“I MISS LORINA BULWER AM A TRUE LOYAL PERSON….I MISS LORINA BULWER AM FREE.”
In this post I discuss the interesting, yet emotional, life and story of Lorina Bulwer, an inmate at the Great Yarmouth Workhouse. On arrival to the workhouse, Lorina was confined to the lunatic ward. She expressed her thoughts and feelings by stitching long monologues of capitalised words which are often considered as rambles, rants and in some cases, powerful nonsense. There are currently three known surviving “Lorina” samplers in Britain. I refer to Lorina by her first name in this post as her embroidered texts depict a clear personality and a particular level of familiarity and modern day relevance.
I have been lucky enough to hold, examine and research a beautiful Lorina scroll in great detail. Thackray Medical Museum, where I currently work, has one in within its fascinating collection. The scroll is more than just its vibrant and captivating aesthetic; it provides many insights into mental health within Victorian and Edwardian workhouses, as well as conditions of the establishments, conducted activities and communication of the inmates.
“BARFORD DIED THIS MORNING JANRY 5th AND TAKEN TO THE MORTUARY SHED THE RATS ARE SENT IN TO NIBBLE THEN”
While Lorina’s creations originated in Great Yarmouth, the Thackray Museum is built on the site of the old Leeds Union Workhouse. Lorina fits perfectly into the predominately Yorkshire collection. Her scroll combines mental health history with the architectural history of the building, her reels of consciousness scroll transcending through time and space. The scroll cared for by the Thackray Museum is currently the latest Lorina creation to date, created in 1904. It is over 12 feet long, created by numerous off cut panels of cotton fabrics and is embroidered by the collaboration of Lorina’s furious mind and active hand from top to bottom.
The scroll is in amazing condition for its age and circumstances, protected and adored throughout its lifetime. The variety of colours within the cotton fabrics are yet to fade, the embroidery stays fixed and the panels are intact. Its condition, among other elements, particularly intrigues me.
Workhouse records are sparse both in general numbers and noted information within each record. Inmates lacked importance or consideration that other individuals outside the workhouse had, and their possessions were often non-existent. The scroll’s journey is unique, from its creation within the workhouse, its experience of the workhouse and later freedom from the workhouse. Lorina’s voice, which is represented by the impaled stitches onto the fabric, was heard by individuals within the workhouse. Ironically it respected. It was no disposed of, it gained freedom.
Lorina Bulwer had a remarkably long life, however it was a life full of misery. Born in 1838, Lorina lived throughout, and beyond, both Queen Victoria and Edward VII’s reign. In her 74 years Lorina experienced abandonment, witnessed countless deaths and never gained true freedom. We know this from surviving records and evidence within the scroll itself. Lorina was placed in the workhouse at the age of 55 following the death of her mother. Evidence into her family life suggest hostility. It is believed she was placed in the workhouse by her brother Edgar, and sections of this particular scroll direct anger towards another sibling, her sister Anna Maria.
“Mrs ANNA MARIA YOUNG TRAVELS ABOUT TO AVOID THE DETECTIVES SHE HAS BEEN FORGEING THE NANE OF MISS LORINA BULWER….”
While it will never be known, investigations into the content of the scroll suggest that Lorina may have suffered from what is classed in contemporary thought as mental illness throughout the entirety of her life. Previous investigations into the scroll by psychologists suggest forms of schizophrenia and psychosis. Lorina refers to many aspects of mental health throughout the scroll but never attaches ideas of “madness” to herself, despite often using the first person throughout the narrative. Her literacy and remarkable needle skills (sewed in a way that echoes a sharp pen to paper) suggests Lorina had some sort of education and that she was part of a class beyond what was normally associated with the workhouse. (Investigations into Lorina’s ancestry show a comfortable life economically) Her admission into the lunatic wing of the workhouse adds further ideas to this claim; perhaps the death of both her parents caused Lorina to lose a sense of protection and a spiralling effect of her thoughts and emotions. Her reels of anger embedded within the scroll are directed towards many individuals (over 70) and suggest a lifetime of built up hatred and awful experiences.
“I MISS LORINA BULWER WAS EXAMINED BY DR PINCHING OF WALTHAMSTOW ESSEX AND FOUND TO BE A PROPERLY SHAPED FEMALE”
The Lorina scrolls are not the only examples of asylum “art” and “stitched” imprisonment. Surviving samplers also lie in the historical collections of Wakefield Asylum which also embed and express the thoughts and experiences of women in asylums. Mary Frances Heaton utilised needlework to voice her concerns and frustrations with both the asylum process and gendered expectations in the 19th century. Her samplers reflect her individual personality, namely her creativity and intricacy within colour and placement and the patience taken with each delicate stitch. Mary’s samplers suggest an intention to be seen, heard and acted upon; her negative experiences of the asylum to be channelled into something positive, beneficial and material.
In contrast, Lorina’s creations do not give off the same impression or intention. Placement is important within the Lorina scroll – the words “FREE” are stitched into open spaces, underlined in red to represent Lorina’s desires and absent capacities, yet the narrative is loud, disjointed and it lacks grammar and punctuation. It predominately flows as Lorina’s own consciousness and can be construed as a narrative of nonsense for the temporary observer. While it is important to recognise that each needle-worker and their creation is something unique in itself, it is also equally imperative to place the differing asylum “art” next to one another provides many dimensions to mental health care and experiences.
Although the Lorina scroll probably has no initial intention in challenging mental health and human treatment within the workhouses, the scroll is remarkable and achieves this in a modern day perspective. The scroll transcends the restrictive boundaries it was created in, both the walls of the workhouse and Lorina’s own body. Lorina’s expression it allows observers to understand and make judgements about medicine and treatment of the past; the captivating scroll full of anger, misery and revenge is re-purposed into something positively powerful.