Tag Archives: Family History

The Brereton Donation – Cathy Terry, Social History Curator






Sandwiched between records in the museum’s accession register for 1929 recording gifts of  ‘The art of Garden Design in Italy’ and ‘A green-backed gallinule’ from Hickling is a tantalising  brief entry recording the donation by Miss Brereton of Briningham Hall of a mahogany bedstead fitted with damask patchwork, and furniture for a room of 1800 – 1810.

The donor was Katherine Blanch Brereton, great-great granddaughter of Anna Margaretta Brereton, the designer and maker of the wonderful Brereton hangings, currently on display in ‘Frayed’.

In this blog post I would like to pay tribute to this remarkable woman.  As the result of Katherine’s foresight and generosity  Strangers’ Hall gained its single most interesting collection, and certainly the one that has delighted generations of visitors, textiles researchers and family historians over the years.

Born in Norwich in 1861, Katherine overcame parental opposition to take up a career in nursing and made her mark as a nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.  Her obituary in The British Journal of Nursing  October 1930 reads;

We much regret to record the death of Miss Katherine Blanche Brereton, M.B.E., R.R.C., J.P., and a member of the Guy’s Hospital Nurses’ League. She received training as a lady pupil at Guy’s Hospital from June, 1890 to June 1891, and after working as a Staff Nurse at the Wirral Children’s Hospital, she obtained her midwifery training at the York Road Lying-in Hospital, returning to Guy’s as Sister of Bright Ward in 1893.  In 1899 she went out to South Africa on the Staff of the first Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein.  In 1901 the Government appointed Miss Brereton a member of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Management of the Concentration Camps in South Africa.  She visited all the Camps in the four colonies, and on returning to England in February 1902 received with her Col- leagues the thanks of the House of Commons, and during that year also the South African War Medal and the Royal Red Cross.  In I903 she accompanied Mrs. Fawcett (afterwards Dame Millicent) to South Africa on a mission to promote the conciliation of Boers and Britons, and later set herself to learn farming in order to manage the family estates.  Her final gift was the bequest of her body to the Medical School of Guy’s Hospital.

On her return to Norfolk in later life, Katherine took on the administration of the family estate, became a JP and was heavily involved in the Temperance Movement, no doubt exciting controversy by closing her local village pub. Clearly she also belonged to that group of influential supporters whose efforts did so much to bolster the Norwich museums in the 1920s and 1930s.

What prompted Katherine to make the donation to Strangers’ Hall we shall never know.  The set was given during the year before she died, and apparently despite some opposition from elsewhere in the family, but we might guess that she had a hunch that this family heirloom had a significance above and beyond a set of patchwork hangings, beautiful though they are in their own right.  It was a sure instinct…


Around this time a forward-thinking curator of Strangers’ Hall, Frank Leney, was exploring open display interpretation in room settings’ based on Scandinavian models of folk life museum. He was thrilled to accept a donation which allowed him, at one stroke, to display an 18th century Norfolk lady’s bedroom, complete with all its furniture, furnishings and textiles. No other donor contributed in this way. Katherine’s gesture, intended to ‘enhance and enrich the displays’, accorded well with Leney’s ambitions to set up Strangers’ Hall as the museum of English Folk Life . Everything was displayed in ‘The White Room’ (now the Walnut room), where it proved a massive visitor draw.  Some thirty years later Pamela Clabburn, the former curator who did so much to enrich and publicise the NMS costume and textiles collections, found the set in a poor state. Together with a small team of enthusiasts, she conserved the set according to the standards of the day and rolled the hangings to minimise further light damage.

In 2003, NMS received a request to include the bed-hangings in the prestigious international exhibition ‘In search of the Hexagon’ at the Château de Martainville, near Rouen, curated by Janine Jannière.  Further conservation work allowed the set to be safely displayed on a specially constructed bed-frame, designed by Melanie Leach, textile conservator.  And this year, it has formed one of the highlights of ‘Frayed’.


Katherine can’t possibly have anticipated the continuing relevance and excitement of the hangings to successive generations of museum visitors.  The interest for me as a curator is the way in which the perceived historical value of key pieces like the Brereton bed-hangings change over time.  Such objects can be appreciated in terms of fashion and design, technology and construction or family history, but the comparatively modern reading in the context of the therapeutic role of textiles and the idea of ‘emotional objects’ is undoubtedly the most potent.

