Category Archives: Lorina Bulwer

From Frayed to Letters from the Workhouse

Lauren Brumby, Curatorial Assistant at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse talks us through the installation of Lorina’s samplers in the exhibition ‘Letters from the Workhouse.’

First Dave and I pulled down the multicoloured image and installed these large black and white panels. This photo is of the elderly women’s ward at Thetford Workhouse around the same time that Lorina would have been at Great Yarmouth.


Then we installed the three text panels, these are all about how rare the samplers are, what we know of Lorina’s life and what she tells us about living in the workhouse.


We had prepared as much as we could, but the week in between Frayed closing and us reopening was crunch time. Once the case had been delivered we donned our paintbrushes and it was time to turn pink grey!

pink grey meg paint

Then on Friday the samplers arrived! Here is Debbie Phipps, Textile Conservator carefully unrolling them into the case.


Me getting the label ‘just right!’


Dave installing the lid to the case.

dave install

One of the last jobs is to get the light levels right. They have to be low to protect the fabric.


Ta da! All finished. We wanted Lorina to speak for herself through her samplers and hopefully we have achieved that.

Come and see ‘Letters from the Workhouse’ on at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse until Sunday 1st June.


New Lorina Installed


The new Lorina embroidered letter has just been installed into the gallery – come and have a look!  It’s the last three weeks of the exhibition, and your last opportunity to see all of the Frayed objects together.

Read the new letters here:

Transcription of Lorina Bulwer 2014 – smaller piece with figures

Transcription of Lorina Bulwer 2014

New Lorina Bulwer Acquisition

A remarkable embroidered letter created by Great Yarmouth resident Lorina Bulwer over a hundred years ago has turned up in the attic of a house in County Durham.  This extraordinary artefact has been purchased by Norfolk Museums Service through a generous grant from the Costume and Textile Association.  The sampler will go on display straight away for the final four weeks of the Frayed exhibition at Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth.

New Lorina

The embroidered panels, the longest measuring over 2 metres in length, were left in the attic by previous occupants of the house and were a complete surprise to the new residents when they came out of their plastic wrappings.  The finder immediately put Lorina’s name into an internet search provider and was directed to the blog for the current Frayed: Textiles on the Edge exhibition which features two similar pieces by Lorina, created in the late 19th / early 20th century when she was resident in the lunatic ward of the Great Yarmouth workhouse.

Costume and Textiles Curator, Ruth Battersby-Tooke, takes up the story: “It’s the stuff of a curator’s dream! We always felt that there must be more of Lorina’s embroidered letters out there somewhere.  It is so clear that she found the process of stitching her thoughts therapeutic that she would have made many more in the 15 or so years that she spent in the Great Yarmouth Workhouse. We were ecstatic about the discovery and delighted that the finder wanted the two pieces to come into the collections of Norfolk Museums Service. Fortunately the Costume and Textile Association were extremely keen to give a grant to cover the costs of acquiring the pieces for the collection and we’re very grateful for their generous and prompt support.”

Joy Evitt, Chair of the Costume and Textile Association, adds “We are absolutely thrilled to be able to purchase this object for the museum. We can’t wait to see the samplers all together – they are amazing. This is a lovely way to celebrate the contributions the Costume and Textile Association have made to NMS over the past 25 years. Almost £100k has been raised for the improvement of the storage for collections and for new acquisitions.”

The Lorina Bulwer samplers are certainly one of the more unusual pieces in the Norwich Museum collections. Made over a century ago, these textile samplers take the form of very long, and often confusing, rants. With no punctuation, and entirely in upper case, each word is virtually spat out, and the angry tone is relentless throughout. Every word has been hand-stitched onto a patchwork of fabrics and provides a unique glimpse into the life of their maker.

Image 2

Born in 1838, Lorina never married and helped run a boarding house in Yarmouth until her mother died in 1893. It was probably shortly after this that she found herself one of over 500 residents in Yarmouth workhouse.  Here’s a flavour of the tone of her ‘letters’ which comes from the end of the first sampler to enter the NMS collections, in 2004: “THE PEOPLE ARE REAL ENGLISH TRAMPS HAWKERS SHOW PEOPLE ENGLISH NOT ONE BELONG TO ANY OF MY CLASS NOT ONE HERE HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH MY PARTY…”.

Lorina’s work has been a source of great fascination for some time, with its sense of a woman from the past speaking directly to us.  Many individuals, from historians to psychologists, and textile students to writers, have visited, studied or enquired about Lorina and her embroideries.  Lorina and her embroideries have been included in PhDs, a novel and mentioned on Radio 4. Most recently the original sampler from the collections was featured by the Antiques Roadshow on their trip to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2013, broadcast on 12 January 2014:

NMS Adult Learning Officer, Ruth Burwood, was interviewed by Paul Atterbury who was enthralled by the story of Lorina and the creation of this amazing object.

