Behind the scenes at Ripon’s Workhouse Museum & Gardens
- Credit: Archant
A once derelict workhouse garden is blooming again thanks to volunteers in Ripon
Most workhouse gardens withered and died after the National Assistance Act of 1948 made these poor man’s prisons obsolete, but Ripon’s one-acre, north-facing plot has managed to weather the years, surviving against the odds in the middle of the city.
In Victorian times, workhouse rules were strict and families were segregated in all aspects of life, including work. Paupers were deployed doing jobs which contributed to the successful and cost effective running of the workhouse which, inevitably, meant a great many were put to work gardening. It was, however, a completely woman-free zone with old men and boys taking on the majority of the digging, weeding and seeding.
‘We often find evidence for this as we dig the garden today,’ explained Mandy Whitehead of Ripon Museum Trust, which oversees the Workhouse Museum & Gardens. ‘Bits of clay pipe often pop up from a world which encouraged smoking as it was thought to be good for you.’
The Trust began restoring the garden of the former Ripon Union Workhouse in Sharow View in 2008. All the work since has been based on good conservation practice and on sound research, including on-site investigations.
‘We’ve introduced a planting scheme that’s appropriate for the site and its historical context (as an 1890 workhouse garden) including vegetables grown in four allotment-style rectangles and fruit trees in meadow grassland,’ said Mandy.
After pulling out saplings and scrubby trees that had sprung up over the years, the volunteers have also put up chestnut paling fencing and planted hedges round the site, reinstated long lost walkways and restored a historic north boundary cobbled wall.
‘Research was carried out to identify and source vegetable seeds, fruit trees and bushes that would have been grown in the garden, including analysing workhouse records of the paupers’ diet,’ said Mandy.
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‘Some of the heritage seeds we grow have lovely names. We’ve got Ragged Jack kale, Fat Lazy Blond lettuce, Nun’s Belly Button French beans and Painted Lady sweet peas.
‘We were amused to discover that the popular King Edward potato was rebranded in the early 20th century from an earlier Fellside Hero variety raised by a gardener in Northumberland. Needless to say, we’re growing Fellside Hero – even though that’s not what it said on the bag of seed potatoes.’
Restoring the workhouse garden has not been without drama. Contractors unearthed some bones in an area between an old pigsty and the former mortuary, prompting the police to cordon off the area like a crime scene.
‘A local GP and a nearby butcher couldn’t be certain whether they were animal or human,’ said Mandy. ‘So a bone specialist came from Harrogate Hospital and took away samples for analysis. Animal was the verdict. Frankly, the news came as rather a relief.’
Ripon’s 21st century workhouse garden is grand in its own way but it’s very different to other plots at historic properties in the county, built as it was to reflect the diet and lifestyle of people at the poorer end of the social spectrum.
‘It was quickly realised our garden was to be very different from the great walled gardens of the period,’ said head gardener Nick Thompson. ‘The exotic crops grown in the country house gardens would not be in the workhouse diet; the garden was not to provide dainty morsels but solid, plain fare.
‘A garden of this size for a grand house would have teams of gardeners at various points of their training, directed by a head gardener, whereas the workhouse had varying numbers of workers of little training and possibly little motivation under the guidance of a master who might also have had little knowledge.
‘Our garden is based on an 1890 garden, but we’ve been fortunate that the last quarter century has seen a resurgence in interest in heirloom varieties and all have been readily sourced, with one exception. The difficulty came with potatoes.
‘Many Victorian varieties of salad or new are available, but our other criteria of growing what would be used in the workhouse dictated that these were not the type we should grow.
‘We needed a floury, main-crop potato and the earliest we could easily source was King Edward from 1902.’
Nick and his team have designed the crops to reflect and complement the dietary records of the workhouse, concentrating on robust varieties of potatoes, peas, beans, onions, roots and cabbages.
‘We originally believed salad crops would be inappropriate but again evidence has been found and, in the last year, we’ve included lettuce and radish,’ he said.
‘We know pears were sold from the garden and a small orchard has been planted of apples and pears originating in the north or grown in local 19th century orchards.’
Find out more about Ripon Workhouse Museum & Gardens at riponmuseums.co.uk,