National Trust: Southwell Workhouse

Saturday, April 14, 2018

As you slowly walk up the path towards this baronial building within the town of Southwell, Nottinghamshire it's hard to imagine how the people who lived here felt. Imagine walking through the doors, knowing that you would never be able to speak, see or hear from your family members again.
Mothers separated from their children. Wives separated from their husbands, including those who were elderly and infirm.

Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire
Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire
Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire
In 1824, local parishes surrounding Southwell sent in funds to build a workhouse which would house the destitute rather than each parishes providing individual support for the poor.  The Workhouse  then in turn influenced the New Poor Law of 1834.

It was built for around 160 inmates where they lived and worked in a strict and segregated environment. The workhouse founder, Reverend J.T Becher, ran the rural workhouse to run a harsh regime which was aimed to act as a deterrent. However, Becher also had in min the moral and temporal welfare of the community and therefore helped them equip themselves, the inmates, for a better life outside.

The New Poor Law was disbanded in 1929 and the workhouses were handed over to the local authorities, subsequently Southwell was used to house the poor, homeless and elderly. It was then used as a residential home for the elderly until the National Trust took ownership.

I'm currently in the process of tracking the history behind my cottage. I discovered that when the prison at the village I live in closed, the inmates were sent to Southwell.

When you first walk round and see the empty, cold rooms it really makes you sad that there were no comforts. No pictures, blankets or personal belongings. Inmates even had to share bedrooms, up to 20 per room. Inmates had a bed and a peg for which they hung their uniform on and that was it.

Daily chores included laundry, stone breaking and string pulling to name a few and you would not get paid for this.
If you were caught playing cards, you would miss out on a meal of gruel and bread.
It sounds incredibly tough but if anything, they were teaching you skills which could in turn help you gain employment in the world. That was the aim of Southwell Workhouse.
They would take the destitute in, train them and send them back out for a second chance, even children.

We all know the Victorian era where children were sent to work in the mills, collecting scraps under the chunky machines, to me the workhouse at Southwell would be much better than that.

Within a dormitory at The Workhouse

The Kitchen within the Women's quarter

Throughout the rooms, Southwell currently have a display on. Struggle for Suffrage: Workhouse Women and the Vote, is on display until Tuesday 30th October 2018 and is celebrating Women and Power and is a textile response to the stories of women who lived and worked at The Workhouse and the Suffragettes 1918 Votes for Women. The pieces were created by the local community textile group. Some of the pieces were incredibly moving, my favourite was the one in the laundry room.

Old fashioned laundry mangle

Textile piece for the Struggle for Suffrage display
I would really recommend visiting Southwell Workhouse if you're in the area. Just like any other National Trust house, they also have a children activity so that they can understand what life was like in the Workhouse, including a dressing up room.

Tips for visiting

If you do visit, don't forget to visit the coffee shop which can be found round the back of the Workhouse. They do a range of cakes and sandwiches and you can also purchase The Workhouse crockery.

Enjoying a cuppa
The first room you go in a video plays, this will help explain the New Poor Law of 1834 through the eyes of The Workhouse owner. Your journey will then continue to the Laundry room where a volunteer will explain the layout of The Workhouse.
Take your time with your visit and never shy away from asking the volunteers questions, they have a passion to be there and stories to share.

Have you visited Southwell Workhouse, what did you think? You can find more information, including events happening at the property on the National Trust website.

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