Looking for Lorina

Lorina Bulwer

In our first guest post, Ruth Burwood from Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery talks about her research into Lorina Bulwer and her embroidered letter.

Looking for Lorina  – Ruth Burwood

When working in museums, it’s not often you have the chance to really get to know an object and to get under the skin of the owner or maker.  As a curator, you are usually responsible for thousands, or even tens of thousands of different objects.  Inevitably you find you have favourites (I always feel a bit guilty saying that!) or at least objects which you get more excited by than others.  But it really is a special thing to find an object that ‘speaks’ to you.  Now, I know that sounds cheesy…but I think once you see Lorina’s work, you will find it as hard as I did to ignore her or stop reading her words, and not to become intrigued by her motivation.

I was first introduced to Lorina Bulwer’s embroideries when assisting with a sampler exhibition by the Costume and Textile Department in Norwich around 8 years ago.  I really do owe the then curator, Cathy Terry, a huge thanks for giving me the opportunity to start the research on Lorina and her story.  Those few months of research were enough to start the journey that Lorina and I have been on ever since.

Over the coming months, the Frayed exhibition team will be sharing lots more information about the textiles on display, including more detail about Lorina’s extraordinary samplers.  But I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain a little more about how I went about unpicking the life of Lorina in order to better understand the samplers she made.

Although the sampler acquired in 2004 came with some background information from the sellers, there were no references or provenance for the information so we wanted to carry out our own research.  As anyone who has seen the samplers will tell you, it doesn’t take long for viewers to start asking questions; who made it? When did she make it? Why did she make it? Was she really mentally ill? And many many more.  So this gave us a pretty straightforward starting point.  I needed to do the research to answer these questions and to fill out the back story. 

The Bulwer Family

The first question, “who made it?” was simple to answer because she rather brilliantly tells us in the first line, and then repeatedly throughout the main text, with the words, “I MISS LORINA BULWER…”. So the first step was to search for Lorina on census returns.  The first census with personal data (as we know them today) in England was done in 1841, then every 10 years onwards.  Each year, more census returns are made available online.  the search is usually free, but you will need to pay a fee to view the detailed transcript of the household entry.  Anyone can access detailed regional census returns via their local Record Office for free.  As Lorina tells us her full name, where she was born, the names of her parents and siblings, and even her various family addresses, it was fairly easy to track her down.  Born in Beccles, Lorina first appears as a baby in the 1841 census return for Suffolk . Births, marriages and deaths were registered in England from 1837, making it possible to trace those born after this date fairly easily done online and at the Family Records Centre in London.  Searching for individuals and major life events before this date, can mean research is limited to census returns and parish baptism, marriage and burial records.  The census returns increasingly recorded more and more information about individuals in a household, but the basics – name, age, place of birth – are there from 1841.

Lorina appears in the 1851 census for Suffolk again, but by 1861 the family had re-located to Great Yarmouth, living at Seymour Place.  There was one less family member living in the household though…Anna Maria, Lorina’s eldest sister, and the subject of much of her fury throughout the samplers.   Anna Maria can be found in 1861 married to a widower with 2 children, George W. Young, and living in Essex.  Anna Maria did have one one son with George.  His name was Walter and it is by his birthday that we can date the main sampler:

“She [Ann Maria] married when we lived at Seymour Place…her eldest son living is 40 years of age…”.

A search for the birth of Walter, found that he was born around 1861.

By 1871, the census shows us that all the other siblings had moved out of the family home, leaving Lorina, now in her 30s living with her parents.  Her father William, died later that year, and Lorina moved to Crown Road in Great Yarmouth with her mother to run a boarding house.  In the 1881 census Lorina is recorded as being a general servant in the house.  This domestic situation seems to have continued until Lorina’s mother Ann (referred to throughout the samplers as ‘Ancy Nancy Tickles my Fancy’) dies in 1893, aged 86.

Into the workhouse

The next reference to Lorina in the census returns is in 1901. 

She is a resident of Great Yarmouth Workhouse.  Her name is the 16th entry on the list shown.  Although she is listed as a widow, I suspect this may be a mistake, and inaccuracies were common as entries were copied over.

