Saturday, March 19, 2011

Southwell Workhouse

One Tuesday, we went with the college students on a field trip to the Southwell Workhouse.  It's a large beautiful building, with a fantastically interesting history.  It was my turn to enjoy the guided tour while Alan kept Cooper entertained running around the yard and picking up sticks and leaves and hunks of moss for our nature collection.  Here's what I learned.

First, some history as it relates to England taking care of its poor people.  Prior to the 1500s, monasteries provided for poor people as part of the medieval social structure.  But then Henry VIII broke from the Catholic church to become the head of the Church of England.  As monasteries declined, the country needed a new plan to care for poor people.

The Act for the Relief of the Poor (known as the Old Poor Law) was passed in 1601, and it provided that each individual parish was responsible for the poor people who lived in that parish.  In 1824, the Southwell Workhouse was built as a prototype workhouse---a building sponsored and supported by several area parishes where they could send their poor people to live.  The idea of the workhouse was to provide a centralized location for poor people to work and be cared for, rather than leaving the burden on individual parishes.  Economies of scale, if you will.

In 1832, the Poor Law Amendment Act (also known as the New Poor Law) was passed, which applied the workhouse model to the entire country.  Parishes were organized into unions and a workhouse was built in each union for the care of the poor people from the member parishes.  This system of workhouses largely usurped any "outdoor" forms of relief (in the form of money or clothing or food, as opposed to "indoor" relief of having poor people live in workhouse).

Southwell Workhouse was built to hold 158 people.  Families were separated upon arrival; men, women, and children were segregated from each other at all times, except for a short "family time" on Sunday afternoons and on Christmas day.

This room was the women's sleeping area:

On arrival, poor people were examined by a medical officer who determined if they were old and infirm ("innocent" poor) or if they were able-bodied ("idle and profligate" poor).  The old and inform poor, which made up the vast majority of Southwell's residents, had very light work requirements, compared to the harder tasks assigned the able-bodied poor.  Women were in charge of cleaning, food preparation, and laundry.  Men worked in the garden and the wood shop, they did regular building maintenance, and they broke up stones to be used as gravel for roads.  If they found themselves with nothing to do, they could turn a crank in the yard.  It served no purpose except to keep them busy.

One job that sounded particularly dreadful was picking oakum.  Oakum refers to the individual fibers of rope that are unthreaded, mixed with tar, and then used to caulk wooden planks in boats.  People would bring old, dirty, worn out ropes to the workhouse, and the workhouse residents would spend their time unraveling the rope until they could pull apart the individual threads.
(As I mentioned, Cooper was mostly running around outside, but he ducked back inside while our tour guide showed us these ropes and explained the oakum-picking task.  The information stuck with him; he told several people over the next few days about how this job hurt your fingers and gave you blisters.)

Children spent days in a school classroom learning the basics of reading, writing, and math.  Ideally, the workhouse wanted to help children eventually find work, perhaps as a scullery maid in a local manor somewhere.

Here's my own scullery maid pointing out the privies, the only bathrooms available to the workhouse residents.

The Southwell Workhouse had only three paid staff people:  the house master and his wife the house matron, and the school teacher who was in charge of the children at all times.  Other than these three, the poor people did all the work of the house.

Another picture of the front of the workhouse -- you can see the big garden plots.
Also notice the brick wall that surrounds the yard.  Poor people came to workhouses voluntarily and they could leave at any time (after asking and being properly discharged by the master).  It wasn't a prison (even though our tour guide kept referring to them as "inmates"), but it definitely was a harsh place to live.  Life was very regimented, controlled, and monotonous.  The work was hard and unpleasant.  The food, although nutritionally adequate (bread, broth, vegetables, meat every other day), was boring and bland.  But the people at least had a bed, warm clothes (they wore uniforms), and three meals a day.

The Southwell Workhouse continued in operation until the 1940s when England established its modern welfare system.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This helped very much, thank you! I am doing a project on the Southwell workhouse but am unable to visit but this provid a very detailed explanation of what you learned during your tour:)