Thackray Medical Museum goes mobile while the former Leeds workhouse building undergoes £4m redevelopment

It was once the place where the people of a West Yorkshire city who were down on their luck were sent in order to survive.

Wednesday, 10th July 2019, 5:02 pm
NLYP Ambulance.Leah Dungay a Learning officer for the Thackray museum with Andrew Pyke-Condor the driver of the Thackray Emergency Museum ambulance . pictured at St James Hospital in Leeds.

The imposing Victorian building, a real-life picture of something out of a Charles Dickens novel, was a harsh, dark and miserable place to be but it was home to the poor and homeless people of Leeds who had nowhere else to go.

Leeds Union Workhouse was purpose built in 1861 and for decades was the one place no-one wanted to be. More and more buildings were added until in 1925, changes to the social welfare system in England meant that it was no longer viable as a workhouse.

It became St James’s Hospital and part of the NHS in 1948 but by the 1990s it was considered unfit for modern medicine. However, the old workhouse was by now a listed building and could not be demolished so it was given Parliament permission to house the Thackray Medical Museum, which opened in 1997.

Hannah Jones, Education and Outreach worker for the Thackray Museum inside the Thackray Emergency Museum ambulance with a tonsil guillotine instrument pictured at St James Hospital in Leeds.

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Now, more than 20 years after it opened, the Thackray Medical Museum has closed temporarily for a £4m refurbishment which will secure its future so the story of health and medicine in Leeds can be told for many more years to come.

The building will be made more accessible and displays will be updated with more topical and relevant stories and information.

In the meantime though, the museum is going mobile.

Staff are taking the Thackray to the city and beyond in a new “Emergency Museum” - a decommissioned ambulance donated by the Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) NHS Trust and Yorkshire Ambulance Service Charity.

Hannah Jones Education and Outreach worker for the Thackray Museum inside the Thackray Emergency Museum ambulance

It will be touring a whole host of summer events from the Kirkstall Festival, to Chow Down at Halifax and Castle Howard at York and visitors have the chance to climb aboard for a behind-the-scenes tour of the ambulance and gain a unique insight into the lifesaving work of the emergency services.

Hidden compartments will house objects from Thackray’s collection alongside other ambulance equipment, old and new, uncovering what happens during some of the most common ambulance service callouts.

Nat Edwards, chief executive of the Thackray Medical Museum said: "While the museum is closed we want to tell people about the project, why it is important but also what the museum is about is encouraging interest in health and medicine and for people to see they have a role in it whether that is making kids less scared to go to the doctors or for kids who want to become nurses, doctors and paramedics.

"If you think about the ends of Harehills Road it is a mile between the Thackray and Quarry Hill where there are government divisions of the NHS and along that mile there are also the St James' Hospital, college and university buildings and a world leading research centre but there is a massive imbalance in people at one end of the road.

"Our museum's job is not just to tell people about why health and medicine is important but for them to know what to expect from medicine and to have really good choices about vaccinations, personal health-care and to want to make demands of medicine."

Sarah Forbes, Leeds GP and NHS Leeds CCG Associate Medical Director said: “This fascinating museum on tour blends the past with the modern day, showing how healthcare has dramatically changed over the years.

"As a GP I’m really keen to promote the work Thackray are doing, especially around helping people to understand how to use our NHS effectively so that my colleagues and I can provide the best possible care for those that really need my help.”