The individuals on this list are all recorded as “lunatics”, both in column 6 (occupation/profession), and in column 10 (infirmity).  So, in the space of 10 years, Lorina has gone from having lived her whole life with her mother at home, to being one of 516 inmates in Yarmouth workhouse, and eventually one of 59 women labelled “lunatics”.

How and exactly when Lorina entered the workhouse is unclear due to a lack of surviving archives.  Entry was voluntary, and was a last resort if an individual or family found themselves unable to support themselves.  By the 20th century, and in the absence of a National Health Service, the workhouse was often a preferable option to destitution outside.  It was also the place were you could go for healthcare if you had no financial support, and eventually became care homes for the elderly.  People went there at the end of their lives, leading to the popular belief that workhouses were places that you never returned from.  The reality was that people could leave, and frequently did.  Sometimes returning at a later date.  The situation was slightly different for those within the lunatic wards.

Unfortunately, very few of the workhouse records from Yarmouth survived the war.  One of the only documents contemporary to Lorina’s time in there (from a small selection of the Yarmouth Poor Law Union and Public Assistance Committee) are the Master’s notebooks from Christmas 1902 – 1904.  These can be viewed at Norfolk Record Office and provide an insight into conditions in the workhouse at the time.  Disappointingly, there is no mention of our woman, but they do record punishments, events, accounts and other issues.  A note in February 1903 records male inmates sleeping in the corridors due to overcrowding. 

Story telling

Lorina died in 1917 of influenza, aged 79.  A copy of her death certificate can be viewed in the museum archives.  She was still in the workhouse, and had possibly been in there for nearly 20 years.  It is a strange situation indeed to be so blessed with such a vivid and descriptive personal account of a life, and at the same time frustrated by such a huge gap in documentary background information.

The discovery of another almost identical sampler in the Thackeray Museum collections, has helped to expand our picture of Lorina, although little new information is alluded to.  This second sampler was completed a few years after the Norwich one, something I was able to ascertain by again using Lorina’s obsession with recording other individuals and their personal circumstances (not always accurately, it should be added!).  Her mention of a fellow inmate becoming ill, dying, then being buried, meant I could pinpoint the dates by looking at the death and burial records.  In turn, this did helpfully shed some light on the pace at which Lorina could have been stitching, with the known number of days between each of these events.  A little calculation suggested she was stitching just over 3 lines per day.  If accurate, this would mean the long samplers would have taken around 110 days to stitch.  She could have done 2 a year!

There is without a doubt much more research to do! I have followed up quite a few of the 70 or so names that she mentions, and they all seem to be real people.  Save one…Dr Pinching.  I can find no trace of “Dr Pinching of Walthamstow, Essex” who is worryingly linked to her sister; “Anna Maria Young alias Dr Pinching”.  Intrigued? You should be.  You will have to visit the sampler on show to read what, according to Lorina, Dr Pinching does to her…

There is possibly more to find through other records about the lives of the other siblings and the parents, the family businesses, and probate records.  It might also be possible to piece together some more of the story of the actual samplers and what happened to them in the years between Lorina’s creation and them ending up in museum collections in Norwich and Leeds.

There are lots of directions in which to take the research (I’m currently trying to unravel why I can’t find Lorina on the 1911 census, which wasn’t available until a couple of years ago) and we shall continue to share what updates we have via this blog, and upcoming publications.  In the meantime, I live in hope of one day hearing the words, “Oh, that’s funny, there have always been stories in our family of mad old aunt Lorina.  I think I have a family photo somewhere…”

6 thoughts on “Looking for Lorina

  1. theknittinggenealogist

    Hello, Ruth. Not sure if you have him by now, but I have found your Dr Pinching. (Well, a Dr Pinching in Walthamstow). I will blog what I found. I went to see the Leeds Lorina at the Thackray Museum just before it came to you, when researching a magazine piece about crafts in asylums. I’m still trying to figure out why Lorina’s sister – who married an (apparently unrelated to the Pinchings) Walthamstow man – is connected, in Lorina’s head at least, to the Dr. There is probably no link at all. But will keep looking for a bit and put on my blog what I find, as the fastest way to link you to it.

  2. Pingback: Lorina Bulwer, “A Properly Shaped Female” | The Knitting Genealogist

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