Friday, 6 September 2013

Images of The Workhouse

The Workhouse, Southwell, is quite sparsely furnished. Little remains of the original furniture and The National Trust in the restoration has chosen to evoke an atmosphere rather than try to reproduce exactly how it would have looked. But you can get an impression... The windows, though overlooking fields and the vegetable garden, have locks and the Governor would have chosen whether they were open or closed. With little heating apart from a few small coal fires, the building would no doubt have been freezing cold much of the time. The curious curved walls in the yard are the only latrines, four in total, one for each 'class' of resident - able-bodied men, able-bodied women, infirm men and infirm women. They are merely holes in the ground, draining to the outside where the 'night-soil collectors' could take away the waste.

Beds in cramped dormitories had straw mattresses and thin blankets, and a 'guzunder'! (Imagine the stench of unwashed bodies, urine.... and the bed bugs too!) TB was rife. Southwell's workhouse, however, took most of its water supply from rainwater collected from the roof into a huge underground storage tank, and being in a country area this was relatively pure, so records suggest that they did not suffer cholera outbreaks like many city workhouses. 

The women did laundry, cleaning, hard scrubbing of the stone floors (rather poignantly, you can see dark shadows where the beds would have been and lighter areas that have been well-scrubbed for years) and cooking. Vegetables (potatoes) were prepared in the damp cellars, which often stood inches deep in water and were lit only by tallows. Men tended the garden, broke stones up for roads, picked old bones clean for fertiliser and unpicked tarry old rope (oakum). Some of the work was purposeful but much was not, simply there to occupy the inmates with hard work and to act as a deterrent. 

The table shows the prescribed and cheap diet - enough to keep people alive but not enough that it made the workhouse an attractive option. Breakfast and supper were bread and gruel, a kind of thin porridge. Lunch (dinner) was broth (thin soup) and bread on three days, boiled meat and potatoes on three days and suet pudding on Saturday. Any misbehaviour (fighting, refusing to work, running away in the workhouse clothes) was punished, by having bread or potatoes instead of the usual meal. Repeated or serious offending was punished by solitary confinement in a dark windowless cell. Punishments were decided by the Board of Guardians who ran the workhouse, rather than by the Governor.

It all sounds horrendous by modern standards - but bear in mind that this was at the same time that Sir Titus Salt was building Saltaire, in order to get his workforce out of the disgusting, insanitary, unhealthy conditions in the crowded cities. So a clean, well-kept building in the countryside, with regular meals, might actually not have been so bad after all.


  1. Today we dream about Jane Austen's or Brontë's times ,finding this very beautiful and romantic . But people from that time surely had an other point of view!

  2. Very interesting. I'm reminded of some of the novels by Charles Dickens!

  3. That row of beds looks a lot like my Army barracks did back in the late '60s. I hated it.

  4. It does have a nice view from that window. Nice photos.


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