Life and Times in the Workhouse (29-3-18)
The latest talk In the Heritage Group's series of Open Meetings took place in the Memorial Hall at 7.30pm on Tuesday 27 March.
Our speaker for the evening was Colin Deeley, who regularly addresses Family and Local History groups in our area on a number of subjects. Colin`s theme for the evening was based on the history of the Workhouse in Southwell and how its inmates fared under the system. As a volunteer at this National Trust property he is particularly familiar with his subject.
The Workhouse at Southwell is regarded as a blueprint for the ~ 600 establishments which existed across the length and breadth of the country for many years. It was in a poor state when it was acquired by the National Trust in around 1998, and they set about renovation work with help from a Lottery Grant.
Going back to the beginning, the idea of support for the poor and needy was first created after 1601, when what became known as the Old Poor Law was established. For the next 200 years this took the form of payment in kind, for basics such as food, clothing and other vital necessities. However, when this became unsustainable in cost terms, the process was changed in 1795 to providing cash payments, the so-called ‘outpayments’.
Even so, in 1834 it was recognised that outpayment costs could be radically reduced by housing the deserving and infirm together, and the concept of the Workhouse was born, under the auspices of the New Poor Law. At this point in his talk, Colin pointed out that the old Nottingham Workhouse still exists, but now serves as a Baptist church.
The format of a Workhouse was made standard. There was a Master and a Matron in charge and they had to be a married couple! In addition, there was a Clerk, a Chaplain and a Medical Officer to look after the health of the inmates. Also, two Schoolteachers were employed to educate the children of the Workhouse for four hours each morning, while afternoons were devoted to learning a trade.
Throughout the Workhouse the practice of segregation of men, women and children applied, as well as separation of the Able-bodied from the Old and Infirm. However, `socialising` was permitted between 6pm and 8pm each day.
Other facilities were provided, such as exercise yards, and also buildings to provide shelter if weather was bad – so that work could be continued. Otherwise, work was hard. For the Able- bodied men this consisted mainly of breaking stone to a small enough size to be used for road- building. The worst job, generally left to women, was the unpicking of tarred ships ropes, called Oakum, for resale by the Master. This was beneficial, however, since the Master often spent the proceeds on the inmates. Hence the saying “Money for old rope”.
The Workhouse also could accommodate vagrants. These were originally allowed to stay for one night, and were each allocated a blanket and a wooden board to sleep on. Thus originated the term “ Bed and board”. Later, the stay was extended to two nights to allow vagrants some time to look for work in the locality. In the same way, the able-bodied men were allowed to go out on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the purpose of finding work.
The same rules and regulations applied to all Workhouses, and these were displayed for all to see. However, since most inmates were illiterate, the rules and regulations were also read out to them at appropriate intervals The running of the Workhouse was overseen by 62 appointed Guardians, who were obliged to meet at the Workhouse every two weeks. In practice, there were rarely more than 11 attendees at these meetings.
Accommodation in the Workhouse was sparse. The Master and Matron had their own furnished rooms, complete with a flushing toilet, while the boys` and girls` dormitories were situated on either side of these rooms so that they could get help if needed. There was also a necessary item – the mortuary, known as `The Dead Room`! since the Workhouse originally were responsible for the burial of its inmates. Later, this responsibility was taken over by the Parish Authorities.
To bring the story up to date, Colin concluded his talk by describing the subsequent improvements to the Workhouse facilities. Firstly, a new mortuary was built in the 1920`s, followed by a second and then a third infirmary. The Workhouse, along with the system, finally closed at the beginning of 1930, when the building was converted to bedsits for women and children. This was discontinued in 1977, although the last occupiers left in 1987. As Colin explained, the National Trust then acquired the building in 1998, when they set about restoring it for future generations to enjoy.
A splendid and informative presentation which was well- deserving of the final applause from the members and visitors.