Shush, Snip, Rip; Irregularities at York Union Workhouse in 1899.

Soundscape, 19 minutes and 33 seconds plus easy read summary.

By Becca Cooper, Laura Humphreys, Andy Pollin, Michael Scott, Eileen Stroughair from York People First and Stephen Lee Hodgkins. 

In the newspaper ‘The Yorkshire Herald’, on Friday 24th November 1899 a meeting of the York Board of Guardians is reported. The Guardians discuss ‘comments made by the Inspectors of the Local Government Board respecting the treatment of imbeciles in the workhouse’.

York Union Workhouse is accused of, forcibly, cutting the hair of female inmates short and making them wear dresses made of tough, rip resistant, material.  The inspectors also state that when asking a male inmate, a Charles Hudson for feedback, he appeared frightened and wouldn’t answer. 

The Guardians dismiss the complaints and state that they keep female ‘imbeciles’ hair cut short for ‘cleanliness’, that they ‘furnish’ ‘these’ women with ‘those’ dresses to prevent them being ripped up and that ‘Charles’ will always answer them.  

Location – The Marriot Room, York Explore, played on loop, 12th, 13th, 14th July, then online at

Description – The soundscape features voices and sound effects that explore the elements and implications of the newspaper article of 1899. The soundscape is accompanied by an easy-read summary displayed on A1 boards and three glass bell jars: the first containing a broken megaphone, the second a wig, and the third a mass of ripped-up materials.

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Eliza Poskill’s Hope

Deaf, dumb, blind, imbecile

Do you know how I feel?

Locked behind these walls

A name that nobody calls.

Idiot, feeble minded, lunatic:

Are the walls really so thick?

Being labelled as a maniac.

Do we ever fight back?

Feel wind on flowing hair?

Can I pick what I want to wear?

Do I have my own home?

Am I allowed to freely roam?

Did you pick up our sword-

See this as untoward- 

Are we people yet?

Deaf, dumb, blind, imbecile,

I pray you don’t know how I feel.

Yours faithfully,

Eliza Poskill, Imbecile, age 15.

A creative response to the ‘Shush, Snip, Rip’ exhibition, by Imogen Kate 2024.

Ordinary life at extraordinary cost

My son lives in an ordinary house in an ordinary street, enjoying an ordinary life like any other. Paradoxically it’s taken extraordinary efforts by his family over many years to make it happen. Given the state of adult social care we regard this as the safest option for him.

Behind the scenes of my son’s life it’s me who makes his support happen. Services never think to ask what that involves. They don’t make it easy. Over the years, hundreds of well-meaning professionals have drifted in and out of our lives, and still we have to fight for funding.

It’s easy to lose sight of who you are, drown in a sea of bureaucracy, disagreements, challenges and gaslighting.

But my son is where he’s meant to be, enjoying a life not a service, because of his family, his rock.

Creative response to the ‘Shush Snip Rip’ exhibition, by an anonymous Unpaid family carer, 2024.

Access Archives Cloaks

Screen printed textile panels, individually tailored, with text, ink and brushstrokes

By Alfie Fox and Blueberry Academy (June 2024).

Alfie Fox is an established, award-winning multimedia artist who works with Pyramid in Leeds. Alfie was born with cerebral palsy and CVI (Cerebral Visual Impairment). Alfie worked local disabled people from Blueberry Academy to create an exhibition of access cloaks
inspired by collections in Explore York Archives. The screen printed textile panels, reflect on histories of disabled people in the York Union Workhouse during Victorian times and current experiences of accessibility for disabled people and their families. Alfie led a team of artists who supported him during the workshop including Stephen Lee Hodgkins, Louis Wong, James Hill and Julie Shackleton from Pyramid Arts.

Location – The exhibition space in the café area of York Explore.

Description – The artwork is made of a five screen printed fabric panels. Each panels includes images of the workhouse and words relating to thoughts about access and disability. The panels are approximately 70cm by 170cm and decorated individually with paint, illustrations, doodles and letterpress text prints. This includes a rainbow, a smile, a no entry sign and other things relating to disability and access.

Honour these Women and Children

Mixed media sculpture.

Luca Young, (2024).

Exploring the 1899 local government report into ‘irregularities’ in the treatment of inmates at the York Union Workhouse, Luca’s creative response honors female lives, and the injustices they have, and do face. Drawing on lived experience, Luca’s mixed media puppet sculpture highlights similarities, then and now, and how power is withheld from diverse bodies and minds.

