 1970s.

For a long time, it remained empty and derelict, until it was taken in hand by Norfolk County Council. Today, it is the wonderful Gressenhall Museum of Norfolk Rural Life, and includes a major Workhouse exhibit based on the various original rooms. It is haunting to stand in the boys exercise yard and see the graffiti on the wall carved in the later years of the 19th century. Amazingly, some of the names there have been matched to entries in the records. These were real people.

As the parish was in charge of the workhouse, you might assume that it would make some provision for the cure of the souls of the inmates. In fact, workhouses were usally ministered by poorly paid chaplaincies, a useful second income for some young curate with a large family. Some Houses of Industry had been equipped with chapels, while others held services in the dining rooms. All workhouse chapels were Anglican; inmates from other denominations could be visited by their ministers, but services on the premises were not permitted.

Here at Gressenhall, a chapel was not built until 1868. The designer was Richard Phipson, who was the Diocesan Architect.

The chapel sits in front of the main block, to the left of the entrance. It is a long, brick-banded building, very much in the style of non-conformist chapels of the period. The octagonal apse at the east end sticks out into the courtyard, and there is an entrance for the inmates at the west end. A north door into the east end of the nave was provided for the minister crossing from the Master's quarters.

Today, the chapel is used for concerts and functions, as well as being a permanent exhibit in the museum. At some point, the original benches have been lost, and they have been replaced rather awkwardly with another set of slightly later date, which are too long and have been set at angles. The font, pulpit and altar rails survive. Within the sanctuary, the holy table, lectern and reading desk are probably from elsewhere originally, I think. The banding of the apse is simple and beautiful.

Back in the main building, you can go upstairs into the vast Norfolk Collection. This contains hundreds of items from the county reserves, displayed simply, and according to themes. In this collection, you can see the orginal altar cross and candlesticks from this chapel, made of cheap, dull metal, but haunting nonetheless.

  altar furnishings

Simon Knott, January 2008

looking west altar looking east
font and sanctuary

More photographs from Gressenhall

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk