On what turned out to be an exceptionally sunny day in May I decided to head out to The Workhouse in Southwell. It’s a National Trust property and although it’s a bit of a trek to get to on public transport, it proved to be well worth a visit.
Built in 1824 and designed to house around 160 inmates in strictly segregated areas it is the most complete workhouse to still exist. Many of the rooms inside are empty, as you’ll see below, but there is an excellent audio guide that does a good job of giving you an idea about how each room would have looked. There is also an introductory video at the beginning of your self-guided tour by an actor playing the role of Rev. John Thomas Becher who masterminded the workhouse system in Southwell, which was more interesting than a lot of these videos tend to be and gave a good grounding in the workhouse system and how the inmates would be treated.
The video and the audio guide explains how the children, men and women were all kept separate, their own clothes taken from them on entry and replaced by workhouse uniforms. The children would have lessons, at first in the school room on site, and later at local schools and the men and women who were able would work at laborious jobs, often which had no real purpose other than to give them something to do. The idea was that the workhouse jobs would be far harder than any work they might undertake outside of the workhouse, ensuring no one would want to take advantage of the workhouse system if they didn’t have to. And for those who were infirm or too elderly to work, they could at least find shelter in the workhouse.
The guide directs both outside, into the exercise courts (the photo above shows the privy area) as well as inside and gives you a sense of how regimented life in the building could be. Although many of the rooms seem large without much furniture in them, there are enough displays on hand to show just how cramped space could be for the inmates. Naturally the Master would have had one of the largest rooms, as below,
but you can also see in this example of an able bodied women’s dormitory what the sleeping conditions were like,
and what the conditions were like down in the cellars where the food was stored and prepared by the women before being taken upstairs to the kitchen for cooking.
The kitchen also contains examples of the food that the residents of the Workhouse would have eaten, as detailed on the below poster:
Another aspect of this workhouse in particular I hadn’t been familiar with, was that it was still housing people until fairly recently. One of the rooms is decked out as a bedsit, as it would have been used by mothers and their children in the 1970’s who were waiting for more permanent council housing. It’s one of the few rooms that includes historical details, and shows just how vital the Workhouse’s continued to be.
There is also the opportunity to walk around the recreated Victorian vegetable garden, which is maintained by volunteers, and which contains over 100 different varieties of fruit and vegetables that can be purchased in the Workhouse shop. (I purchased some quite delicious blackcurrant curd myself).
The Workhouse is a really interesting place to visit, with an informative guide and very friendly and helpful staff and volunteers. Definitely somewhere worth visiting if you’re interested in local or Victorian history.
You can find more of my pictures at my Flickr here.