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Our work at The Workhouse and Firbeck Infirmary

Close up photo of a book being cleaned using conservation techniques at Llanerchaeron, Wales. The book is resting open on a cushion while a conservation assistant gently brushes dust into a vacuum nozzle.
Conservation assistant carefully cleaning a book | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

If walls could talk, what would they say? Although the collection of original items at The Workhouse is small, these 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. Discover how we go about caring for and conserving them.

Preserving original wallpaper

Inside Firbeck Infirmary there’s lots of original wallpaper that requires careful conservation and protection.

However, it’s not just the Infirmary that has unusual wallpaper. The Workhouse also has examples dating back as early as the mid-19th century – when the building was used to house paupers – right through to more modern examples from the 1970s.

Working with the community

To highlight how we care for this collection, The Workhouse was part of an exciting new project called ‘Hands On or Hands Off?’ involving four other National Trust properties.

The project aimed to create innovative ways to engage visitors with conservation stories, and at The Workhouse it focussed on how and why we conserve the walls. In this case, it involved working with local community groups to create a new exhibition.

A collage of historic wallpaper pieces found at The Workhouse and Infirmary, Southwell, Nottinghamshire
A selection of historic wallpaper pieces discovered during restoration work | © National Trust

Encouraging participation

Local artist, Sarah Holden, helped put together a workshop for local Brownies and Guides in which participants designed and created their own wallpaper samples, using original examples from The Workhouse.

The project aimed to show how the Workhouse's wallpaper is an important part of the building’s history, whilst being an extremely fragile part of the collection. The children's work helped to show the extent of the damage caused when people and items touch this wallpaper.

'I’ve 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

A silhouette of a hand ringing a hand bell at The Workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire,
Ringing a hand bell at The Workhouse | © National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Caring for The Workhouse's collections

Smaller, individual items in the collection at The Workhouse are also conserved and cared for by our team, including:

  • Pieces of oakum - old, tarred rope from ships that paupers would sit and unpick into small fibres for hours. It was then sold back to the shipyards providing 'money for old rope'.
  • Workhouse uniforms, including a shirt donated by a former member of the Association of Health and Residential Care Officers.

There are currently over 1,200 items catalogued in the collection. Most of these are in protective storage, and are checked annually to ensure they are in good condition. Much of the collection is made up of historic objects, although we do have hundreds of furnishing items as well.

The winter clean

During winter, the team remove items from display and carefully store them in acid-free tissue paper boxes. This ensures their protection while checks are carried out on the empty display cases to analyse light levels, temperature and humidity - three factors that can damage objects.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

View of the Wash Room across the Womens' Back Court through a window at the Workhouse, Nottinghamshire


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