Gressenhall based Denise Hickman moved to Norfolk four years ago. Hoping for something interesting to get her teeth stuck into, she stumbled upon the More Than Oliver Twist project and decided to find out more.
Almost six months later, Denise has contributed a grand total of nine biographies to the project - read on to discover Denise's story....
I moved from London to Norfolk four years ago. By this year (2019), I was feeling settled and the garden seemed under control, so I began to look for something interesting to keep me busy. I had already begun to research my family tree and have always been interested in hearing family stories. I enjoy doing investigative research work, so I decided to look for voluntary work locally.
My first port of call was the Norfolk County Council website and when I saw the request for volunteers for the More Than Oliver Twist project at Gressenhall I knew that this would be a project I would love to be part of. I live close to the museum and knew it well from when my children were young but of course it has changed quite a bit since then.
I was rather late in my application but was delighted to be accepted to join the project. Sadly, I missed many of the initial meetings and promptly went away for most of September and October, but I was determined to do as much as I could when I was home. I was able to go on the tour of the Norfolk Records Office which was wonderful and meet some of the fellow volunteers as well as see historic documents and restoration projects. I’ve been able to meet with Helen at Gressenhall for advice, mentoring, help and instruction and have loved learning and discussing my allocations with her. I really value all her help in getting me started and progressing with this project. When I researched my own family tree I mostly assembled names and dates, but I did not look in depth at any individual person. It was a good grounding, but I soon discovered there is so much more!
I first began work on my allocations in the order in which the inmates appeared on my list, writing down basic information about them, jotting down of dates, birthplaces etc. I then began more in-depth investigation and was surprised how quickly I became attached to each person and their story. I used many of the links and websites that we have been recommended to use and, at Gressenhall, had access to records from minute books and other material. I tried to complete each allocation as much as possible before starting work on the next. I have so far completed all but one although I am sure more can be found on the “finished” ones as there are always some uncertainties and missing years, even decades.
Largely, I feel that I have been able to give a good account of my allocated individuals’ lives before, during and sometimes after their time in residence at the workhouse. I have often found myself thinking about my “people” at odd moments and places, putting two and two together, trying to work out situations that hadn’t quite made sense, then rushing home to check my theories. I have felt the responsibility of telling my peoples’ stories and although, at first, I expected them to be fairly simple and mundane I have learnt that everyone’s story is important, valuable and also really interesting. I certainly feel I need to go back to my family tree and devote more than two dates to my ancestors!
I have been moved by tragedies that have occurred to some of my people and delighted when things have gone well for them. I have been grateful when their needs have been noticed and relieved when they have received help. I have felt proud when one of my naughtier young inmates went on to have what would seem to have been a successful and happy family life becoming quite the matriarch. It has been truly fascinating.
Going forward, I have one allocation left to get ready to submit and I need to add some documents to the ones I’ve finished. I hope to work on a few extra more in the new year. I feel I have learnt a lot during the process and there is much still left to learn. Mostly about how to best write the biographies and life history summaries, improve my referencing and use all the facilities available. Also, how to make better notes, save and keep records of relevant information as I know I have wasted a lot of time trying to find documents again which I had already seen. I have been surprised how occasionally a little information and a bit of intuition can lead to a relevant discovery.
I feel privileged and lucky to be part of this project and look forward to continuing to improve my research skills and discovering much more about the lives of the many people who were resident at Gressenhall all those years ago.
I am also excited to be part of the Gressenhall family of volunteers and look forward to more happy gatherings such as the Christmas Panto and lunch and our MTOT bash in a few weeks.
Research Volunteer @ Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse