Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Workhouse

I am enjoying revisiting old haunts and discovering new ones in my original 'home' area in Nottinghamshire. My late mother's apartment is up for sale but until we sell it (and it looks as though it may take a while) I am making the most of a very comfortable holiday home!

I had never been to the building shown above before... it's a Workhouse. (Nor, as far as I know, were any of my ancestors forced to sample its delights - though anyone who watched Una Stubbs on 'Who Do You Think You Are' on TV recently will have seen her exploring just such a connection.) This magnificent building, just outside Southwell, is now in the care of The National Trust, and it has a fascinating history.

The poor, destitute and infirm in Britain were at one time cared for by neighbours, the church, charities or monks in the monasteries. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and as people began to move from the countryside into towns, the problem became more acute. At the end of the 16th century each parish area was made responsible for its own poor, and a tax was levied from ratepayers. They elected parish overseers to administer the 'relief'. The Old Poor Law system survived for over 200 years but gradually began to break down as costs rose. Individual parishes tried many ways to manage the problem and some set aside buildings (poorhouses or workhouses) to house paupers.

In 1828, in Nottinghamshire, Rev John Thomas Becher encouraged a group of 49 local parishes to pool their resources and to build a new, much larger, workhouse, on open land just outside Southwell. This proved a more efficient way to operate and became the model for over 600 such buildings across the country, enshrined in the New Poor Law of 1834.

The new system was designed to deter people from seeking this support, catering for people's need without in any way making it a desirable option. Inmates were classified: the old and infirm (the blameless poor) and the able-bodied (the idle and profligate) who had to carry out menial and arduous tasks, running the workhouse under the eye of a small staff - the Governor, Matron and a schoolteacher.  Men, women and young children were kept strictly apart, families only being able to get together briefly on Sundays. They received very basic food and medical care, and their own clothes were taken away (to deter people from running away) although it was not a prison and people usually entered and left voluntarily. Many people, particularly in the countryside, came and went, working as labourers on farms in the summer and going back to the workhouse in the winter.

This building near Southwell continued in use right up until the 1990s, though it changed and developed as needs, politics and attitudes altered. Workhouses, as such, ceased with the introduction of the Welfare State in 1948 (though increasingly people had been separated and treated in more specialist institutions - hospitals, children's homes, asylums). The workhouse building in Southwell was used in the 1970s/80s as a refuge for mothers and children, temporary accommodation until they could be found a permanent home.


  1. I think you will have to explore it sometime!

  2. Jennyfreckles, you should have been a historian. This is a wonderful explanation. I have heard the phrase "workhouse," but I would not have been able to explain it. (Fine photo, too.)


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