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The Workhouse at Southwell

The Workhouse at Southwell

The grim mill-like building stands on the outskirts of Southwell, a place that still strikes fear into the hearts of people old enough to remember when it was a shelter of last resort.

Brian Spencer traces the history of the by-gone system of caring for the poor and dispossessed.

Up and down the country, roughly 15-20 miles apart stand grim and many not so grim buildings, the remnants of a system of caring for the poor and destitute. Even though many have been converted into cottage hospitals and care homes, they are still looked on by some as the dreaded ‘workhouse’, where those who couldn’t look after themselves ended their days.  Caring for such people had, until the dissolution of the monasteries, been the responsibility of religious orders, but after Henry VIII’s edict it became the duty of local churches or philanthropic neighbours to support those who fell on hard times.  There was no state provision for the sick and old, or the pauper who whilst capable of work, was unable to support him or herself.

Closing the monasteries came at a time when the population was moving from the countryside to the towns and by the time of Queen Elizabeth 1st reign the situation was so bad that the ad-hoc system of care was inadequate. After the Dissolution, several laws were passed in an attempt to alleviate the problem.  Basically they were designed to provide work for the poor, shelter for the old and sick, and punishment for vagrants and beggars.  Each parish was made responsible for its own poor and dispossessed, leading to the expression ‘living on the parish’ that was still in common use not all that long ago. Funds for this were collected by taxing those who owned and occupied property, the forerunner of our Council Taxes. Ratepayers elected parish ‘overseers’ who administered what was known as ‘relief’, as assistance to the poor became known.

The ‘relief’ system was consolidated in an Act of 1601, later known as the Old Poor Law.  The main aims of the Act were to find work for those who could work, and to shelter those who could not, due to age or disability.  This law survived with very few amendments for over 200 years.  However, during that time pressures brought about by the beginnings of industrialisation, or returning soldiers and sailors from Queen Elizabeth’s war with King Philip of Spain, were putting the care system under great strain.  Within the space of a few years, the cost of caring for those unable to help themselves was spiralling out of control.  In an attempt to deal with the problem, individual parishes tried various ways of containing the increasing pressures on the poor rates. Some of these methods ranged from subsidising low wages when those in work needed help, to ‘job creation’ schemes where able-bodied men earned relief carrying out often pointless tasks.

Some parishes set aside buildings to be used as workshops or places with sheltered accommodation. These became known as poorhouses, workhouses, or houses of industry.  While some were nothing better than crude night shelters, others were equipped for daytime working, or somewhere to sleep for those who were lucky enough to have outside work.  Almshouses often dating back to some medieval benefactor’s endowment still housed the old and helpless, but these were paid for by charities and were therefore outside the taxed system.

Public attitudes varied.  On one side was a degree of pity for those unable to help themselves, but others were blamed as being idle and spendthrift.  By the early 19th century the cost of poor relief in England and Wales had risen from £4 million to almost £8 million within fifteen years from 1803.  Due to a combination of pressures ranging from industrialisation, land enclosures and the rising population, workers felt they were being robbed of their economic freedom.  This led to riots and a growing unease among the wealthier land-owning classes.

Parliament and reformers constantly discussed schemes to change and improve the poor laws, but with very little result.  It was not until reformers such as the Nottingham based Rev. J.T. Becher came up with the idea of the workhouse system.  In a pamphlet called The Antipauper System he described how by providing a small workhouse for the parish of Southwell, he had reduced the poor rates by 75% in three years. With its success Becher was able to encourage 49 surrounding parishes to pool their resources on a larger and more efficient scale.  In 1824 a bigger and better planned new workhouse was built on land on the outskirts of Southwell.  This is the building now owned by the National Trust.

The Royal Commission set up to administer the poor laws considered the design of Southwell workhouse to be the ideal way of ‘improving the moral demeanour’ of the poor.  The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, highlighted this fact and Southwell became a major influence on the design of workhouses throughout the nation.   Basically Southwell workhouse is a two-storied structure with male and female dormitories accessed by a single staircase.  Workrooms and exercise yards were also segregated with the whole ambience not unlike a prison.

In order to be cost effective many parishes combined into unions, covering a radius of about ten miles and by 1839, almost 600 unions were operating in England and Wales.  Anyone applying for relief would, unless they could be more effectively helped financially, was directed to the local workhouse, but in practice more people were helped outside the workhouse than in.  The strict regime once inside was designed to deter anyone seeking an easy option; able-bodied paupers and vagrants were made to carry out unpaid menial and arduous tasks.  The old and infirm would be housed, but not subjected to the same strict regime.  Each place had a small paid staff and was run by a committee of unpaid ratepayers, elected by the parish.

Life in the workhouse was never intended to be easy. Officially only the Guardian’s Committee could admit anyone down on their luck, but in an emergency they could simply turn up at the workhouse gate and be admitted into one of the casual wards by the Workhouse Master.  Here they would stay until the next committee meeting when arrangements could be made for their care.  Often especially if it was a case of financial need, this would be given and the applicant sent away, but in the case of sickness or old age, entry into the building was usually  a point of no return.  Widows and their children were cared for in the same way and all lived on a simple diet, only varied by holidays such as Easter and Christmas; their children were given a basic education.  Once a child reached the age of twelve they were often sent away to become apprentices.  This frequently meant they were used as cheap labour in the rapidly expanding cotton mills up and down the country and they were lucky if they became full time employees at the end of their apprenticeships.  Work for those capable was usually stone breaking for men and laundry work or picking oakum (splitting off the fibres of old rope) for women.  Vagrants, tramps and the like had to turn up at the workhouse gates at around five o’clock in the afternoon.  On admission they were given a bath and their clothes fumigated.  In the morning they had to carry out some heavy duty task before being allowed out again. In more recent times leading up to the closure of Southwell workhouse, homeless families could live together in one room and kitchen, temporary accommodation converted from one of the old dormitories.

Following the National Trust’s takeover of Southwell Workhouse, restoration work uncovered many of the Rev. Becher’s original features, such as the communal privies later superseded by water closets, or the dark coloured paintwork on the dormitory walls.  As many of these original links with the past have been left untouched, a poignant link with an early form of social security, but whether its modern replacement is better or worse is open to debate.

Southwell Workhouse is open 12-5pm Wednesday to Sunday mid February – end July and September – early November.  August open all week from 12-5pm


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