From Henry VIII to soup kitchen, to rhubarb and custard masonic temple

by | 6 August 2021 | Gainsborough, Heritage

One of the largest and best-preserved Tudor manor houses in the country, Gainsborough Old Hall has returned to English Heritage and is now open to visitors under the direct care of the charity.
Since taking over operations from Lincolnshire County Council, English Heritage have carried out significant conservation and reinterpretation work, in order to preserve its fascinating story for generations to come.
Gainsborough Old Hall remains, to this day, the much-loved heart of Gainsborough. It has one of the most impressive medieval kitchens in England, a noble great hall with ornate wooden ceiling and an imposing lodgings tower. It has played host to some of history’s great names, from Henry VIII and Katherine Parr to John Wesley. Starting as a place of power and influence in the 15th century, when its wealthy owners, the Hickman family, moved out around 1730, it then passed through many diverse incarnations from an assembly room and masonic temple, through to a linen factory, pub and soup kitchen.
Kevin Booth, Senior Curator for the North at English Heritage, explains: “Gainsborough Old Hall is a gem of a building, but it’s so much more than that: it’s the memories and voices of the many unique people who’ve inhabited it over the last 500 years which make it so special. We’re delighted to bring the property back into our direct care and it has been an absolute privilege to be able to work through finding clues in the building and then connecting them to the people and their stories, bringing those voices to life for our visitors.”
Highlights of the renovation include:

  • Reclaiming interiors: English Heritage curators have delved into the history of the Old Hall and its interiors, taking time to understand the biography of each room and gently bring it back to life. For example, paint analysis showed a mid-Victorian gothic assembly room, a bright airy dining room and a rhubarb and custard masonic temple. These spaces have been reimagined to tell the stories of the building.
  • Conservation of portraits: Glazing and cleaning work has been carried out on 15 portraits of the Hickmans, the radical protestant family who bought Gainsborough Old Hall in 1596 and set about bending the fortunes of the town to their profit. After fashioning its fine interiors and reshaping the building in the Elizabethan era, they abandoned it in 1730, but continued to own and oversee it for a further 200 years, until 1969. The portraits give a sense of continuity at the hall, and its embodiment of a living history.
  • New interpretation: In keeping with Gainsborough Old Hall’s life as an 18th century theatre, English Heritage has woven the idea of performance as a recurring theme into its new interpretation. The building can be seen as a skeletal stage set, with a cast of characters and an entwined plot line with twists and sub-plots aplenty! In telling the story of the Hall, the story of Gainsborough and its people is also told: the great and the destitute, their celebrations and sorrows.
  • Revamped facilities: Investment has been made in a new and improved café offering, shop and toilets.

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