Monday, 30 April 2012

Article - Southwell Workhouse volunteer is happy to give up his time for National Trust attraction

JOHN Marchmont at 87 is one of the oldest volunteers working at Southwell’s Workhouse for The National Trust.

But with age comes experience, knowledge and charm and John has it all in abundance.

The former textile worker and driving instructor is no newcomer to volunteer work, having served with the Territorial Army for 25 years and also lending a hand at Southwell Minster when required.

He lives nearby in the town in the shadow of the historical Workhouse and watched as the building was renovated and brought back to life by the national charity, not realising that he would one day become its ‘Master’.

“Both The National Trust and the Church of England would grind to a halt without their volunteers, that’s why I’m happy to help.

“I received a certificate from The National Trust’s director general, Dame Fiona Reynolds, when she visited in March during our 10 year celebrations,” explained John whose wife died two years ago.

John is one of four volunteers who plays the revered role of The Workhouse ‘Master’. I watch as he dons the long coat and top hat and takes up the shiny, brass-topped cane for our photo-shoot and witness the transformation.

This character plays the part perfectly, giving enough stern stares at youngsters to engage them without causing fear yet instilling in them the true portrayal of the part.

“I really enjoy the school visits but it’s important not to be too heavy-handed as children today aren’t as tough as they were in the days the Workhouse operated,” joked John, who is a popular figure amongst staff and visitors and was voted as the person most volunteers wanted to be their grandfather!

John not only brings his role to life but with eight decades behind him is a living history on his own with a wealth of tales to draw upon.

It is John’s drive to ‘keep going’ despite his years that motivates him to volunteer around one day a week.

“I like to stay busy and occupied and talking to the children enables me to give a small input into their learning. What I don’t want is to just sit by the fire all day long and die when nobody is looking.

“It’s also been a great way of meeting new people and making friends. All the volunteers and paid staff have a good rapport with each other.”

At the Workhouse open days, John has been known to switch sides, swapping his wool coat of ‘Master’ for pauper’s rags as an inmate oakum-picking in the men’s yard.

John explains: “Each role is a bit of a challenge for different reasons. You have to bring personality to them and act the part to make it entertaining as well as informative for visitors.”

Acting skills are also put to the test during the annual Christmas pantomime put on by the educational volunteers.

“We all get along so well and have a laugh together,” added John.

The volunteers’ efforts at The Workhouse are invaluable supporting the staff in protecting the site, maintaining it and providing the learning opportunities for its visitors.

Property manager, Rachel Harrison, recognises the enormous role volunteers play within the Southwell venue but also throughout the whole trust.

“Volunteers are the life-blood of the organisation,” she said. “We are one big family at The Workhouse and all stick together.

“We couldn’t manage without them. They are a lovely group who are very intelligent and a delight to work with.”

So at 87, is John ready to hang up his hat at The Workhouse yet? “No,” said John with a resounding voice. “With age comes physical limitations but I’ll keep helping for as long as I can.”


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