The vast ´House of Industry´ at Gressenhall was built in 1775 to provide a home and work to the rural poor who were otherwise unable to obtain work. In 1834, it became known as the Mitford and Launditch Union Workhouse. Workhouses were a well-known feature of nineteenth century Britain immortalised in the novels of Charles Dickens. Today, you can see the rooms where inmates were employed spinning yarn or dressing wool to send to Norwich weavers. You can visit the working Union Farm where the inmates cultivated vegetables for the kitchens.
In the halls, enormous harvesting machines and interpretation boards tell the celebrated story of Norfolk´s agricultural revolution. Reminders of appalling rural poverty jostle uneasily alongside steam and diesel engines.
Working class poverty was a major problem in the Norfolk of the Industrial Revolution. Protectionist policies by the government brought wealth to some but poverty and hunger to many. Economic conditions resulted in the rural poor being increasingly made destitute. Many were forced off the land to seek employment in the towns. But by 1801, as many as 670 people were maintained at Gressenhall.
The new Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was designed to force more people to seek work. The House of Industry was reconstructed as a Union Workhouse to ensure that conditions inside were a detriment to those able to work. Guardians segregated husbands from wives. Special accommodation was provided for ´women of bad character´ who were kept apart from other inmates. A new wall was constructed around the site, structural changes were made and the numbers of inmates fell sharply. The situation was not improved until repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 lowered the price of bread. Although conditions gradually improved in the later nineteenth century, Gressenhall continued to provide accommodation until 1929, when the Boards of Guardians were dissolved. The UK Poor Law finally ended in 1949 with the passage of the National Assistance Act.
Children were the only inmates to benefit, being given a rudimentary though progressive education. But these terrible conditions are but a memory at Gressenhall, where parties of schoolchildren listen carefully to history lessons and married couples can roam freely or dine in the café without fear of segregation.