Monday, 2 August 2010

Southwell Minster and Workhouse..I ramble on a bit.

It's taking time to realize that I can go through life without looking at my watch all the time. Being sans dog means no walkies to have to get back for 3 times a day. I can get up when I like and spend the afternoon in a pub if I want to. Odd.

Sooo, yesterday, we spent the first whole day out that we have done in ages. We visited Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, and then on to the Southwell Workhouse.

The minster was a beautiful building and we had lunch in it's cafeteria. Sadly it involved lentils and gave me wind!

When my children were younger, I used to pin poetry to the loo walls. (hey, what can I say? I was a keen Mother!) At Christmas time, this used to change to seasonal poetry, including Christmas in the Workhouse, which used to reduce us all to tears.  So it was with mixed feelings that I entered Southwell Workhouse.

Workhouses were built to discourage the poor from claiming poor relief. The 1834 Poor Law made local Parishes responsible for the welfare of paupers, so the response by ratepayers was to build new purpose built work houses for their care, whilst at the same time cutting the costs involved. Eventually there were 600 Union workhouses across the country.

The idea was to make the conditions inside harsh and uncompromising so that people tried to manage without going into them. The dread in Victorian society was that able bodied people who could work, wouldn't, because life was easier for them to scrounge off the Parish ie "the idle and undeserving." (a saying which is available tattooed around the mugs and gruel bowls on sale in the shop)

 So, we have to assume that they succeeded in that and you only went to a workhouse if there was no alternative. There was space in the Southwell workhouse for 158 paupers from 49 local parishes. On arrival, families were split into male, female and children, and were kept separate.  Clothes were taken and stored for when they left, and a uniform given. Everyone was washed and examined by a doctor, before being taken to their workplace/dormitory.

The old Poor Law divided the poverty stricken into three categories: the 'able-bodied' poor who could not find employment or as they called them, "the rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars who were to be whipped or otherwise punished for their disinclination to work", and the 'impotent' poor such as the old sick or handicapped, who were to be relieved in almshouses.

Life was hard and people went hungry.... punishments were beyone harsh; the one that always gets me is for an 11 year old boy who was hung for stealing a gooseberry pie; an action probably caused by hunger, but deemed a capital offence as it was a crime against property and ownership. No quarter was given, and no sympathy for the plight of a small child.

The new Poor Law divided "inmates" up into Able-bodied, Old and Infirm, and Children, and each had it's own section in the workhouse, with the Masters (who looked after the whole workhouse) quarters in the middle where he could observe closely. His wife was the Matron, and they looked after the entire building with 4 helpers, one of which was the children's teacher. Medical help, and other help, was given by part timers who came into the workhouse when paid to do so.

Every able bodied person was expected to work for their keep. The women cooked, cleaned and looked after the housekeeping and the men did stonebreaking, hole digging, oakum picking, and many other boring menial tasks. They were deliberately interminable to discourage people from entering, or staying longer than absolutely necessary. Whitewashing walls seemed to be a job done very frequently at Southwell.

Having said that, and looking at the positives, the workhouse was completely self sufficient, having it's own cows for meat and milk and large gardens for growing produce. The entire workhouse was cleaned from top to bottom every week, and was proud that it was without fleas or bedbugs...something extraordinary for the period. Food was protein heavy, and inmates were fed 3 times a day. There were tobacco rations for the men, and boiled sweets for the women. Everyone got up at either 6 or 7am depending on the season, and worked for 12 hours. They had an hour for breakfast, an hour for lunch and half an hour for supper. They all went to bed at 8pm.

This photo is of the toilets. Holes in the ground with a wall for modesty.

Children were separated from their parents from the start and were kept apart (even the staircases were separate for men/women/and amazingly clever criss crossing of stairwells that you could only see the underneaths of) This seems cruel, and was, but each child received an education which they wouldn't have received outside the workhouse. It was viewed as a way out of poverty, which I thought was quite enlightened.  It's my personal opinion, that in the days before birth control, segregation may have come as a relief to some, especially as the mortality rate for women and children was extremely high.Remember also, that we still, in this country, send very small children miles away from home, to boarding schools, supposedly for their educational and social benefit.

Now, having said that, there was an assumption by the Victorians that able bodied people could work and were being lazy and therefore had to be punished for it. But the poor law was aimed primarily at agricultural poverty, and took no account of the lack of available work caused by the growing Industrial Revolution. This caused even more disastrous problems before people like Booth and Rowntree emphasised the importance of economic factors..unemployment and low wages...rather than moral factors in causing poverty.

It wasn't until 1948 that the national system of poor relief was finally ended when the National Insurance Act of 1911 began to provide social insurance and it was gradually extended to become universal in 1946. For which we say Thank The Plop For That, and even though the NHS and Welfare State occasionally limp along, it was an attempt, a start, at equality and care for everyone. Knowing that if you or someone you love is sick, and will receive medical treatment regardless of who or what you are and that it is free for everyone, is a comfort beyond measure.

Sorry to rabbit on...I like social history! See what an afternoon sans dog will bring you!


  1. A really interesting post Annabel :) I've been to Southwell Minster but not to the Workhouse. They might not have let me out! The segregation does seem cruel but you have a point about some of its benefits.

  2. i love social history too and Victorian england seems to have been such a mix of enlightenment and punishment...

    poor child who stole the pie - shame he wasn't sent out here instead or was it after they stopped exporting convicts?

  3. Julie: Snort! I'm sure they would.

    Lisette: Perhaps it was an expensive pie?

    Most of the convicts were thieves who had been convicted in the great cities of England. Transportation was an integral part of the English and Irish systems of punishment. It was a way to deal with increased poverty. Simple larceny, or robbery, could mean transportation for seven years. Compound larceny - stealing goods worth more than a shilling (about £20 in today's money) - meant death by hanging.

  4. Oh, and something else I've just found out. Women were transported for their first offence but men were allowed to make several offences before being transported. Inequality or what? I guess part of the reason for transportation was the desire to exploit other countries..and this meant increasing the working population in them. To do so needs more women than men. Just my supposition there.

    Also just re-read that murder was often dealt more leniently with than theft as the latter was an offence against property rather than person.

  5. It's hard to imagine a time when people didn't have a lot of "things" the way we do now, when property defined social position to the extent that you had to have a certain amount of property to vote - and earlier when a household inventory would scarcely fill a page. Also the attitudes to sanctity of life were different then. History is challenging!

  6. Yes, it's very difficult to get under the skin of the times and imagine what it was truly like to be living then. I've just bought a book about workhouses as the visit has sparked off an interest and it's a subject I don't know a great deal about. Although Southwell seems to have been well run, I'm not niaive enough to think that there wasn't a great deal of corruption and suffering as a result.

    And it's true about what you say on the sanctity of life being thought of in a different way throughout history. At times it seems to me that the veneer of civilisation us dangerously thin, and my worry is how easy it is to slip back into thinking that way.

  7. I have driven past Southwell workhouse for the past seven years on the way to my parents house but never visited. I think I am going to give myself permission now. I wonder why we never normally visit the things on our own doorsteps?

  8. FTS: Good point. I really should go to the theatre in Stratford more!