Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire
IN THESE AUSTERE TIMES it’s sometimes worth looking backwards to some of the grimmer images from the past and making a comparison of people’s lot from previous eras. In the year of 1824 Reverend J. T. Becher, a local magistrate, designed the revolutionary Southwell Workhouse with an aim to provide an economic model to assist the poor while at the same time reducing the burden on tax payers in the locality. Based on a concept of indoor relief for the poor, the institution was created to be as ‘repulsive’ as possible to paupers. It’s success saw it copied in many other parishes all over the country with it’s main principles of design and operation becoming a template for other similar institutions.
Perhaps many people’s image of a workhouse comes from the bleak impression offered in Dickens’ Oliver Twist with it’s stark images of gruel on the table and a deprived Twist pleading for ‘more’. The fact remains though that workhouse walls were not built to an insurmountable level, these were not prisons or houses of correction but rather places which the poor volunteered themselves to. Considering how grim life may have potentially been beyond those walls, conditions inside may certainly have been the lesser of two hard options. At least there was food, however basic for needs and shelter.
Segregated bathing facilities and laundry
Upon entering Southwell Workhouse, entrant’s clothes were taken from them and a rough uniform issued. Men and women were strictly segregated into different areas of the building, never seeing each other, whilst children were separated from their parents. The latter whilst seeming extremely cruel was reasoned to be good for the children as their parents had not been a good influence on them, it was explained to me by a friendly and knowledgeable guide. In a sense, though harsh, the workhouse could offer relatively greater benefits to children as they received an education – something which would have been unlikely on the outside.
Adult men and women were put to work, often very menial, in and around the house. Favoured employment tasks given to the ‘idle and profligate’ were the unpicking of rope which was very hard on the hands and breaking up stones for the making of roads. Other jobs included cleaning, laundering, preparing food and tending vegetable and fruit crops and a cow house. It was a regimented day, restricted to few rooms and an exercise yard. Food was basic, boiled meat being a staple. Dark and damp cellars were utilised for food preparation.
Cellars and a window to the world
Staffing levels were very low compared to the inmates who could number over 150. This consisted of a Master and Matron, teachers and a clerk who worked part-time. Master and Matron were a married couple and lived in very comfortable accommodation within the building.
Perhaps some of the more intriguing moments of a visit to Southwell Workhouse surround the male and female exercise yards. These were designed to be overlooked from the Master’s residence windows. Only a small pocket exists where the inmates could be out of sight and here are forms of old games scratched into the red brick walls of the workhouse and still viewable.
Master and Matron’s residence overlooking the exercise yards
My favourite part of the visit however, was a room depicting more modern times. In the 1960/70s rooms were used for the likes of young single mothers without a home. To enter the workhouse as accommodation helped them to rise up the council house waiting list it was explained to me. Artefacts of that area are on display in a dormitory room where such mothers lived and brought up youngsters, until moving on.
Southwell Workhouse it seemed to me was basically a functional concept which achieved what it set out to do, though in a sometimes unnecessarily harsh and cruel way at times, as maybe befitted the area in which it was created. It is also an interesting contrast to the beautiful, historic and feature full Nottinghamshire town it lies on the edge of. During my visits I have never accompanied a visitor who was not thoroughly impressed and intrigued by the old establishment. I would urge you to take a look for yourself.
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