The Workhouse at Southwell

Anyone who has read Dickens will have heard of ‘the workhouse’ and the fear it struck into the hearts of some of the poorest people in society. Although the initial intentions of setting workhouses up may have been admirable, stories about just how harsh, strict, austere and, in some cases, cruel, these places were still linger today.

So what, exactly, were these ‘workhouses’, when were they set up and why?

In the early 1800s, the rising cost of caring for the poor and elderly in their own homes was unpopular with ratepayers. It was Reverend Becher in the town of Southwell in Nottinghamshire, who devised a new system to cut these costs.

A network of hundreds of specially designed workhouses, 15-20 miles apart, was set up across the country as part of the most ambitious welfare construction ever attempted in Britain: the New Poor Law of 1834. Workhouses were places where the poorest people in society had to work in return for food, shelter and medical care. Life inside was intended to be basic and dull, so that only those people in real need (paupers) could find shelter there, while those who weren’t destitute wouldn’t ask for help, knowing they’d be sent to the workhouse.

The people who set up the Poor Law didn’t intend to be cruel, only fair and efficient, yet workhouses were an odd combination of care and deterrence. ‘Inmates’ were fed, housed and clothed, but the stigma on those who went there, together with the hard, tedious work and sometimes, corrupt staff, ensured workhouses were places of last resort. They not only catered for the most poor, but also for the elderly without work, deserted wives, unmarried mothers, children without parents and those with physical and/or mental disabilities. They also took in vagrants/tramps and offered them a meal and a bed for the night. Altogether, the Workhouse at Southwell could accommodate 158 paupers.

In the model of the Southwell workhouse below, we can see how the ‘wings’ to either side of the central section separated the men women and children – something so hard for most families to bear. The central area largely provided accommodation for the Master and Matron, with the children’s dormitory and schoolroom on the very top floor. Later on, a new schoolroom was built attached to the workhouse and can be seen to the far left of this model. Men were housed in the wing to the right of the front door (blue in the model) and women in the (yellow) wing to the left:

The plan below shows the layout of the site and the notes explain a little about different areas:

The workhouse staff was headed by the Master, who reported to elected Governors who were answerable to the taxpayers. The Master, who was often seen as cruel and corrupt, had responsibility for the day to day running of the house. The most important woman in the workhouse was the Matron, who would simply have been the Master’s wife in the earlier years of the system, with no formal qualifications. As nursing standards rose, things changed, and later matrons were expected to have the necessary nursing qualifications.

The Schoolteacher’s job was not an enviable one and the turnover of teaching staff was high. Schoolteacher’s were badly paid and of low status, despite high standards being expected from them by the school inspectors. It was usually a live-in job which involved supervising the children throughout the day as well as instructing them in the classroom. The Guardians abolished the Workhouse school at Southwell in 1885, and children were sent to local schools instead.

On entering the Workhouse, all new inmates were bathed and given the workhouse clothes/uniform to wear:

    Inmates were also categorised, with future treatment and daily workload in mind:
  • Able bodied (separate groups for men and women)
  • The old and infirm (also separate groups)
  • Children

1. Able bodied men and women were called ‘idle and profligate’ or, ‘the undeserving poor’. These people were considered to be physically capable of work but were not employed due to their own idleness, incompetence or lack of training – although it was often due to the general levels of unemployment and scarcity of work and not their own fault at all! Consequently, jobs in the workhouse for these people were hard and were what gave the workhouse its name. One of the jobs for able-bodied men was splitting rocks (or old bones for fertilizer) out in the men’s  yard at the back of the workhouse. They could also be given decorating duties, turning a mill handle and digging in the gardens.

Able bodied women generally came to the workhouse due to loss of a husband, or because the husband was out of work or she and a low-paid husband could not afford to keep a large number of children. These women did all the everyday housework, including cleaning the building and scrubbing stone floors, meal preparation and back-breaking clothes washing – which was done in buckets or bowls at the pump in the yard at first, then inside the ‘wash house’ once it was built:

Women also did needlework (e.g. lace-edged doilies for selling) and knitting.

2.  The old and Infirm were also called the ‘blameless’ or ‘deserving’ poor. They were people who could no longer work due to age-related disabilities. Younger people with disabilities were also in this category. Any elderly who were able to work could be given the task of picking oakum (old tarred rope) which was then sent to be made into caulking for ships. Oakum picking was a job that any groups could also be assigned to and was very hard on the fingers.

3. While the adults were working the children would be ‘educated’, which involved 3 hours a day in the schoolroom followed by what was called ‘industrial’ work: boys often worked in the gardens while girls did needlework and cooking. Children were allowed time to play in the little playground of the schoolhouse, and a large number of hoops were recorded as being ordered. Other toys came from local benefactors.

The main meal of the day at Southwell was dinner at midday, for which inmates were given one hour. This meal consisted of boiled meat, peas and potatoes on most days with soup on others. On Saturday a simple suet pudding was served. Although bland, the food was better than what these people would have had before they came to the Workhouse. Weekly and daily allowances/rations of different foods were strictly observed as lists around the kitchen areas show:

Food allowances chart 2

The Workhouse rules were strictly adhered to and anyone who broke them was punished. Punishments were different for different offences, but often involved limiting food rations, offenders typically being given potatoes, bread or rice instead of the usual meat. Repeat offenders were given solitary confinement for 24 hours and severe cases of injury to others for example, were sent to the magistrate.

These are some of the many photos we took of different areas outside the Southwell Workhouse (including a couple taken through upstairs windows):

And these are just a few of the dozens we took inside the workhouse:

By the late 19th century the focus in workhouses had changed from that of deterring the able-bodied to providing shelter and nursing for those who could never be in work. Consequently, the numbers of  inmates and staff changed. In the earlier days at Southwell, the ratio between the two was an average of 4 members of staff to 135 inmates. By 1900 it had become fewer than 80 inmates to the 135 staff, plus a porter, a nurse and assistant nurse. Seamstresses, laundry maids cooks and gardeners soon followed – all doing jobs formerly done by inmates. New, more comfortable  furniture was brought in, chamber pots replaced earthen closets, and eventually flushing water closets. A new infirmary building was added in 1871 and  by 1905 children were being housed in separate homes or were boarded out. In 1913 workhouses became ‘institutions’, though most adopted less stigmatised names: the workhouse at Southwell, for example, became Greet House, named after the river that runs below it.

The 20th century saw huge changes in the ways the poor, the elderly and people unable to work were treated. The Welfare State, which came into being in 1948, brought financial benefits and healthcare to many people. Many former workhouses were taken over by the new National Health Service as state hospitals, and at Greet House elderly patients were moved out of the old, Victorian building into the two infirmaries – one for men, one for women – while the old building housed staff and provided kitchens for cooking residents’ food. Until 1977, the former ‘women’s wing’ of the workhouse was used as temporary ‘bed-sit’ accommodation for homeless mothers and children awaiting more permanent housing. The last residents moved out in the 1990s when a new home was especially built. This is how the ‘bedsit’ looks today:

The Work house at Southwell was left derelict for some time and fell into disrepair until 1997 when the National Trust recognised it as being ‘the best preserved workhouse standing in England and well worth saving’.

“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens, 1838. Public Domain. Illustration shows Oliver saying “Please, sir, I want some more”.

Refs: Most information taken from the book purchased, free leaflets and the information boards at the Workhouse in Southwell.