A Day in the Life: The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottingham, UK

My parents have been members of the National Trust for almost as long as I can remember, and because of this me and my sisters have probably visited nearly every National Trust place in the country! (Okay maybe not quite every one, as there are currently 564…). Back home in Oxfordshire there is a pretty good selection of places to visit nearby, however up here in Lincolnshire there are really only 6 within decent driving distance. So the day after my graduation we decided to visit one of these places – The Workhouse in Southwell, which is actually a little outside Lincolnshire, in Nottinghamshire.


The Workhouse

The workhouse in Southwell was devised in 1824 by a local minister, Reverend J. T. Becher and George Nicholls, who aimed to establish an economic way to help the poor, while reducing the burden on local tax payers. Prior to this, paupers would have to visit their local parish to seek food, fuel and clothing, however this put financial strain on both the parish and it’s local tax payers.

Reverend J. T. Becher’s ideas were founded on the social welfare schemes that evolved from the Old Poor Law of 1601, and intended for local parishes to house and support the destitute by combining funds and building one communal workhouse. Therefore, those who required help and previously would have visited their local parish would be referred to the workhouse instead. Paupers were given papers which informed the workhouse of their details and allowed strict control of who entered the workhouse, which was especially important to prevent spread of disease. Their work attracted a lot of attention and was used to develop the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, known as the New Poor Law. This began the countrywide set up of hundreds of workhouses, as part of a national government scheme.

Southwell itself could hold up to 158 paupers, from 62 surrounding parishes and is described by the National Trust as the best preserved workhouse in England. The workhouse intentionally ran on a particularly harsh regime in order to deter those who were not really in absolute need and in the hope that only the truly destitute would subject themselves to it. Once within the workhouse men and women were segregated, and then placed in the following categories:

  • ‘Old and Infirm’ – Those who did not work because they could not and were to be ‘treated with care’
  • ‘Idle and Able Bodied’ – Those who had no excuse not to work and were to be ‘morally improved’
  • Children – Those who were considered blameless and would receive an education and be ‘treated tenderly’


Each group lived, ate and worked separately, therefore friends and families were not allowed to see each other – except for an hour after church on a Sunday. Life were deliberately hard, regimented and controlled inside the workhouse, in order to give some refugee from outside but encourage inmates to find work, and leave. Life was suppose to resemble the life of an individual outside the workhouse on the lowest paid job of the time. Inmates were given monotonous tasks to complete, such as breaking rocks and cleaning, wore uniforms and worked all day, every day.

However, in comparison to life outside for the destitute several positives could be found within the workhouse: inmates received three meals a day, clean clothes, a roof over their heads, a doctor on site, comradery with other inmates and an education for their children (Something that in the early days of the workhouse, before the Education and then Free Education Acts only very well off children would have received). Another major misconception of the workhouse, was that once you were in you couldn’t leave – this is not true. Men, women and families were able to leave the workhouse to work whenever they wished and were in fact encouraged to do so! One of Reverend J. T. Becher’s famous quotes is that ‘An empty workhouse is a successful workhouse!’

After the New Poor Law system was disbanded in 1929 and workhouses were handed over to local authorities, Southwell was used as a halfway house and care home for the elderly. In 2000 the National Trust began restoring the building to how it would have looked and functioned as a workhouse in the 19th Century.

My Visit

It took us around 40 minutes to get there by car from the centre of Lincoln, and there is plenty of free parking in front of the Workhouse. The workhouse is open from 12pm-5pm on Sundays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays), with an exterior tour from 11am-12pm. Access from the car park to the workhouse is along a tarmac path, however closer access is available from behind the workhouse. Toilets can be found next to the car park, as well as within the workhouse.

As you pull into the car park, through the neatly kept hedgerows, orchard and vegetable garden, you get your first glimpse of the large Victorian red brick building – which is pretty spectacular. As you begin the walk up to the workhouse, you really begin to get a feeling of what it would have been like to approach this formidable looking building. Most likely – Daunted, Fearful, Intimidated.


Walking along the left hand side of the building you can see the large vegetable garden in front of the workhouse, with the remains of the orchard to the right. Continuing along this path you reach the entrance to the workhouse, and when we visited a cart containing seasonal fruit and vegetables for sale from the garden. Neither me or my mum could resist, as it all looked so good! (I feel another recipe coming…). You enter through the gift shop, and then into a courtyard before heading into a room to watch an introductory video.


The video only lasts a few minutes and is given through the perspective of Reverend J. T. Becher. It really helps to set the scene and gives a good introduction to the history of the building and workhouses. From here you cross what was originally the women’s courtyard (Definitely have a go at using the water pump in the centre!) and head into the building that runs along the back of the workhouse. This building used to hold the main entrance to the workhouse, infirmary, laundry, solitary quarters and the ‘mortuary’ (Which we were told was just a room they stored your death body until your parish collected you – whenever they felt like coming…). Here, you are offered either an audio tape to listen to as you go round, or a written pamphlet. My mum and dad opted for the audio, while I decided on the written – which I think was a better idea when you are in a group, as you end up ignoring each other a bit when everyone is listening to a tape! Apparently the audio gave a very detailed explanation of every room, following a story between a new inmate and workhouse master.


