Chris T-TCreative fellow and songwriter, The National Trust
Singing in the Workhouse
As the National Trust Creative Fellow, Chris has been working on a set of ballads built from the extraordinary history of The Workhouse, Southwell. He will be talking about the value of large, established organisations reaching further out towards the edges of the creative world, for braver and more interesting collaboration.
The project brings together local researchers, storytellers and artists, using location-based technology to deliver social history to new audiences. He will talk about the challenges and compromises of working with community stakeholders, and unpick his own role of collaborating with a large-scale heritage organisation.
Chris T-T has been one of the UK’s most consistently acclaimed artists for two decades. Based in Brighton but restlessly mobile, Chris has released 10 solo albums and clocked up more than 2,200 shows around the world, touring with the likes of Ben Folds, Frank Turner, British Sea Power, The National, Elbow, Bellowhead, Franz Nicolay (Hold Steady), Divine Comedy, Tom Robinson and many others.
Chris has been a piano accompanist for Tom Robinson, Frank Turner and Jim Bob (Carter USM). He has performed at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds Festivals; on the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square; and in 2011 took a one-man show of A.A. Milne’s 1920s children’s poetry to Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
He has spoken at TEDx, Brighton Digital Festival, Louder Than Words, Boring Conference, Great Escape Convention and many others. He has completed artist residencies at Leeds Beckett University, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion & Museums and Arts Residency Thailand.
Taking the National Trust out of its comfort zone
“Life for the undeserving poor was as bad as you could imagine,” said Chris T-T on the Dots stage.
Chris, as part of his work as the first creative fellow for the National Trust, has been creating a body of songs based on the stories of people who lived in a workhouse.
Singing at the workhouse
Chris is a performer who lives with one foot in the acoustic punk world and one in the folk world. His work with National Trust is centred on the Workhouse in Southwell, built in 1853 after the Poor Law was passed. It was the prototype workhouse in the UK and was so successful that they rolled out the model across the country, providing poor relief in the building rather than charity in the world.
“It’s not your typical National Trust property – in fact, it’s pretty horrible and is the best-preserved workhouse in the UK,” said Chris. He described how new entrants to the house were assessed, and were split up as either deserving or undeserving poor. The old, infirmed, disabled and children were deserving; able-bodied adults were underserving and had it much worse.
The start of a creative journey
Chris drew in the people who worked and visited the workhouse, so to find out what stories were important to them. After this research, as well as getting inspiration from the stories and the space of the workhouse itself, he got writing and is currently recording a set of songs.
“There are some amazing stories that stick out. One is how vagrants were treated. They’d be allowed in for two days for room and board – literally a board to sleep on, at an angle propped up on a skirting board, to keep their head away from the rats,” said Chris. “They’d be expected to work 12 hours a day while there. Work would be shovelling poo, cleaning the latrines or turning the crank. The crank, it turned out, did nothing – it was just a crank in a hole in the wall.”
In the workhouse, children were kept completely separate – boys became apprentices and girls were educated to go into service. They’d only see their parents for two hours after church on Sunday.
“Over the summer, I was happy with how things were taking shape, but wanted more real stories to draw from,” said Chris. One such story was about a girl named Elizabeth, who was pregnant when she knocked on the workhouse door. Her tragic song is played out over 12 verses.
“The National Trust is working in an edgy space with this project.”