Ripon Museum Trust plans to extend the workhouse experience
Last updated Aug 12, 2022
Helen Thornton at Workhouse Museum
Ripon Museum Trust director Helen Thornton at the Workhouse Museum

With three linked heritage attractions that bring thousands of visitors a year to Ripon, the city’s museum trust is looking to the future by building on a picture of the past that has increasing relevance to today’s society.

Having celebrated its 40th anniversary last month, Ripon Museum Trust (RMT) continues to develop its activities through community engagement and a volunteer programme that enables the museums to create a living history experience.

With almost £100,000 of Heritage Lottery money, RMT is assembling the team of professionals required to draw up a bid, seeking further funding  that would enable it to open up parts of the Workhouse Museum, never before seen by visitors.

RMT director Helen Thornton told the Stray Ferret:

“If we are successful, we will be able to provide access to the women’s and men’s dormitory areas on the upper floors of the east and west wings of the master’s accommodation.

“Our plan also includes installation of a lift, that would increase accessibility for people in wheelchairs and families with young children.”

She added:

“We are keen to tell the full story of the lives of previous inmates, which has particular relevance to today and the financial difficulties that are faced by many.”

Echoes from the past

The current cost of living crisis, which is putting more families and individuals into poverty and reliance on charities, has echoes that go back to 1776, when the original Ripon Union Workhouse opened in Allhallowgate, prior to construction of the Victorian establishment on the site with its 1854 dateline set in stone.

The former hospital wing within the complex is home to Community House, a social enterprise which, among other vital services, provides food support through a foodbank to an ever-growing number of users.

Side by side, the buildings in the workhouse grounds exemplify the fact that history can and does repeat itself.

Some 246 years ago it opened its doors to men, women and children caught in the poverty trap and here in 2022, many families are facing the modern-day equivalent, through crippling debt, much of it caused by increasing gas and electricity charges.

Richard Taylow at Ripon's prison and police museum

RMT chair Richard Taylor at the Prison & Police Museum

A unique offer

Ripon Museum Trust has a unique offering, by virtue of the fact that the Workhouse is the most complete museum of its kind in the UK and the only one whose entire exhibit is dedicated to focusing on the lives and experiences of the destitute and downtrodden of former generations.

Through a trail that also takes in the Prison & Police and Courthouse museums, visitors can follow the journey from poorhouse to punishment cell as seen through the eyes of those whose impoverishment put their lives into a desperate downward spiral.

Richard Taylor, who has chaired the trust for 28 years, said:

“It’s a powerful story put into context through items that can be seen at the three museums.

“In liaison with the community and our volunteers, we have developed an exhibition, which runs until November 27, called Ripon Museums in 40 Objects.

“It  has been designed to provide an insight into the hard times faced by former citizens unfortunate enough to find themselves in any of these establishments.”

Ripon Courthouse museum

These children were able to find out what it was like to face a magistrate before the courthouse became a museum

The blue lamp outside the Prison & Police Museum is one object not included in the list, but has special relevance to Mr Taylor.

He said:

“The P&P as we call it, was the first museum operated by the trust and I was delighted when my suggestion of adding the lamp was taken up many years ago.

“It has acted as a kind of guiding light directing visitors to the building ever since.

“We are currently looking for people to join our board of trustees and would like to hear from anybody who feels they can play a part in helping the trust to plan for its next 40 years.”

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