Southwell Workhouse Discovers Its History With A Little Help From Kew

By Richard Moss | 10 March 2006
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colour photograph of a large brick building with a tree in the foreground

The Workhouse, Southwell is the most intact workhouse in the country. © NTPL

A pauper’s riot and a design for a ram-shaped water filter are just two of the intriguing stories unearthed by staff and volunteers researching the history of The Workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.

The 19th century documents were discovered during a partnership with the National Archives aimed at finding out more about the daily workings and history of the building and its surrounding area.

“The workhouse has a fascinating story to tell and this year we are really excited to have uncovered new information to share with our visitors about who lived here and what happened,” said Property Manager Nikki Williams.

Reverend Beecher established Southwell Workhouse after the New Poor Law of 1834 had ushered in the new welfare system. Today it is owned by the National Trust and is the least altered example of a workhouse in existence.

It boasts a visitor experience based around the exploration of atmospheric segregated rooms, cellars, stairways, master’s quarters and the stories of the people who lived there. With the new findings Nikki expects this experience is to be improved.

colour photo of four people dressed in traditional costumes

Volunteer re-enactors and costumed interpreters are an integral part of the visitor experience at The Workhouse. © NTPL

The process of uncovering the workhouse history began about four years ago at Nottinghamshire Archives where a team of volunteers began transcribing by hand the Workhouse Guardian’s minutes. These, together with an oral history archive, provided the base on which to build.

“We have about six volumes of handwritten transcriptions,” explained Nikki, “but a lot of the information and archives had been lost a long time ago because things weren’t filed properly. So we started working with the National Archives at Kew, to see what we could unearth.”

At the National Archives it was discovered that the notes of the Poor Law Commissioners who ran the workhouse had survived. Recorded by the Workhouse clerks, Charles Marriott and John Kirkland, during the mid to late 1800s, they were sent to the Poor Law Commission in London. From here they were eventually transferred as part of the Civil Service records to Kew.

A group of 16 volunteers have been working with Paul Carter of the archives to match and make sense of the information they contain. “What went missing were the letters of response that came back, responding to the notes,” said Nikki, “but we have now managed to flesh out some of the stories of what happened here."

One of the most dramatic discoveries is of a pauper’s riot, which happened in 1848. Bedding and clothing was set on fire before it was quelled. The detective work has also unearthed an intriguing 19th century coloured drawing of a ‘water ram’ drawn by John Beevor MD in April 1877.

colour photograph of a view through a broken window looking out onto a brick building

The research has revealed some of the workhouse's hidden histories. © NTPL

In a letter to the Local Government Board, Beevor recommends a ram-shaped filtering device as a means of controlling infectious diseases and costs its construction – together with an accompanying windmill – at £15. Staff are now trying to find out if his contraption was ever built.

“It’s very rare to find a sketch of any kind in these kind of notes and there is no evidence of whether or not it came into being, but we’re hoping that someone may just remember a relative talking about it,” said Nikki.

Another discovery is that the Poor Law Commissioners were discussing overcrowding in 1844. “The workhouse was supposed to house just 153 people – at a push 191,” said Nikki, “but records show that on March 6 1844, 206 people had been admitted.”

One of the solutions was to release some of the inmates. Samuel Johnson, “of weak intellect, out of employment, with his wife and five children,” were allowed to return to their home in Southwell with an allowance of six shillings for one week in the hope that he might find a job.

Samuel White, an able-bodied man aged 41 from Oxton was “allowed a pair of shoes on leaving the House - he having suffered a long affliction but is now better”.

Similarly three brothers aged between 12 and 15 were given a suit of clothes each and sent back to the parish of Kneesall. Their parents and six brothers and sisters remained in the workhouse having no home or means of support.

colour photograph of a man wearing a top hat and glasses standing in front of a painting which is not in focus

The workhouse is now owned by the National Trust. © NTPL

The Poor Law Commission approved these arrangements and it was reported on March 12 1844 that 21 people had left the workhouse. The able bodied men were being set to turn the hand mill and the atmosphere of the house was "altogether lighter".

Valuable findings such as these will be used to improve the visitor experience via the work of volunteer costumed interpreters and the hour and a half audio tours that guide visitors through the nooks, crannies and stories of the remarkable building.

“We don’t have lots of exhibits and we don’t have thorough evidence of the building’s contents but we do have the stories of the people who lived here,” said Nikki. “The lives of the people who were sent here were not really valued, so we want to give these people some value back - by telling their stories.”

The Workhouse opens its doors on March 25 2006 when the new stories, new guided tours and living history days will reveal the work of the research partnesrhip with Kew.

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