In a separate development, and as a direct result of the exposure on Antiques Roadshow, a number of ledgers from the Great Yarmouth workhouse have also come to light.  It was previously thought that no documentation from the workhouse survived from this period due to a fire, so this is a very exciting discovery in itself.  The ledgers are from a slightly earlier period than Lorina and so don’t mention her by name, but they do mention some of the people who appear in her samplers, including a number of doctors.  They also provide a fascinating insight into daily life at the workhouse, such as details of diagnoses of patients in the lunatic ward and what inmates were allowed to wear.  The ledgers have been generously donated to Great Yarmouth museums and while they are not currently on display, they can be viewed on request.

It’s wonderful that, in classic Antiques Roadshow fashion, new work by this remarkable woman has come to light, along with documentation that will provide an important context for her life, as well as an insight into an important institution in the town.  With the addition of these new items to the collections we are gradually fitting more pieces of the puzzle together and making fresh discoveries about the family history that shed new light on this extraordinary survival.

The new pieces have just arrived and are being installed into the Frayed exhibition where the public will be able to see them from Saturday 8 February. Frayed runs until 2 March 2014 so there’s just under a month to see these remarkable artefacts side by side.

New Lorina with Steve Miller




Stitch Like Lorina 2 – Lisa Little

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The morning group


The afternoon group

At the beginning of November I held my first stitch workshop in the salt store at Time & Tide in response to the objects displayed in the Frayed exhibition. There were 16 busy stitchers from Cromer, Great Yarmouth and Norwich Castle Study Centre’s Costume & Textile department who came together to sew.  All attempting either their own prepared text or beginning with the alphabet in the style of Lorina Bulwer and to enjoy looking at the exhibition.  Some stitched song lyrics, others used proverbs or sayings but all developed their own style.

The public workshop last week saw a diverse assortment of text being used too, such as poems, personal memoirs and letters and quotes from some of the contemporary artists books whose work is in Frayed were also used. One participant experimented with automatic writing based upon the theme of friendship and stitched the largest quantity of words of anyone during the session!

We also had words stitched in rainbow colours, and text not only going horizontally but vertically too in an acrostic style.

My humble attempt during the session translated into random jumbles of letters of the alphabet and at the opposite end of the fabric the beginnings of a recipe for chocolate cake. I thought I would stitch another recipe as a Frayed Facebook follower messaged me and told me they had printed out the apple cake stitched recipe I had stitched earlier and hung it on her refrigerator and she had made the cake from it- and very tasty it was too, but she wasn’t able to share a picture of it as it was all eaten!

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‘Stitch Like Lorina’, Volunteers Workshop – Patricia Day, Learning Officer

Volunteers from Cromer, Norwich and Great Yarmouth Museums’ stitching groups met at Time and Tide for an exclusive Frayed workshop where they learnt how to Stitch like Lorina.


After tea, coffee (and lots of chatter) the Stitchers were given a guided tour around the exhibition led by Ruth Battersby Tooke, who revealed the sad and inspiring stories behind many of the exhibits. The museum Stitchers were very impressed with the detail and intricacy of the designs and were intrigued by the messages in the Bulwer tapestry.

Lisa Little then invited the volunteers to ‘Stitch Like Lorina’ and delivered an excellent workshop where the Stitchers turned their own phrase or quote into a Bulwer-style tapestry.

Fortunately, for those involved, the messages sewn by the Stitchers were more coherent and less angry, although the passing of time, frustrations of life and men in general featured in several of their samplers!

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If you’d like to try stitching in the style of Lorina Bulwer, you can download Lisa’s guide to forming the letters here:  Stitch like Lorina


Experiments in Stitch 3 – Lisa Little

Still thinking about Lorina Bulwer and her embroidered letter… after making the first piece of work, the recipe experiment, I stitched a quote used daily by my late grandmother. I gave this to my sister for her birthday.

It says;’ I went up the street and didn’t see anyone I knew’.


I have sketched several other works based on text, which I aim to complete before Frayed opens in October. I have also been toying with the idea of juxtaposing the linen/cotton light fabric background of my grandmother’s quotes with extracts from my father’s diaries. After clearing out his home I discovered, as well as diaries and notebooks, piles of scraps of cardboard packaging that my father had written on. These were lists of calculations, rough drafts of wills and angry thoughts but mostly they were lists what money he owned and what he had given to people, repeated over and over. I do not think of my father in affectionate way I think of my grandmother, who brought my older sibling up and myself after our mother passed away. She was and will always be the matriarch. Scared of my father – I think there is a pairing of works here waiting to be made. I will keep you posted!

Experiments in Stitch 2 – Lisa Little

Lisa 2a

Still working with text and embroidery and thinking about Lorina, this experiment became almost a therapy for me, the only obvious difference is that my words would not be angry or disjointed as Lorina’s stream of conscience had been.  I have embroidered my grandmothers and my children’s words and sayings onto wound balls.

For example ‘stop winding me’ was an instruction my son used to give when being teased or wound up.

Lisa 2b

Thinking about text has also led me to think about samplers more generally. Not only the traditional school type, but the earlier long thin sampler which would have been rolled up and kept as your ’embroidered notebook’ in your workbox, to be referred to when needed. Map samplers also fascinate me and the more elusive American Quaker globe samplers, both these teach geography as well as sewing. How practical is that?

