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Walthamstow’s workhouse - exhibition reveals museum’s dark past

A new exhibition reveals Vestry House Museum’s dark past as Walthamstow’s workhouse.

Between 1730 and 1841 the building, which now houses Waltham Forest’s local history museum, was a parish workhouse. Conditions were harsh and it was a place of last resort for many. Yet for the unemployed, sick, elderly, pregnant or orphaned children who lived there, it provided a place of refuge when there was nowhere else to turn.

The Workhouse: Life on the Edge in 18th Century Walthamstow opens up the borough archives to uncover what daily life was like for the poor and destitute who ended up in Walthamstow’s workhouse, as well as those who tried to help them.

Highlights on display include:

  • the only known version of William Hogarth’s moral tale Industry and Idleness published for children, from 1768

  • original documents such as the 1779 Admissions Register showing how 14 year old James Wright ran away from the Workhouse

  • a tiny pair of 18th century children’s work shoes.

Visitors can also read new works by local poetry collective Forest Poets, written in response to the exhibition.

Curator Rowan Bain commented: "Many people’s knowledge of workhouses is based on popular fiction, particularly Oliver Twist. But small parish workhouses like this one actually reveal a more complex picture. Although the workhouse was a place to be feared, it also provided shelter and a home for many that had no other options."

Council Leader Chris Robbins said: "I’m delighted that Vestry House Museum is able to tell important stories like this through thought-provoking exhibitions. I'm sure visitors will be fascinated  as the personal stories of the the poor in 18th century London are brought to light."

For more information visit

Notes to editors

The Workhouse. Life on the Edge in 18th Century Walthamstow

19 September 2015 - 17 January 2016

Vestry House Museum

Vestry Road, London E17

Open 10am-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday. Admission free.

For further information please contact Ian Mason:

020 8496 4726

07740 046143

About Vestry House Museum

Owned and managed by Waltham Forest Council, Vestry House Museum is the local history museum for Waltham Forest and home of Waltham Forest Archives and Local Studies Library. Set in an 18th century former workhouse in the heart of historic Walthamstow Village, the Museum tells the story of the borough through a series of permanent displays and special exhibitions. A favourite exhibit is Britain’s first petrol driven car, built by Frederick Bremer in 1892.

If you would like more information about any of these press releases or have a different media enquiry please contact us at or on 020 8496 4521 / 4802.

For out of hours please email or call 07966 915 157.