The Victorian Workhouse

Don Innes

Whilst this article, written by a Member of the Christchurch History Society, relates to a Victorian Workhouse in Nottinghamshire it gives an insight to life in a Workhouse such as that which existed in Christchurch.

Showing the life of our agricultural labourer ancestors

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Southwell Union Workhouse Frontage

When one thinks of British National Trust sites, what comes to mind are lavishly furnished, stately manors and mansions in the countryside, treasure houses built to display unique, priceless curiosities and to impress the neighbours, or magnificent churches, centuries old, with their fabulous stained glass windows preserved and restored.

The National Trust took the Southwell Union Workhouse in Nottinghamshire under its wing ten years ago. Touring it provides a window into the world and lives of the agricultural labourers, and the homeless of rural 19th century England.


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Southwell Union Workhouse Garden

This three-storey red brick institution was built in 1824 after the model developed by Reverend J.T. Becher as indoor relief to replace outdoor relief. Its structure, rules and regulations soon became the norm throughout rural England, deliberately making life unpleasant for the charges. The Southwell Union housed the poor of fifty parishes who could ill-afford to provide for their poor on their own. Built for one hundred and fifty nine people, it often housed as many as two hundred.

Families arrived with chits from their parishes, so they were no longer the responsibility of the parish. Money could be kept to bury them in paupers’ graves. They were stripped and fumigated. Their entry clothes were put in storage, so if they went to a hiring fair they did not have to go with the stigma of their workhouse uniforms. Some agricultural labourers and their families spent their lives going between working on farms, living rough, and in off-seasons, returning to the workhouse. Leaving the workhouse with the distinctive uniform could result in being arrested and jailed for the theft of the uniform.

The doctor categorised the arrivals and split the families up by sex and abilities, such as old and infirm, including ‘lunatics.’ Couples and little children were also put in separate dormitories. Families saw each other on Sundays for one hour during Church services.

Southwell Union Workhouse Dormatory

Southwell Union Workhouse Dormatory

The surroundings were austere and life was humourless. Everything was based on economics. When a swing for the children was donated, it was refused because if the children scuffed their clogs when they swung, the clogs would wear out faster, costing the workhouse. Even laughter was discouraged as it expended energy which would mean more food, at a cost. The two cows which the workhouse had originally purchased were sold because the milk production had deprived the local farmers of the market for their two-day-old milk that had soured like yoghurt, but was considered good enough for the workhouse charges. If apples were picked up off the ground it was classed as stealing.

Every part of the labourer’s life was controlled and monitored. The master and matron lived on the second floor in the central part of the workhouse, which had bay windows, so they could see all. The meeting rooms on the first floor had frosted windows on the lower halves so that the governing committee did not have to see the poor.


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Barren Accommodation at Southwell

The children were educated and taught to read so that they did not have to repeat the workhouse cycle. Adults were not taught to read because it was felt to be too late for them. Boys received the more extensive education and girls were taught basics such as recipe reading, weighing in ounces, cooking, and Bible study.

Practically all waking hours were filled with chores, field work and make-work projects such as scrubbing and cleaning the cold, barren building. Work was dull, demoralizing, degrading and repetitive to discourage others from coming. The workhouse took on projects such as oakum picking, which was the picking apart of old rope, mainly from ships, with bare hands. The rope was then repurposed. The oakum discoloured hands, made them raw, and often, fingernails fell off.

Vagrants were the lowest of the low in Victorian society, even below the agricultural labourer paupers who existed in the workhouses. They were allowed to come into the workhouse yard in the afternoon, wash under the pump, and were given gruel and a space to sleep overnight. If they accepted menial tasks they could stay two days and then walk on to the next workhouse, often two to four days’ walk away. Begging was against the law and punishment was meted out.

Parliament eventually passed laws against having children in workhouses. They were moved to barrack-like cottages, many never seeing their parents again. At least, when they were in the workhouse, they saw their parents at Church.

Typically, meals in the workhouse consisted of gruel (bread and milk) for breakfast and supper, and dinner was meat and potatoes. The Christmas meal was special. Each inmate was given a begging bowl to take around the villages to solicit donations. A roast, potatoes, plum pudding and perhaps a slice of cake and tea was purchased for the day.


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Laundry at Southwell Union Workhouse

A mortuary, or dead room, was part of each workhouse. Bodies were kept until the parish came to collect them. A body was wrapped in a shroud that was tied at the top and then placed in a coffin with one open end. The shrouded body was tipped out of the coffin as it entered the ground so that coffin could be reused. The mortuary room doubled as a punishment room. Since it was felt that spirits would come to get them for not doing what they should, charges were often caged for eight hours within the mortuary room. A woman who repeatedly started fights, for example, was hopefully ‘scared straight.’

During our tour, the docents reinforced that all areas of the workhouse were extremely clean because of all of the menial cleanliness tasks assigned. Although they talked about the cleanliness, security, and better life than the hand-to-mouth existence in the hovels at the edges of towns, they did not express or acknowledge the empathy that we felt for our ancestors, the agricultural labourer who lived such depressing lives, being bounced between hard labour, subsistence jobs on farms, and being in the workhouse with its loss of freedom, privacy and identity, where they were separated for months, possibly years, from family members, never having a stable job or home.

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