Pauper Sarah lifts the lid of the harsh conditions at Southwell Workhouse
On the edge of Southwell stands an imposing red-brick building with an incredibly rich social history. Built in 1824, the Workhouse was once used to house the poor and the destitute who had nowhere else to go.
Today, visitors to the National Trust property can see neatly manicured lawns and allotments – but as soon as you step into the yard you begin to imagine the harsh conditions endured by those in the institution. Everyone who came here had a story to tell; some were widows, some were too old or infirm to earn a living, while others sought temporary refuge here when the seasonal work on the farms of Newark and Lincolnshire dried up.
When we visited the Workhouse we were taken on a guided character tour by ‘Pauper Sarah’. She told us she had been forced into a life of drudgery because she had lost her husband in a terrible threshing accident and had no means to support herself.
Sarah took us through the dark corridors down to the kitchens where the food was prepared and here we discovered that Workhouse inmates lived on a meagre diet of gruel, porridge, vegetable broth and suet pie. Upstairs we were shown the dormitory bedrooms where people slept on straw-filled mattresses and covered themselves with rough blankets. We were also shocked to find out that families were split up and even the mothers of very young children were sent to work. Men and women were segregated and sent to work, while children were given an education and they were only allowed to meet up for a short period on Sundays.
Sarah’s story was heartbreaking and by no means unique; many people ended up in the Workhouse through no fault of their own and along with the hard labour, inmates were also subject to a catalogue of rules with corresponding punishments. However, my visit also made me think that in a time when there was no alternative, the Workhouse also provided food and accommodation for those who desperately needed it.
The Workhouse, which is the most complete example of its kind in the country, is a fantastic opportunity to see how the Victorian poor lived. As well as audio tours, visitors can see history brought to life with the Storytellers’ tour and the Living History Days. More information on tours is available via the Workhouse website. The attraction is currently closed to the public but will reopen next month.
You can also find out what’s happening at the Workhouse via Twitter, @NTWorkhouse.