Leaving Leicestershire today, we head for Southwell Workhouse in neighbouring Nottinghamshire. We arrive in time for the before hours ‘Welcome Tour’. This is very interesting and takes us round the outside of the premises, to see parts that self guided tours do not reach. This is an early example of a rural Union Workhouse, which opened in 1824 to serve forty nine parishes. Established as a result of the provisions of the Gilbert Act of 1782, Southwell became a blueprint for the post 1834 Poor Law Union Workhouses. I am tempted to put in a mention in for The Isle of Wight Union Workhouse, which predated this one. Although very similar in style and regime to workhouses in large towns, this is on a much smaller scale, designed for 158 inmates. Although the lifestyle was spartan, it was significantly better than most inmates were enduring on the outside. We view the dead room where bodies were kept, often for some time, whilst awaiting collection by their parish of origin was right next to the room where inmates were held in isolation as a punishment.
The supervised part of our tour is over and Martha and Rob have come over to meet us. We explore the symmetrical workhouse and neat vegetable garden. Chris is struck by the similarities between workhouse life and an institution with which he was closely involved in his working life. The mangle room is on an upper story, as our guide pointed out, clearly designed by a man. We are struck by the facsimile of the punishment book, recording only two or three punishments per year. As these include minor misdemeanours such as ‘profane language’, this seems strange. Maybe they wanted to give a favourable impression for the inspectors. Despite the infrequent entries, the names of repeat offenders are in evidence.
The able-bodied men would crush stones, I know what that’s like from my spell in the Neolithic era, or pick oakum. This would be sold to make ‘money for old rope’ on behalf of the workhouse. In the absence of anything more productive to do, the men would turn a crank. This served no practical purpose but stopped them from being idle.