Volunteer helps uncover the secret life of Pembroke Place

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Volunteers are an integral part of National Museums Liverpool, and without them, important work would not be able to take place. This month, I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Bennett who has been volunteering at the Museum of Liverpool with Liz Stewart since 2016; they have both recently worked on the Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place project, which has driven Susan to further her research... but more on that later.

I could have talked with Susan and Liz all day, Susan’s stories are fascinating and she has had quite a life! Susan has always volunteered since her college days, from being a literacy tutor to working with victim support. She explained that it is her way of helping out, as she has key skills that lend themselves to different roles; notably within charities. Volunteering has given Susan a choice over what she can devote her energy to, rather than what you would have to do in a paid role and allows her to explore avenues that she wouldn’t normally get to. When the volunteer role for the Galkoff project was advertised it was perfect timing as Susan was already experienced in researching family trees, having completed her own and friend’s histories.

She was attracted to the project because it was something she already had an interest in, plus there was going to be training available and she would be able to learn more about work behind the scenes of the museum. Susan has been part of the Galkoff’s and Pembroke Place team since the beginning. She started by researching the whole of Liverpool to uncover names and key information before honing in on Pembroke Place and the surrounding streets.

The findings have really followed Susan around, she has delivered a presentation to a women’s group and has another planned for Crosby Library in February 2019. She also takes her stories into a nursing home which excites everyone, they’re all excited to hear about the scandal that she has discovered. Even when attending a historical tour at the Royal Court theatre Susan was able to make connections to her research, which prompted them to do more of their own research and invite her back for coffee.

The work that Susan has undertaken has been varied to say the least! Her research started by exploring the residents of Watkinson Terrace court housing, looking at migration histories; next was her work looking into fabric and garment occupations in the area and there were definitely some weird and wonderful jobs – Ostrich Feather Cleaner anyone?

Following this came a very specific research request: Susan was asked to look in to the area’s reputation for prostitution and brothels, well it wasn’t called ‘Little Hell’ for nothing! Susan says “I never thought that I would be so thrilled to research brothels!” Her research has unearthed a number of salacious things, but one tale of a woman who regularly appeared in court for the brothels she was accused of owning has inspired Susan to write a book about her, which she plans on publishing. From what I’ve now been told, I can see a BBC drama in the making! Susan is right when she says “you couldn’t have invented any of this!”

Susan is so enthused when she is talking about her research; she was unable to pinpoint just one thing as her favourite memory from volunteering, but did explain the excited feeling when you track down a key fact as a “gotcha” moment. For Susan, being a volunteer is akin to being a detective, the investigations have taken over her life.

I asked Liz about the impact Susan and other volunteers have had on the project and her response is perfect - “The ‘Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place’ project has been made by the volunteers who worked on it – nearly seventy people in total! The volunteers did a range of activities: including research, building recording, finds processing, and geophysics. It was probably the documentary research which most people did most of, and which was most inspiring to them. This research has fed into six research reports, now part of the project archive, which fed into the exhibition content, online content, blogs, answers to enquiries, and will be a research resource going forward. Susan’s research has been thorough, detailed, and fascinating –she’s picked up stories and followed them, uncovering fascinating people and their (often insalubrious) lives!

We wanted to involve volunteers in the ‘Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place’ project to engage them in the heritage of Liverpool, to help them build skills and experiences, and to provide people with an interest, a focus, and a team to work with to a common goal. We have benefitted hugely from all the research they’ve done – revealing an amazing array of stories and investigating long forgotten archives to explore past lives and the secrets hidden in the history of the street. Susan was one of more than 70 volunteers who assisted in the development of the Galkoff's and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place exhibition, which was produced in partnership with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM).

You can visit the Galkoff's and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place exhibition in The People’s Republic gallery at the Museum of Liverpool.