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Antiques Roadshow special to shed new light on ‘extraordinary’ letters sewn by Great Yarmouth woman

PUBLISHED: 10:49 04 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:49 04 April 2015

The Frayed exhibition at the Time and Tide museum. New exhibits including another Lorina Bulwer embroidered letter.
Ruth Battersby-Tooke, curator of the county's costume and textile collection looking at the letters.

Picture: James Bass

The Frayed exhibition at the Time and Tide museum. New exhibits including another Lorina Bulwer embroidered letter. Ruth Battersby-Tooke, curator of the county's costume and textile collection looking at the letters. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

Her furious hand-stitched letters – painstakingly sewn together while she was incarcerated in a workhouse – have long fascinated both experts and the public.

Letters tell of workhouse life

Every stitched word of Lorina Bulwer’s letters pierce the fabric with outrage and venom and are angrily woven in capital letters.

The monologues contain no punctuation, making them read like a continuous stream of consciousness.

One such passage reads: “I HAVE WASTED TEN YEARS IN THIS DAMNATION HELL FIRE TRAMP DEN OF OLD WOMEN OLD HAGS NO YARMOUTH PEOPLE HERE.”

An overriding theme throughout the letters is Lorina’s sense of injustice at being abandoned by her friends and family after she admitted to the lunatic ward sometime between 1896 and 1901.

Some of the letters are addressed to recognisable names including Palmers drapers in Yarmouth Market Place, the owner of Thrigby Hall and Lacons brewery.

Elsewhere, she refers to herself as the lost daughter of Queen Victoria and is scathing of her neighbours.

But she talks affectionately of her mother, with whom she ran a boarding house in Yarmouth before she died, aged 86, and Lorina foundered.

But more light can now be shed on the life of Lorina Bulwer, the prolific author who stitched her rantings into flowing pieces of fabric, after a Norfolk historian turned sleuth to delve into her past.

And her extraordinary story will be shared for all to see when she features in a special BBC2 series, investigating some of the most intriguing artefacts that have featured on the Antiques Roadshow.

Lorina was an inmate in the lunatic wing of Great Yarmouth workhouse where she angrily embroidered her letters on trailing lengths of patchwork fabric, venting about being locked up and abandoned by friends and family.

Her incredible monologues, which are more than 100 years old, were taken along to be featured on the much-loved BBC show when it was filmed at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich in July 2013.

Filming of the letters for the new show. Picture: supplied Filming of the letters for the new show. Picture: supplied

Ruth Burwood, adult learning officer for Norwich Museums, took the letters along and discussed them on camera with antiques expert Paul Atterbury, who along with BBC producers, was 
so taken by the textiles that they dreamt up the new show, to delve further into their past.

The resulting show, Antiques Roadshow Detectives, sees Mrs Burwood and Mr Atterbury conduct a ‘who do you think you are?’ style journey into Lorina’s letters, life and family – throwing up some surprises along the way.

The pair travel to one of the country’s last remaining workhouses in Nottingham, to get a sense of her confines, visit her grave and even meet a surprise descendent.

Mrs Burwood said: “It was really interesting and really exciting to be involved because there was all these new discoveries. I have been thinking about working on Lorina’s story for a long time and it brought me a lot closer to her as an individual.

Detail of Lorina Bulwer's extraordinary embroidered letter from the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time & Tide museum in Great Yarmouth. Photo: Bill Smith Detail of Lorina Bulwer's extraordinary embroidered letter from the 'Frayed: Textiles on the Edge' exhibition at Time & Tide museum in Great Yarmouth. Photo: Bill Smith

“I have been doing talks about Lorina for quite a long time but I can bring a lot more of it to life now and paint more of a picture of her as a real person, and her family as well. And it has actually changed my view of some of her family members, which is good.”

The tapestries, which measure 12ft and 14ft long, are considered to be unique and give a fascinating insight into the life of a workhouse in the early 1900s.

They have attracted attention from artists, scholars and textile enthusiasts worldwide and in 2013 they formed the centrepiece of the hugely popular Frayed: Textiles on the Edge exhibition at the Time and Tide Museum in Yarmouth.

Mrs Burwood said: “In very basic terms there isn’t anything like them in the world, they’re just absolutely extraordinary; the fact she was a woman in a lunatic ward in Great Yarmouth workhouse and was somehow able to produce these embroideries.

“Workhouse inmates did do sewing but this is almost like she’s been allowed to do this as therapy.”

As well as discussing her family, the letters also mention many Yarmouth subjects, including Palmers Department Store.

“It’s wonderful for us because it’s local, there’s references to Great Yarmouth addresses that are still there,” Mrs Burwood added. “And when you read what she’s stitching it’s incredible; telling you about her life, her family and telling you lots of gossip.”

The letters are kept safely in the Norwich Castle Study Centre, where they remain accessible to the public by appointment, but with the special Detective show due to air next week they have been brought out of storage and put on display.

They will be on show at the castle until April 24 and Mrs Burwood will also be giving talks about Lorina and the BBC show, at 1.30pm on April 13 and 2pm on April 14.

They are also planned to be one of the centrepieces of major new displays at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse as part of a Heritage Lottery funded project.

Antiques Roadshow Detectives, featuring Lorina’s story, is on BBC2 at 6.30pm on Tuesday.

Have you unearthed an intriguing artefact? Email lucy.clapham@archant.co.uk

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