Conserving history at The Workhouse - If Walls Could Talk

Wallpaper depicting pink and white painted roses

If our walls could talk, what would they say? Although the collection of original items at The Workhouse is small, our walls have been witness to over 150 years of history. They may not be able to tell us directly what they have seen or heard but they can show us other parts of social history.

2019 was an exciting year for The Workhouse which saw a new interpretation of The Workhouse buildings, including the conservation of the 1870s Firbeck infirmary – an area of the site where the public previously had limited access. Alongside this re-interpretation, The Workhouse was also part of an exciting new project called ‘Hands On or Hands Off?’ Involving four other National Trust properties, the project aims to create innovative ways to engage visitors with our conservation stories. At The Workhouse, the project focussed on how and why we conserve our walls and involved working with local community groups to create a new exhibition. 

Within Firbeck Infirmary, there are numerous wallpaper examples which require careful conservation and protection. But it is not just the Infirmary that has wallpaper which needs protecting. The Workhouse has wallpaper dating back as early as the mid 19th century to more modern examples from the 1970s. Visitors exploring the newly opened areas of the property will see more examples of our historic wallpaper. 

A collage of vintage wallpaper from Firbeck Infirmary
A collage of vintage wallpaper featuring flowers and symmetrical prints
A collage of vintage wallpaper from Firbeck Infirmary

Local artist, Sarah Holden, helped put together a workshop for local Brownies and Guides. Participants designed and created their own wallpaper samples, using original examples from The Workhouse. The children's work helped to show the extent of the damage caused when people and items touch this wallpaper.

" I have always found a deep connection with everyday objects and decorations found in historical places. In some ways they can give us a deeper insight into the lives of the people that were there before us, more than just words written on a plaque. This project is a fantastic way to spread awareness of the importance of preserving our local histories. "
- Sarah Holden - Local artist working in collaboration with The Workhouse

Visitors may recognise the floral patterns in Firbeck or on the 1970s bold prints on the upper floors of The Workhouse and be transported back to those years. Others may not have realised that our wallpaper can be dated back to when The Workhouse was used to house paupers in the mid to late 19th century. This project aimed to show how our wallpaper is both an important part of telling the building’s history, whilst being an extremely fragile part of our collection.

Participants in a creative workshop provided by Sarah Holden
People working on multiple artwork pieces on a large table
Participants in a creative workshop provided by Sarah Holden

Whilst The Workhouse has closed its doors for 2019, there is still opportunity to see other examples of the 'Hands On or Hands Off?' project at other properties in the Midlands region.