Impressions of Gressenhall

Red bricks echo with the homeless and poor,
from the squeak of wrought-iron gate
to the heavy fall of knocker on imposing door.
They reverberate with hunger,
fuelled by gruel and mouse-meagre
morsel trails of bread-and-cheese
through the corridors of their history.
They are organised and counted
by the workhouse clock, punctuated
with oakum, elbow grease and laundry steam,
and the exhausted end-of-every-day dream
of children, husbands and wives
in the same building, living separate lives.

Kim M. Russell, 2017

My response to Imaginary Garden with Real Toads Sanaa’s Challenge: Of muse and me

Sanaa started her prompt with a great quote from Nabakov: ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.’ She wants us to go out and breathe in our surroundings, sit back and relax in a nearby cafe and grab a cup of coffee or tea with a friend. She also quotes Francis Bacon: “Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.”

 I visited a friend on the other side of the county on Tuesday and she took me to a marvellous workhouse and farm museum. We only had time to explore the workhouse, which is huge and full of the most interesting exhibits that give you a taste of a poor, homeless person’s life in Victorian times. I had my notebook and pen with me but there was so much to see and do that I didn’t have time to get it out – but I did take some photographs.

 The poem I’m posting is a first draft, just to test the water, as I plan to write a series of poems on the workhouse as a whole and on individual artefacts.

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18 thoughts on “Impressions of Gressenhall

  1. This is so incredibly poignant.. I can feel the history .. sense the hidden stories.. behind those “red bricks” and can feel the pain and despair in “the exhausted end-of-every-day dream of children, husbands and wives in the same building, living separate lives.” Beautifully penned. Thank you so much for participating!

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  2. Oh my goodness, what a topic , an interesting look at the horrors of poverty unlike anything we can imagine. The closing lines about family members under the same roof living separate lives is very sad. Very well done and thought-provoking.

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    1. Gressenhall Museum is a fascinating place. The statues at the front entrance show the separation of families and when you enter, inside there are two doors, one for men and one for women. Children were taken from their parents and wives were separated from their husbands. All children over the age of seven were only allowed to see their families once a week, for an hour on Sunday afternoons. If anyone broke the rules, whether adult or child, they were thrown into the ‘blindhouse’ or punishment cell to spend a day or more in total darkness on a diet of bread and water. They even built new staircases and enclosed exercise yards to ensure that men would never see anyone of the opposite sex – not even their wives. Gressenhall workhouse had an average of 450 and was built as a ‘house of industry’ to pay for itself and reduce the cost of poor relief.

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  3. There is so much to love about this. My thoughts as I was reading were; “mouse-meagre” What great imagery! “morsel trails of bread-and-cheese, through the corridors of their history.” Oh woah, though their history, that is a great way of showing the poverty through many generations! And the ending just captured the absolute exhaustion and made me think at a different angle about how the whole family was probably working at different things, spending little time together and all equally exhausted. I would love to see the series of these.

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    1. Thank you. The saddest thing about the workhouse must have been being separated from your loved ones on arrival. The males went through one door and the females through another, Children under 7 went with their mothers, otherwise they were separated into male and female too. They were allowed to see each other once a week on a Sunday afternoon, One woman was put into the ‘dungeon; for throwing a piece of bread over the laundry yard wall to her son in the ‘male’ exercise yard. The biggest tragedy was that they could leave at any time but had nowhere else to go. I hope to continue with a series of poems based on the artifacts at the museum.

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      1. That’s all really interesting, I never realised half of that, it must have been horrible. It makes me wish I could go back and give them all a nice place to go! The series sounds really good, I hope you do 😊 It’s a beautiful way to honour them and teach others about their plight.

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