I have made such globe sampler based on an old map with country names which are no longer in use.

Lisa 2c

Everyone Loves Lorina – Ruth Burwood

I Miss Lorina Bulwer

I think one of the reasons that I have so much enjoyed researching and talking about Lorina Bulwer’s embroideries over the years, is that is just never gets boring.  Almost everyone who sees them or hears the talk is immediately both intrigued and fascinated.  It’s true, people do tend to ask the same questions, but that’s because they are the good questions to ask – the ones I want answers to as well.

The staff and volunteers of the costume and textile department in Norwich have always understood Lorina’s work to be some of the most important in the collections.  It might not be as highly skilled, as old, or as beautiful as other items, but then Social History curators do not place value on collections in such ways.  They look for the potential that objects have to tell us something about the way that people lived in the past.

From Curator Cathy Terry’s brilliant decision to fund-raise and purchase the long embroidery for the museum service, to its central role in the high profile Frayed exhibition, the museum team have always tried to share and make accessible these extraordinary textiles and what information we have discovered about them over the years.  As a result there is now quite a network of people over the world who have spent time thinking about Lorina and her work, and who have been inspired by her in many different ways.  Only last week I was contacted by a poet and academic in New York who had read about the exhibition and was fascinated by Lorina’s use of language (hello Rachael, if you are reading this!).

From historians to psychologists, and textile specialists to writers, a huge range of individuals have visited, studied or enquired about Lorina and her embroideries.  Since I first carried out the research, I have sent the transcription and documentation to hundreds of individuals.  Lorina and her embroideries have been included in PhDs, a novel, and even got a mention on Radio 4.  Next year, I will be appearing on the Antiques Roadshow with her long sampler, and needless to say the whole of the production crew and other members of the public were as mesmerised as everyone else always is.

Since 2004 Lorina’s embroideries have been viewed by over 400 researchers and hundreds more when it was displayed in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery on two separate occasions.  The textiles have been the subject of academic study by researchers in USA, Canada, Australia and Germany.  I have delivered my talk in Norfolk, Suffolk and Bedfordshire to several hundred people, and have published an article about the work.  The samplers have been used as part of an A-level psychology study day in the museum, and have inspired countless art students and artists.  In terms of value, for us, the samplers are simply priceless.

One last thought on Lorina herself and why her work is so engaging – I think it is the person that makes this object powerful, not the material or meaning.  To be truthful, I’m not sure I’ve ever come across another museum object like it in that respect.  For a start, her work is the only one in the collections that we refer to as a person (e.g. “I’m just going to get Lorina out”, or “Would the group like to see Lorina”, “Let’s put her in that exhibition” etc.).  Strange, you may be thinking.  But once you read her words, you just can’t escape the fact you are engaging with a person not an historic artifact   Oh, and…I suspect that she would LOVE the fact you are reading those words…to be heard is exactly what she was struggling for.  Come and see for yourself…

Ruth will be giving her talk on Lorina and her embroideries at Time and Time Museum on Friday 18th October at 11.30.

Experiments in Stitch – Lisa Little

Lisa LittleI am the curatorial assistant for NMAS costume & textiles and have been working with the collection for the past 5 years.  I’m very excited to be working on an up and coming exhibition at the Time & Tide museum which includes some of these wonderful pieces. Alongside the displays I will be running some of the drop in events on site, one of which is the Lorina Bulwer stitching day.

This idea began as a question that I was often asked by visitors viewing the Lorina  Bulwer stitched letter; namely how fast could Lorina sew her words? I decided that I needed to know the answer as well.

So I began an experiment to see how many words I could embroider in an hour.  I found that I sewed in a very relaxed way, probably slower than Lorina (admittedly it was whilst watching tv!)  In contrast, I think that a sense of urgency comes through in Lorina’s work showing her train of thoughts written with speed and efficiency. I also think that the disjointed nature of her rhetoric was in response to the stop/start nature of her thoughts as well as her stitching being interrupted.

I can write 20 upper case words on average per hour, upper case is much faster to sew than lower case with straight stitches. Lorina’s needle passes through all of the layers of fabric and she often changes colour depending on the background fabric she is using. I chose also to pass my needle through the layers but left the background fabric uniform and I chose a limited palette using Lorina Bulwer’s letter as my colour reference.

Due to the death of my Father I hadn’t produced any work recently; somehow I had lost myself and my momentum. This exhibition was the catalyst for me to pick up my needle and begin again, but what words to choose? I decided to use one of my favourite recipes to help me with my experiment. The words look almost like a list, I underlined some words, but not nearly as many as Lorina. I found that the more I stitched the easier the shapes formed, letters which curved were trickiest, but even the serpentine S is made angular when using the minimum number of stitches and can be made quickly. Lorina worked out the most efficient method of stitching; I couldn’t find any way to improve her technique.

 Lisa's Recipe

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…”