Cots, Commodes and Coffins by Ann-Marie Peckham

Trying to choose a topic to write my blog about is sometimes challenging, but at other times it’s a handed to me on a plate….or should I say in a crate! (Bad pun I know…)

Last week we opened crate 22 (number 8 to have been opened)… and we were greeted by lots of cots and commodes! A few weeks ago we also found some pall bearers and a coffin template …which I think neatly encapsulates the cycle of life…and death… and as you can see gave me the idea for this week’s blog title!

After opening the crate and some initial record checking we found that some of the cots and commodes had previously belonged to the workhouse at Pulham Market in Norfolk. Being based in the grounds of Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse (built in 1775), we at the superstore found this is particularly relevant and poignant.


This wooden commode has an adjustable back to suit users of different heights.

Workhouses are thought to have existed in Britain since the mid 17th century. Between the 18th and 20th centuries there were 22 workhouses in Norfolk, with the earliest one being built in Heckingham (in the parish of Loddon and Clavering) in 1765 and the last in Norwich in 1859. Pulham Market workhouse was built by Depwade Poor Law Authority in 1836.


From ‘A Historical Atlas of Norfolk’ by Norfolk Museums Service

Initially workhouses were sporadically set up by individual boroughs or parishes for their local poor and were known as the ‘House of Industry’. The overall aim of these houses was for inmates to provide labour in return for food and accommodation. Admittance to a House of Industry could be due to poverty, old age, illness or disability. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act led to the transformation of most Houses of Industry into workhouses. As a rule conditions were deliberately stark and monotonous in the hope of deterring those who were able to work, ensuring that only the truly needy made use of them. Despite these conditions contrary to popular belief many inmates had better food, clothing and accommodation than they would have had access to within their own communities.

Workhouses also provided improved on site facilities for families, young children and unmarried mothers both during and after pregnancy, (hence the cot we found that hooks together to be assembled quickly), such as free health care and schooling as well as clothing, accommodation and food.  However, when families went into the workhouse they were separated into male, female or children’s wards and allocated specific times in the week where they could spend time together. High days and holidays were also sometimes celebrated with extra food being given or luxuries such as tobacco, a trip to a public house or some entertainment being provided, although this varied between institutions.

Picture 540

This cream cot (once painted green) hooks together for quick assembly. It previously belonged to Hill House, Pulham Market, former workhouse.

Along side workhouses, ‘out-relief’ (food or money supplied by the parish) still existed and was provided to the local poor, infirm or those with disabilities enabling them to stay within their local community and remain out of the workhouse. Pulham Market workhouse closed during the 1930’s, with the building being converted into Hill House hospital between 1948-55. After this time it briefly became a hotel before being converted into a residential property.

While we have not found many workhouse items, the objects that we do find provide a small insight into the lives of the ordinary inmates and the facilities provided for them by these institutions.


‘The man who makes it doesn’t want it. The man who uses it doesn’t want it. The man who’s using it doesn’t know he is using it’

Answer? A coffin…


Used as a template for grave diggers at Yelverton Church.

Which brings me rather nicely to the coffin template and funeral palls. While unfortunately these items do not relate to a workhouse, they do relate to Yelverton church in Norfolk. The Coffin template would have been used by Grave diggers before burials at the Church, and the palls to carry the coffin during the service and burial.

Wooden Funeral Palls from Yelverton Church that would have been used to carry a coffin at funerals.

Wooden Funeral Palls from Yelverton Church that would have been used to carry a coffin at funerals.

For more information on Workhouses in Norwich please visit:

For more information on Gressenhall Farm, Workhouse & Library please visit:

Or read ‘Gressenhall Farm & workhouse: A history of the buildings and the people who lived and worked in them’ by Stephen Pope (Poppyland Publishing, 2006)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Cots, Commodes and Coffins by Ann-Marie Peckham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s