Jane Bench, The Workhouse research volunteer

Volunteer room guide explaining room at The Workhouse to visitors

Jane Bench is a volunteer researcher at The Workhouse. Without volunteer research, which started when the National Trust acquired the property in 1997, we would not have been able to build an accurate picture of what life was like in the institution from its foundation in 1824 to the 1970s when it finally closed. We spoke to her about the research she did for the 2018 'Faces of Change:Votes for Women' project in partnership with The National Portrait Gallery.

What sort of projects have you researched for us?

My first project as a volunteer researcher at The Workhouse involved the transcription of census information. 

What did this research lead to?

I found that some names appearing in the census also turned up in the records of local charities and became interested in the overall provision for the poor in the area. My research into these families ultimately led to the selection of four women to be included in the 2018 Women and Power programme.

They comprise one inmate, one whose two brothers died in The Workhouse, a nurse and a business woman whose family supplied cloth for paupers’ clothing. As the Suffrage project progressed, the lives of these women were connected with wider events – three of them qualified to vote, one did not. There have been many surprises, not least the granting of the vote to a laundress who had lived most of her life on the edge of poverty. 

What opportunities have you gained within your role? 

As one of a small group of researchers, I have learned a great deal about the battle for suffrage by militant and more conventional means both locally and nationally. I was given the opportunity to go ‘behind the scenes’ at the National Portrait Gallery in London whilst images for the exhibition were being selected, which was fascinating.

Being part of the exhibition design team has been a wonderful experience, giving me chance to see how strands of information and ideas can be woven together as a creative whole. Working with volunteers and National Trust staff has been a joy, and I look forward to our next project.