LOST stories of a town built on industry and hard graft are being brought to life in major new galleries that have opened in Northwich.
Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse is celebrating the good and bad of Northwich’s past by offering a glimpse into the lives of its workers, philanthropists, slum dwellers and workhouse inmates.
Thanks to a £294,000 grant from the Arts Council England, the museum, in London Road, has been able to develop an Industrial Voices gallery and interactive displays exploring its own past as Northwich Union Workhouse, which only closed in 1969.
Tom Hughes, community and education officer at the museum, said: “This gives a new identity to the town and celebrates its stories.
“In terms of the industrial side, this is what people’s ancestors in town would have worked in.
“It was hard work so to be able to celebrate their efforts and achievements is good – we wouldn’t have the town we have today if it wasn’t for their work.
“Anyone interested in family history will find their story here.”
Workhouse life is explored on the ground floor with a basic school room, comfortable master’s sitting room, laundry and the workhouse guardians’ board room to explore.
Northwich Union Workhouse was built in 1839, following the New Poor Law Act of 1834 which reformed provision for the poor and decreed that each area should have a workhouse.
It served 59 parishes, which made up the Northwich Union, and had room for 300 inmates, although records show it never housed more than 190 at any one time.
New displays give children chance to dress up in the workhouse uniform, experience life in the schoolroom, smell workhouse smells, including the lavatory, hear a phone call from one of the masters, play the master’s piano and experience the contrasting comfort of his room.
There is also a model of the workhouse building which highlights how small a fraction of the building remains as the museum.
Tom said: “What people don’t realise is that it used to be a lot bigger than it is now.
“Most of it went in 1969 when the attitude in town was ‘pull the whole thing down’.
“Because it was the workhouse and held bad memories most people wanted it pulled down but Robert Westall [the children’s author who is the subject of the museum’s current temporary museum] said Northwich was losing too many of its significant buildings and we had to save one of them.”
Tom said staff had discovered new records while putting the displays together, including an architect’s drawing of the full building with its separate areas for men, women, boys and girls, which allowed them to develop the model.
The Industrial Voices gallery features a small display on the salt industry but has a new focus on ship building at Yarwoods and Pimblotts, Bates’ Foundry, the chemical industry of Brunner Mond, including the discovery of polythene in Winnington, and trade unions.
It also celebrates the life of Sir John Brunner and what he gave to the community, and explores what life was like in Northwich’s town centre slums.
“It’s nice to get different things out there,” Tom said.
“People think Northwich is just about salt but it was pretty much lost in town by the end of the 19th century and had moved elsewhere to Runcorn or Winsford.
“But chemicals grew out of the salt industry, boats were needed to transport the salt and chemicals and the foundry was important to keep an industrial town working.
“The gallery is called Industrial Voices so we have records of people’s memories and stories of different people.”
The slums section is based on a surprisingly comprehensive photographic collection born out of subsidence issues and the need to record each building.
Tom said: “In 1891 and 92 a photographer was commissioned to take pictures of all the buildings in Northwich, from middle class buildings to slums and shops.
“We reckon we’ve probably got one of the most complete photographic surveys of a town in Britain.
“What we can see is that even in the slum areas, the yards and courts of Northwich, they may have broken windows but there are clean nets up, they’ve still got that kind of pride.”
For more information about the museum, including opening times and admission prices, visit weaverhallmuseum.org.uk or ring 01606 271640.