The Workhouse & I



I hadn’t been to The Workhouse property- and thought I had never been to a workhouse at all- until I moved to Nottinghamshire.* My academic and personal research has always taken the form of studying material artefacts, particularly manuscripts and books. And whilst The Workhouse does have a few of these, they can’t be displayed to visitors, and the building itself is not full of “things”. And this is where my significant interest in historical absence stepped in.


Historical Absence


The presence and absence of an individual in historiography makes for an intriguing study (or PhD, in my case). However, how does one identify the absence of a system in cultural memory? Workhouses were a legalised and mandatory poor relief system through the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834. This very definition highlights the workhouse as a ubiquitous and inescapable presence in both the geographic and political landscapes of nineteenth century Britain. But this absence, I believe, is marked by a misrepresentation or a lack of awareness in the last few decades. A few of these issues on the absence and misrepresentation of workhouses are below:

  • Those residing in a workhouse are referred to as ‘inmates’, but they were not sent or forced into a workhouse, instead people had to apply or request emergency entry
  • Many people are unaware that workhouses were reused as hospitals (such as Nottingham City Hospital, opened as a hospital in 1903, but previously Nottingham Union Workhouse)
  • Workhouses were used as temporary housing for displaced people as late as the 1970s
  • Even if the building itself was demolished, workhouse sites continue to have care facilities such as hospitals
  • Referring to “the workhouse system” is more accurate than referring to “the workhouse”: each workhouse was in a different location for a different populace, under the supervision of different Poor Law Officers and Boards of Guardians
  • Workhouses had records, but due to the stigma surrounding poverty, not many of these still exist or they are often incomplete and fragmentary


Why The Workhouse at Southwell?


I love being at The Workhouse at Southwell. Not just because I love the town itself, the fact that Lord Byron lived in Southwell from 1806 to 1808, or the stunning Nottinghamshire countryside surrounding it, but also because the building is one of the most evocative I have ever had the privilege to access. It retains its utilitarian architecture: separate wings for the women, men and children, with a centralised ‘panopticon’ (based on Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 design), which allowed a maximum amount of supervision over the paupers for a minimum number of staff. This utilitarianism is balanced by the typical Georgian flair for style, with classical symmetry at the heart of it, and a deceptively grand entrance. The entrance at the front of The Workhouse is a ‘false door’, if you will. It is a door for those who made decisions about the people who resided in the workhouse, not the paupers themselves. Another telling deception about this grand façade is the frosted glass at the bottom of the windows by the entrance for those who governed the workhouse: paupers could not see into the rooms where decisions were crucially being made about them, and those making the decisions were not subject to the faces of those whose lives were in their hands.


This distance between the law-creating and the law-abiding individuals of the workhouse system is further accentuated by the positioning of The Workhouse in Southwell itself. The Workhouse is perhaps more accurately in the region or vicinity of Southwell. At the time of its opening in 1824, it was very much on the periphery of the town, and the town was indeed not visible from the building. This physical removal mirrors the social removal of those who resided in a workhouse; out of sight, potentially out of mind, with the tax-payers less out of pocket.


The Workhouse at Southwell is also distinct due to its position as an influential prototype of the workhouses that were established after the Poor Law Amendment Act (or New Poor Law) of 1834. There were roughly 600 or so workhouses and poor-houses (the equivalent of workhouses in Scotland and Ireland) before 1834, but these were not standardised or regulated by government legislation. The Workhouse at Southwell was so successful at breaking the system of poverty and reducing taxes that it became a prototype for parish workhouses, especially after the publication of The Anti-Pauper System in 1828, a pamphlet written by the founder of The Workhouse, Rev. John Thomas Becher. Along with designs by the architect George Nicholls, Becher’s devised system was rolled out across the United Kingdom.


The British Library has a fantastic resource on The Anti-Pauper System here.


Implications of The Workhouse for the Recovery of Stigmatised History


The constant threat of the workhouse looms over social and political history. Dickens immortalised the cruelty of the urban London workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Charlie Chaplin’s portrayals of poverty, power and displacement throughout his career (particularly The Great Dictator and the protagonist of The Tramp) were undoubtedly influenced by his time spent in Newington Workhouse with his mother and half-brother.


Technically, workhouses came to an end in 1930. The Local Government Act gave control back to local parishes and removed the implementation of the workhouse system from Parliament’s control.


But can you truly abolish a hundred year old system?


This blog is an introduction to my interest in workhouse history, the representation of individuals, stigmatised history and society’s developing reaction to the changing needs of its population. Tweet me to find out more, I’ll continue to post more about workhouses, particularly The Workhouse at Southwell.

*’The Workhouse’ refers to The National Trust property The Workhouse in Southwell.



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