In Norwich Castle Museum in England, you can find several textiles made by a woman named Lorina Bulwer—embroideries that might be seen as messages of protest or anger. Of the three wool and cotton-scrap pieces, two are square images of arguing men, and the others are scrolls made of scraps, heavily embroidered with stream-of-consciousness-like text. Lorina sewed these messages from inside the Great Yarmouth Workhouse—an asylum.
Lorina Bulwer was born in the mid 1800s to parents who owned a chain of grocery stores. She appears to have been middle class, educated, and never married, living with her parents until their deaths. In the early 1900s, she was committed to the Great Yarmouth Workhouse by her brother, who decided that Lorina was “incapable of running her own affairs.” At that time, the workhouse was home to about 500 inmates, 60 of them (like Lorina) determined to be mentally ill and classified as “lunatics.” It was there that she created the embroidered scrolls and textiles expressing rage and frustration at her circumstances.
Her stitched messages were long tirades, all in upper case and without punctuation. Some of the things she writes appear to be fantasy, like her hopes of being related to the Royal Family. Other parts of the text refer to fellow inmates, their predicaments, and their deaths. She also suggests that she may have been sexually assaulted by a physician. Some of these events are verifiable or at least likely, as dates and names can be backed up by ledgers or legal records. Over 70 people are identified in the three tapestries, all apparently real, with her sister Anna Maria a frequent focus of Lorina’s ire. (You can view the text of the scrolls here.)
It is unknown as to why Lorina was confined at Great Yarmouth. It is possible that she was indeed mentally ill and there was no one to care for her after her parents’ deaths; it is also possible that her siblings saw her as challenging or did not have the money or desire to take her into their homes. Asylums were also places that the destitute could go for health care if they had no financial support. Lorina had no problem expressing her disgust and sense of abandonment and held a specific belief that she had been cheated out of money.
No one has a clear understanding as to how or why these tapestries survived. Museum staff have theorized that a nurse may have kept them, but no one knows for sure. Two embroidered panels were found in an attic by incoming tenants, and they are now also housed at Great Yarmouth. Lorina Bulwer remained in the asylum until her death of influenza at age 79. Her body was not collected by family and she was interred at the Great Yarmouth Workhouse grounds. Details of her life and the asylum conditions are emerging over time and historians will undoubtedly continue to be fascinated by her story—told through needle and thread.
Images from Made in Slant