I like to think that Katherine would have approved whole-heartedly of their inclusion in Frayed as a ‘textile on the edge’.

With thanks to the Brereton family for kind assistance with research for this blog post.





Anna Margaretta Brereton: let us cherish her memory – Carolyn Ferguson

I feel that is has been a privilege to have been able to research the Brereton bed hangings for they are not only a wonderful set of early patchworks and interior design of the early nineteenth century but also give a poignant history of a Norfolk family.

Anna Margaretta Lloyd (1756 – 1819) married her first cousin John Brereton on in 1780 and was to make her home at Brinton Hall, near Melton Constable in Norfolk. In the following 20 years she was to know both great happiness and terrible sadness for 5 of her 10 children died, 4 in infancy. It is said that the death of her son John at the age of 14 in 1800 was an event that altered Anna Margaretta’s life forever.

The Rev. William Upjohn in his ‘Testament to Departed Worth’ after Anna Margaretta’s death in 1819 gives some indications of the trauma of this event. He describes how John’s sudden and unexpected death plunged her into an ‘abyss of sorrow’ which nearly destroyed her mind and body. Rev Upjohn attributes her salvation to religion but I believe that the art of patchworking also played a part for we know that the act of designing and making patchwork is known to be therapeutic for those who suffer both mental and physical stress and illness. The very act of stitching gives help to those in need.  Additionally the conversation of any group of women who are sitting round a table at their sewing will be wide ranging for the lack of eye contact caused by a concentration on stitch allows women space to air their problems and personal feelings.

The hangings are said to have made been made, from cotton and linen fabrics, between 1801 and 1805. This is a time when elite women such as Anna Margaretta would have had considerable input into home furnishings. Patchwork hangings were not uncommon and would have provided a considerable ‘project’ for any competent needlewoman, particularly someone who wanted something to fill empty time.

The first years of the nineteenth century were a time when cotton and in particular cotton chintz was starting to become widely available. Manufacturers embraced their freedom to trade with enthusiasm and developed new designs, new dye stuffs and new methods of printing for cotton cloth. There is no count of the number of individual fabrics in the hangings but there are certainly a great number of different designs. The family have suggested that visiting friends and family provided fabrics but this seems unlikely unless such people were part of the textile trade. It seems more probable that her husband John used his business interests within the textile trade to access to off cuts and samples and even books of samples for his wife as some of the patches show marks consistent with sample fabrics. In 1792 John is variously described as trader, draper, grocer, tallow chandler, soap boiler and feed factor and we can surmise that he may have returned with fabric on his frequent trips to London.

In her patchwork Anna Margaretta used a variety of geometric shapes, including hexagons and long, sometimes called ‘coffin’ hexagons, pieced blocks and appliqué. Perhaps most remarkable is her use of ‘broderie perse’ for the baskets of flowers that she frames with wreaths of hexagons. She uses her embroidery skills to create patchwork pictures from lengths of chintz fabric. The researcher can ponder how she learnt this technique. Was her inspiration provided by floral designs on quilted petticoats or had she admired Indian embroideries of the eighteenth century?  The hangings are like an early nineteenth century garden for they use a large number of floral fabrics; we see examples of large sun flowers, daffodils, peonies, morning glory, chrysanths, roses and many other flower types. We forget the seasons but marvel in their associations.

It is possible that Anna Margaretta had help in her work. Family history states that Anna Margaretta’s daughter Mary helped her mother and may have even finished the set of hangings after Anna Margaretta’s death. It is true to say that the coverlet does show fabrics that were produced in the late 1820s and 1830s and also exhibits evidence of remodelling.  We know also that Anna Margaretta’s sister Elizabeth married her husband’s twin Abel Brereton and that they and two unmarried daughters lived nearby. Whoever the helpers or any subsequent needlewomen were, they reinforce the lasting vision of Anna Margaretta Brereton in providing posterity with a unique set of early bed hangings that represent a full compendium of early nineteenth century chintz fabrics.

