Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse
Gressenhall opened in July 1777, the first Master and Matron being James W Moore and his wife Margaret. The men were employed in cultivating the farm, combing wool, dressing flax and hemp and weaving cloth mainly for use in the house and the women were employed in spinning worsted and hemp. Within the building was a factory making hemp sacks
In May 1836 the building was modified under the new Poor Law Amendment Act to become a Union workhouse. The work was carried out by Mr Fuller Coker Junior from Shipdham, and consisted of bricking up the arches of the colonnade and converting the cottage rooms into dormitories. Also built at the same time was the 14ft wall around the site and a number of outbuildings.
Although most of the inmates were housed in separate dormitories by the 1850’s opinion had soften a little and separate accommodation was built to allow ‘respectable’ elderly married couples to live together. This later became Cherry Tree cottage.
During the early years of the Workhouse, Sunday services were conducted in the dinning room. In 1868 a chapel was built paid for by public subscription and designed by R M Pinson.
In 1900 two boilers were installed to provide hot water and a steam engine in the laundry to drive washing machines and Spin dryers.
Robert Neville and his wife Laura were Master and Matron from 1899 to 1911. Neville was forced to resign by the Local Government Board in London for refusing to admit a pauper who had attempted to cut his throat. The resignation so upset the Guardians who felt their authority was being undermined that at one point they seriously considered resigning on mass leaving the running of the workhouse to the Local Government Board.
In 1930 workhouses were transferred to the control of the County Councils becoming Poor Assistance Institutions. There was little noticeable difference to the regime at Gressenhall although the inmates were now called patients. During the Second World War Gressenhall housed a number of patients evacuated from other workhouses in Norwich and Essex.
The introduction of the National Health Service, in 1948 finally saw the Workhouse system abolished. In 1975 the building was taken over by the County Museums Service to become the Norfolk Rural Life Museum. The North courtyard was enclosed and the buildings were refurbished and fitted out with displays and artefacts. In November 1979 Union farm was leased to the Museum Friends to be cultivated as 19th century early 20th century farm worked by Suffolk Punch horses being added to the Museum formally in 1989.
Today the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum is a major tourist attraction in Norfolk with over 80,000 visitors a year. Major displays show life in the workhouse, rural crafts and a full working farm. In 2000 a major upgrade was undertaken with more space being open to the public with a further display being added in 2006 including the opening of the original steam powered laundry and the work yards.