95. The Workhouse, Southwell – 2/10/2016

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The Southwell Workhouse is never listed as such in the NT literature but always as The Workhouse, Southwell, and after my visit I can see why as to all intents and purposes, it deserves to be called The Workhouse. It was the first of its kind in the country, established by the Reverend John Thomas Becher, the Vicar-General of Southwell Minster, in 1824 after he had persuaded 49 local parishes in the area (and later 61) to pool their resources and build a new workhouse to share the burden of poverty. It was held up as an example of a successful project and led to the New Poor Law being introduced nationwide in 1834, which ultimately led to the creation of almost 600 unionised workhouses across England and Wales by 1839.

Not only was it a pioneer in its field but it also had a positive reputation throughout its history and was one of the longest lasting of the workhouses, albeit with its function changing to hospital and nursing home and later to accommodation for homeless mothers and children and a centre for ‘meals on wheels’. It was only closed completely in the 1990s. After a property developer’s plans to turn it into apartments fell through it was acquired by the National Trust in 1997 for what seemed a very lowly sum of less than £200,000! Unfortunately, it took rather more than this to renovate the property – we’re talking millions rather than thousands – and it wasn’t opened to the public until 2002.

A lot of this information is included in the guidebook but once again I cannot recommend the guided tour highly enough as you will pick up so much more than the basic facts. Our guide used to be a member of the NT staff at The Workhouse and was actually the creator of the first ‘welcome tour’ (as an emergency measure to keep early arrivees entertained) so he was full of stories and by the end of the tour we were actually overtaken by one that had started a lot later than ours! I would say that we really got our money’s worth but the tour is free for all paying visitors and NT members.

Our guide dispelled a number of myths about workhouses, which have had a bad reputation – particularly in literature – for many years. He insisted that people were ‘offered’ a place at the Workhouse and were never forced to go there. They were also free to leave at any time (as long as they left their donated workhouse clothes behind!) and some treated the workhouse as a revolving door, working on the land during the summer and returning to the workhouse when the harvest was done, so in rural areas workhouse populations were much higher in the winter. This is not to say that life was all sunshine and roses in the workhouse – the work was purposely hard and tedious, from scrubbing and washing to stone-breaking and oakum picking (pulling apart rough rope to free up the softer fibres). There were also times when inmates were given totally purposeless tasks, such as turning a crank that wasn’t fixed to anything, just to ensure that they were working hard. At the same time, able-bodied inmates were also treated disparagingly and were described as the undeserving poor (idle and profligate) as opposed to the old and infirm who were seen as blameless.

So, all in all, the workhouse was no picnic and the toil and stigma were both such that it discouraged people from using it without absolute need. The founding principle was that a successful workhouse was an empty workhouse. However, although it was a last resort for most, the workhouse was particularly popular with unmarried mothers, some of whom may actually have been forced from the family home on purpose so that they would end up in the workhouse where they would be given free health care during the birth. Many were then almost miraculously reconciled with their families after the child was born.

Our tour featured so many titbits like this, highlighting the mass of contradictions that is the workhouse. There were grisly locations such as the ‘Dead Room’ (self explanatory) and the ‘Refractory Cell’ for punishment of bad behaviour; sad stories about the segregation of husbands, wives and children; but also uplifting tales, with inmate children each being given an education and assistance in finding a position.

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A volunteer pauper peeling potatoes

Having had such a comprehensive tour around the outside of the workhouse and its outbuildings (including the ‘modern’ morgue added in the 1920s), we chose not to take the free audio guide for our walk around the inside rooms. There are actually very few contents inside the workhouse so I imagine the audio guide simply repeats a lot of what we heard on our tour about life inside its walls. The refurbished building probably looks a lot more welcoming than it may have done to a 19th century pauper (particularly on a sunny October morning with blue skies above) but the stark interiors help to build an atmosphere of what it may once have been like, as do the volunteer paupers who were on site today to share their miseries.

It is certainly the human stories that really make this an interesting visit and you may experience various emotions during your visit. One thing that made me ponder was how much and, at the same time, how little has changed. A special exhibition inside highlights the development of the welfare state, which has taken us well away from the idea of workhouses, but still some people describe those on welfare as ‘work-shy’ (i.e. the undeserving poor). A Victorian quote painted on the shop wall reports how the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, which also has parallels with today, as Britain has recently being shown to have one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in the developed world.

If these thoughts start to bog you down, though, passing through the shop on the way out, you might get a chuckle from the Victorian iPads on sale for just £3.75!

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Highlights: The Welcome Tour

Refreshments: Tuna and sweetcorn sandwich, crisps

Purchase(s): Guidebook, two onions and some French beans (Yes, you did read that right! Some volunteer paupers were selling freshly harvested garden produce)

Companion(s): Mum

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