History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
Before Becher's time, each parish was responsible for supporting the poor in their own homes. Becher and his associate, George Nicholls, created a system which invited parishes to pool their resources to operate housing for the poor on a local or regional level. The Workhouse - originally called the Thurgarton Hundred Incorporated Workhouse and later the Southwell Union Workhouse - was home to 158 inhabitants, drawn from 62 nearby parishes. The inmates used the Workhouse as a place of last resort - and its not hard to see why when you consider the life they were expected to lead.
Inmates were divided into categories; those too old or infirm to work were called Blameless, and tended to be treated with compassion. But woe betide those who were thought capable of work yet unemployed. They were called 'idle and profligate able bodied' and were expected to work for their keep, occupying their days in such tedious tasks as breaking up rock for road building or picking apart strands of rope. Everyone wore uniforms and life was intentionally kept dull, monotonous, and strictly controlled.
Following the example of Becher's Workhouse, hundreds of similar houses were opened across the country. The Southwell Workhouse was in operation for over 150 years. Then in 1929 a new Poor Law was introduced, and many of the old workhouses were converted into hospitals or social housing. The Workhouse provided temporary accommodation for the homeless until 1976, and part of the site was converted into a residential home for elderly people.
Visiting The Workhouse
I didn't know what to expect when we visited The Workshouse. Though from a distance it simply looks like a large factory, as you get closer it begins to look more and more like a prison, an impression that is only enhanced when you pass through the visitor entrance into a series of inner courtyards and begin to realise just how segregated and isolated the inmates must have been. And make no mistake, they were 'inmates', not precisely prisoners in the strictest sense of the word, but not far off it. Life must have been terribly difficult for those forced to seek shelter in places like The Workhouse.
The tiny exercise yards, with a very simple outdoor privy in one corner, are overlooked by the warden's chambers, so that even at 'rest' the inmates were watched over like criminals.
It is easy to come away from The Workhouse appalled at the conditions that the poor were forced to live under. And yet, you have to ask yourself, were conditions in the countryside any better? Most people came to the Workhouse because they had no alternative; work was hard to come by, and there was little of what we might now call social care. As harsh as life was at Southwell, it could also be harsh in the world outside the Workhouse.
I highly recommend the Workhouse for schools and families. The National Trust has done a good job showing what life was like for those who lived here, and it is a real eye-opener that should help visitors get a real sense of how difficult life was in the Victorian period if you were poor or simply unfortunate enough to have to rely on workhouses like this to survive.
About The Workhouse
Address: Upton Road, Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England, NG25 0PT
Attraction Type: Historic Building
Location: 13 miles from Nottingham on the A612.
Website: The Workhouse
National Trust - see also: National Trust memberships (official website link)
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
Southwell Minster - 0.8 miles (Cathedral)
Elston Chapel - 4.8 miles (Historic Church)
Newark Castle - 5.2 miles (Castle)
Newark on Trent, St Mary Magdalene Church - 5.4 miles (Historic Church)
Cotham, St Michael's Church - 6.6 miles (Historic Church)
Rufford Abbey - 7.6 miles (Abbey)
National Holocaust Centre - 7.9 miles (Museum)
Papplewick Pumping Station - 8 miles (Historic Building)
Nearest Accommodation to The Workhouse:
Nearest Self Catering Cottages
Nearest Bed and Breakfasts
Nearest Tourist Information Centre ('as the crow flies')
Tourist Information Centre
The Minster Centre
Tel: 01636 819038