Location – The Marriot Room, York Explore, 12th, 13th, 14th July.

Description – The artwork is a large hanging puppet structure. The right side is covered with hessian cloth and printed names of the females who were termed as ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’ in York Union Workhouse on census records for 1901.  Down the middle of the puppet is a red painted line.  On the left side, the puppet is covered with newspaper and red painted words such as ‘loser, loner, lazy’. On the head of the puppet, on the right side is a pin badge with a sunflower on it an the words ‘face mask exempt’.  

How many forms did you fill out today?

Textiles, text and a leather living room armchair, distressed and decorated, with endless reams of pa-perwork, that the Mother Carer previously completed while on a journey with her son.

By Kerry Fox, Mother Carer (2024).

‘Every education health and care plan, every social care plan, every letter and report from countless health professionals, endless requests for a carer assessment that never comes.

Tribunal documents from the legal cases you fight to ensure your child has an education, the 12 years of clinical negligence litigation, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment.

Assessments, reviews, on a repeat cycle, the annual review for education, for social care, for continuing health care, for learning disabilities, for neurology.

Each twisted form and document, each turn of bureaucracy, each rupture, tied, tension bound and wrapped, taut and fraught, heavy, teetering, repeat…….. How many forms did you fill out today?’

Location – The central space of the main library at York Explore.

Description – The artwork is made up of a large leather living room arm chair. The arm chair is slightly distressed and decorated, with endless reams of paperwork, pieces of material and textiles emerging from it. Around the chair are scatted shredded paperwork. Within the paperwork are printed words and phrases, like ‘overwhelming paperwork’ and ‘they attach many words and phrases’. The paper-work used in the piece come from the many health, social care and education reports, assessments, correspondence that the Mother Carer previously completed while on a journey with her son.

‘You don’t know how I feel’ & other stories from York Union Workhouse, 1864 – 1910.

Reclaimed doctors’ medical equipment case, thirteen stories and a selection of labelled objects. With text booklet and audio/visual version.

By Stephen Lee Hodgkins, (2024).

This storytelling suitcase contains thirteen stories about disabled people and disability at York Union Workhouse between 1864 and 1910. Each story is accompanied by a selection of objects and an information booklet presented in text and audio-visual format. We invite you to handle and explore each of the objects while reading or listening to the stories.

Location – The Marriot Room, York Explore, 12th, 13th, 14th July.

Description – This artwork is made from a reclaimed doctor’s medical equipment case. The case is decorated with various doodles, illustrations, and text relating to the thirteen stories about disabled people and disability at York Union Workhouse between 1864 and 1910. The case is brown leather, approximately 50 x 25 cm, and when opened shows six small drawers and a booklet. In each drawer, there is an object with a label attached with red wool, with the name of one of the thirteen stories. The booklet is A5 size, with red wool stitching. The booklet is also presented in an audio-visual format.

The 44.

Linocut and letterpress prints, plus snippets of hair dipped in wax.

By Stephen Lee Hodgkins, (2024).

In the census of 1891 for York Union Workhouse, there are 44 female names listed with the terms ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’ handwritten beside them. These terms were used to describe what we might refer to today as learning difficulties or disabilities. In 1899, a local government report into ‘irregularities’ at the York Union Workhouse accused the management of forcibly cutting the hair of female inmates short. In the 1901 census, Charlotte Lofthouse and Sarah Dale are the only two female names with the terms ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’ handwritten beside them that also appear in the 1891 census. I think about these 44 women and wonder if and why they had their hair cut short.

Location – The Marriot Room, York Explore, 12th, 13th, 14th July.

Description – This artwork is made up of 44 linocut prints of a wig on a headstand. The hair is coloured in one of four colours: orange, pink, yellow, and green. There are eleven of each colour. On each print is the name of each woman, individually printed with letterpress type. Each print hangs on wire from a raised structure and includes a snippet of hair, each dipped in wax coloured in one of four colours: orange, pink, yellow, and green.

Handprinted flyers

To promote ‘Shush, Snip, Rip’ we are hand printing a flyer with letterpress type on recycled paper using reclaimed ‘Adana 8 x 5’ printmaking machine.

Look out for these unique flyers at various locations around York. And if you want us to come along and print some for you get in touch.