From here you head out into the men’s courtyard and into the main workhouse building. I won’t describe every single room to you, just a few parts I found particularly interesting!

‘Idle and Able Bodied’ Men’s Quarters

Most of the workhouse is sparsely furnished, partly because they aren’t sure exactly what the rooms looked like and because the rooms probably weren’t overly furnished. Separated quarters are set over two floors, that have unique private staircases that ensure people from other separated groups do not meet. Each section has a day room, exercise courtyard containing a single outdoor toilet, working courtyard and sleeping room.


The idle and able bodied men’s sleeping room contains a smaller version of the room with movable beds, so you can guess how you think the beds might have been arranged. This was my guess!

Most of the upstairs rooms aren’t currently restored, unlike the downstairs rooms. However this allows the history of the building to be seen, for example the many layers of paint that can be seen on the walls. This is as a result of the inmates being made to re paint the walls over and over again to keep them busy. Another interesting part of this room is the shades of colour on the floor. These were made by the beds that used to be in this room, and give a possible idea of how the room used to be arranged.


‘Old and Infirm’ Men’s Quarters

Like the idle and able bodied men’s quarters, the old and infirm men’s quarters are over two floors.

Upstairs they have placed a translucent sheet over the window with a recreation of a scene that might have occurred in the old and infirm men’s sleeping quarters. It gives an eerie feel to the room, and looks really good!


Mystery Green Room

This room leads off the old and infirm men’s sleeping room, through a very small door. From this second room, there is another much smaller room which can be reached by a door with windows at the top and has a fireplace inside. Both these rooms’ use remain a mystery, and you are encouraged to speculate what their use might have been.


We thought it might have been a room for those men who were unable to make it down the many stairs to the exercise yard and needed a place to sit. While the second smaller room would be for either a visiting nurse or the workhouse doctor to examine inmates. After discussion with one of the guides, he suggested that this was what most people who worked on renovating the workhouse thought the room might have been used for.

Master’s Room

The master’s room had a really interesting set of replicate papers which described all the rule breakings that occurred within the workhouse during it’s use. Including breaking windows, stealing sheets and being rowdy. Punishable by withdrawing food, solitary confinement and appearing at the local courthouse.


Cellar and Store Rooms

Safe to say it was very cold and damp in the cellar and store rooms. There are large holes between the rooms which allow goods to be moved between the rooms easily. Port holes were also added to allow ventilation and light.


Kitchen and Store Rooms

Although you can see an oven within the room, this is not the original as it is much too small to feed up to 158 inmates. In the cupboard there is a guide to the rations of food that each inmates received for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This included potatoes, meat, gruel and lard pudding, which you can weigh out for yourself.


Children’s Classroom

Children who were either in the workhouse with their families or as orphans received an education.


Meeting Hall

When the local parishioners and benefactors visited the workhouse to check on it’s progress they would sit and discuss matters in this hall. They entered through the front entrance, which ensured they didn’t have to see any of the inmates. From each of the four corner windows they could see all the separated inmates. In the hall there is also a painting of Reverend J. T. Becher.


On the large meeting table there was a collection of paperwork and images from the workhouse. One that was particularly interesting was a record of food rations for a workhouse in Abingdon which is a town in Oxfordshire, where my mum’s side of the family is from. Unlike other workhouse rations we saw, Abingdon inmates got to eat bacon!


Master’s and Matron’s Room

Usually the master and matron were a married couple, and lived together within the workhouse. Their bedroom had a private washroom and toilet, and allowed the master access to any part of the workhouse at any time – to keep an eye on any rule breaking!

‘Old and Infirm’ Women’s Quarters

Unlike other parts of the workhouse the old and infirm women’s sleeping quarters have been renovated and furnished with beds. The downstairs parts of both the old and infirm and idle and able bodied women’s quarters are only able to be viewed as part of the tearoom and gift shop.


‘Idle and Able Bodied’ Women’s Quarters

The idle and able bodied women’s quarters are renovated and decorated according to how the workhouse or Greet house as it was called then, was used as bedsits to house those in need.


Vegetable Garden and Orchard

The workhouse grounds are directly in front of the building and worth a walk around, when we visited there was a lot to see including some very large pumpkins that had overtaken the chives!

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I really enjoyed visiting the Workhouse, it was a great building to look around and the history was really interesting! The guides were very talkative and had lots of good stories and information about each of the rooms, and the history of the building. Even if you aren’t a member of the National Trust it is definitely worth a visit and prices aren’t too bad for non members. They also run lots of events throughout the year, including spooky stories and Christmas at the workhouse – which I would really like to come back for!

A Day in the Life…

2 thoughts on “A Day in the Life: The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottingham, UK

  1. Pingback: A Bake in the Life: Vegetable Soup | A Year in the Life...

  2. Pingback: A Day in the Life: Gunby Hall and Gardens, Spilsby, Lincolnshire, UK | A Year in the Life...

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