Additionally as Rev. William Upjohn writes of Anna Margaretta, we must ‘cherish her memory as a bright example of cheerful godliness’ and ‘imitate her example in everything’.

Let’s Get This Show on the Road! Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator


Ruth Battersby Tooke, Curator (left), and Lynn Tye, Museum Trainee, get the Brereton Bed Hangings ready to install.  Photograph, Liz Elmore.

As the objects arrive and are meticulously placed in the gallery I thought it would be a good time to reflect on how we got to this point, to set the scene before we open in just two weeks time. My name is Ruth Battersby Tooke and I am the curator of ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’. The exhibition was conceived at the end of 2012 in response to the exciting news that the ‘other’ Lorina Bulwer letter, that we had seen pictures of when it was auctioned in the mid 2000’s was in the Thackray Museum, Leeds. I had a telephone call from the Curator, Lauren Ryall-Stockton asking me if I knew anything about Lorina as she had searched for the name and found the ‘Hidden Histories’ report. Exciting events like this are few and far between in the museum world and I dashed out of my office and across to the Bridewell Museum to find Ruth Burwood and share the news – cue much geeky air punching as the realisation that the Lorina letter was in a public museum collection and not in private hands which meant that all of the researchers that we had worked with  would have access to the object, a transcript and goodness me, we could also loan it and put it on display….

 So the work of developing an exhibition around these two extraordinary objects began. It was Jo O’Donoghue, Curator at Great Yarmouth and her enthusiasm and vision that encouraged a broader approach, one that set the context of textiles and Mental Health. From this point I began working with the strengths of the Norwich Costume and Textile collections, the way in which we have collected people’s stories as well as the objects and amongst those amazing stories were three other textiles that had relevance to the idea of making textiles as a therapeutic act. Not only an occupational therapy, a meaningful and structured way of busying the hands to still the mind, but also a powerful way to communicate, a creative and expressive way to release an inner voice.

 So by displaying the Brereton Bed-hangings, John Craske’s ‘Evacuation of Dunkirk’ woolwork picture and a patchwork quilt made by Newgate prisoners under Elizabeth Fry’s direction we had powerful themes which put these textile objects in the context of therapy but also each creation was still very much referring to individuals and their often complex experiences.

 More on all of these fascinating objects in future blog posts…

 The next key piece of the puzzle was the Elizabeth Parker sampler from the V&A. This potent object is often mentioned as a source of inspiration for contemporary textile artists and has extraordinary resonance as a testimony, reading almost like a tortured diary entry, the words have such a power to speak directly to the reader although it was written nearly 200 years ago. Enter Sue Prichard, Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the V&A and creator of the hugely successful ‘Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories’ exhibition at the V&A. Sue had been to visit us in Norwich to view the Lorina Bulwer embroidered letter and was hugely supportive of our exhibition and helped to secure the loan of the Elizabeth Parker sampler in order to be able to unite all of these immensely important objects together in one show.

 I work with other curators in the Eastern Region who have Costume and Textile collections, we deliver training events as part of the SHARE scheme and meet up regularly to talk about our work. At one of these meetings I outlined the project and immediately Clare Hunt of Southend Museums mentioned an Occupational Therapy kit donated recently to them. We were delighted to be able to borrow this for the exhibition as it provides a valuable part of the story, from the early history of Occupational Therapy as a medical discipline at the end of the First World War to these ready made kits being distributed to ex-service personnel at the end of the Second World War shows so clearly how the solace of stitch has clear benefits to those who need it in difficult times.

 Next time, more information on the stories behind the objects on display and we will introduce the contemporary artist’s whose work adds a whole new dimension to the exhibition.

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…”

Frayed at the Museums Showoff


On Thursday 13 June, Ruth introduced the project to the audience at the Museums Showoff, an open mic night for ‘everyone who works in or loves museums’, which, for one night only, was held at Open in Norwich.

To accompany her 9 minute slot, Ruth took with her a full-size, 12 feet long, double-sided print of our Lorina Bulwer embroidered letter. 

If you’d like to read Ruth’s script, you can download it here:  Museums Show-off

To find out more about the Museums Showoff, visit their website:  http://museumsshowoff.org/