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New light shed on farm’s rich history

PUBLISHED: 11:29 30 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:30 30 June 2020

A black-and-white photograph of an oil painting of Gressenhall Union by Robert Kerrison, 1810. Image: Supplied by Norfolk Museums Service

A black-and-white photograph of an oil painting of Gressenhall Union by Robert Kerrison, 1810. Image: Supplied by Norfolk Museums Service

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In the latest article of a weekly series, EMILY PARKER from Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse reflects on this history of working the land at the site.

A bird's eye view of Gressenhall Farm, taken in 2019. Image: Norfolk Museums ServiceA bird's eye view of Gressenhall Farm, taken in 2019. Image: Norfolk Museums Service

The first evidence of civilisation comes from the prehistoric worked flints that have been found in the fields of Gressenhall. Farming is a useful way of unearthing evidence of the past as the soil is regularly turned over. Excitingly, arrowheads, sharp-edged pieces of flint (examples of cutting tools) and pieces of burnt flint have all been discovered! These finds indicate that there were people present on the land of Gressenhall thousands of years ago.

The name ‘Gressenhall’ originates from Old English and means ‘a grassy or gravelly nook of land’. The village of Gressenhall is first recorded in the Domesday Book that dates 1086.

During this time, a wealthy nobleman held land at Gressenhall to house his livestock; goats, sheep, cattle and pigs.

During the 16th century, the area of land that today we know as Gressenhall Farm becomes visible on maps, however, the farmland would have looked different to how it does today.

Photograph of the Watling, Duffield and Halls family outside Union Farm Farmhouse, at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, in 1943. Image: Norfolk Museums ServicePhotograph of the Watling, Duffield and Halls family outside Union Farm Farmhouse, at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, in 1943. Image: Norfolk Museums Service

The land would have been a continuous open area split into strips, with little or no boundaries (this includes hedgerows) along with several farm buildings and even a manor house. These buildings were demolished during the 17th century and were later replaced with what we see today.

Gressenhall Workhouse, one of the earliest ‘Houses of Industry’ in Norfolk, was built in 1777. After its completion, the farm was given over to the workhouse allowing inmates to work the land to supply food to those who lived there. After the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, Gressenhall became a Union Workhouse two years later.

During this time the yard walls, dormitories and day rooms were all created as part of the new system of segregation of different classes of inmate. The farm played a vital role in supporting the workhouse and its inmates.

During the 19th century, due to the advent of mechanised machinery, farming made a move towards becoming a commercial practice rather than farming for subsistence. 

Photograph of Mr and Mrs Watling outside Union Farm Farmhouse in the 1940s. Image: Norfolk Museums ServicePhotograph of Mr and Mrs Watling outside Union Farm Farmhouse in the 1940s. Image: Norfolk Museums Service

Heavy horses, like the Suffolk Punch horses we have on the farm today, would have been a common sight pulling horse drawn machinery across agricultural land.

It was not until the early 20th century, that steam engines and early tractors took over working the flat land of East Anglia.

Today, Gressenhall Farm is home to several rare breed animals; including large black pigs, red poll cattle, Norfolk black turkeys and Suffolk punch horses. We regularly use our working horses to demonstrate traditional farming techniques.

If you would like to know more about the history of Gressenhall and our fascinating workhouse, online resources and archives are available on the Gressenhall website as well as several fun farm related children activities.

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