In one corner of the kitchen garden at Ripon Workhouse, a crop of Ragged Jack kale is just sprouting alongside a patch of Fat Lazy Blond lettuce. Elsewhere, volunteer gardeners are tending the Painted Lady sweet peas and the Crimson Flowered broad beans.
It wasn’t always this way. Until recently the land attached to the old workhouse – now a social history museum – was overgrown and underused. However, in 2008 those involved in the Ripon Museum Trust decided to restore the garden and introduce the kind of plants that would have grown there in the late 19th century when it played a vital role in feeding the unfortunate families who found themselves reliant on the workhouse.
“We knew that we wanted the garden to be rooted in the history, culture, practice and cuisine of the workhouse,” says trustee Mandy Whitehead. “The idea was that it should reflect the best horticultural practices of both the Victorian age and today, but most of all we wanted to produce the kind of crops which would have been familiar to the gardeners of that time.
“The site was in a pretty bad way and the first thing we had to do was clear all undergrowth and pull out the saplings and weeds that had sprung up over the years. While we were doing the initial landscaping the contractors discovered some bones which were near the site of both the workhouse pig sty and a mortuary. A local GP and butcher were called in, but both were unsure as to whether they were human or animal remains. Fortunately, a bone specialist from Harrogate Hospital took them away for analysis and thankfully concluded that they had once belonged to an animal.”
With the site finally cleared, the trust had to decide on the layout for the garden and again went back into the archives. A workhouse had stood on the site since 1776, but the current building was completed in January, 1855 and it was a largely self-sufficient environment. The workhouse boasted its own schoolrooms, chaplaincy and infirmary and those who found themselves so poor that they had no option but to walk through the gatehouse and declare themselves destitute were employed washing linen, chopping firewood and growing the vegetables which would at least provide a little nutrition for those who had lost everything else.
The Victorian age was one marked by grand architectural statements and saw a rash of great walled gardens built in the grounds of country estates. They were designed to grow the exotic crops that were being brought back from sunnier climes, but in Ripon things were a little different.
With the kitchen garden at Ripon primarily used to feed the poor unfortunates who found themselves in residence there, the crops were much more basic and having gone back to the workhouse maps of the 1890s, the trust decided to create four central planting beds.
“A garden of this size in the grounds of a grand house would have employed a large number of skilled professionals and apprentices,” says volunteer gardener Nick Thompson. “The workhouse had varying numbers of workers, but they had little training and, given their circumstances, possibly even less motivation and they worked under the guidance of a master who himself may have had little knowledge.
“Like every other area of the workhouse, the rules were strict and there was an insistence that families be segregated. We know from the records that the garden was a woman-free zone, with old men and boys doing the work. Often when digging we will come across fragments of old clay pipes, a little reminder of a world which encouraged smoking.”
With the layout decided, the trust then had to source the kind of crops that had flourished in the late 19th century.
“The crops were designed to complement the dietary records of the workhouses, which was based around root vegetables, peas, beans and cabbage,” adds Nick. “However, we also know that they did grow some salad crops and the workhouse also boasted a small orchard, so we have tried to reflect as much of the original planting as we can.
“The last quarter of a century has seen a resurgence in interest in heirloom varieties, which made our job a whole lot easier. In fact, the only difficulty we had was when it came to potatoes. Many Victorian varieties of salad or what we call today new potatoes are readily available, but these weren’t the kind grown in the workhouse.
“We needed a floury maincrop variety and the earliest we thought we could source was a King Edward from 1902. However, with a bit more research it turned out that the King Edward was in fact the much older Fellside Hero variety, which was just renamed in the 20th century, so in the end we managed to tick every box.
“Now the planting has been done and the crops are really beginning to thrive, the next job is to tell people about it. We have amassed a lot of knowledge over the last few years and we want to share what we know, not just about these heritage plants, but how the garden fitted into the rest of workhouse life.
“The whole site is a testament to the hard work of our volunteers and I think together we have created a real hidden gem.”
• The Workhouse Museum is open daily from 11am to 4pm. On June 28, as part of the museum’s Mad Hatter’s Garden Fete, there will be a chance to explore the kitchen garden and buy heritage plants and seeds. The event will run from 11.30am to 3pm and for more information call 01765 690799 or visit www.riponmuseums.co.uk