Built in 1824, The Workhouse, Southwell is the best preserved remaining example of the hundreds of workhouses built across the country.
Identification Images (0)
- WORKHOUSE (Early 19th C to Early 20th C - 1824 AD to 1929 AD)
 Skeleton record created from NT website information (copied 17 March 2011).
Built in 1824, The Workhouse, Southwell is the best preserved remaining example of the hundreds of workhouses built across the country. The system implemented at this workhouse was developed by the Reverend John T. Becher and George Nicholls, (later Sir George Nicholls), whose ideas shaped the way in which the poor were administered during the 19th century.
Becher's idea was for parishes to join funds and build a workhouse specifically to house the destitute rather than each parish giving individuals support in their own homes. Up to 158 inmates at a time, from 49 local parishes, who had nowhere else to turn, entered this building as a last resort. The adult poor were divided into categories - those unable to work (called 'blameless') and those capable of work but unemployed (considered 'idle and profligate ablebodied'). These categories were kept separate within the building and further subdivided into men and women. Children were separated into another group. These groups lived in segregated areas meaning families could not meet. They were fed, clothed, housed and some were made to work, and the children received a form of education.
Becher's view of the 'idle and profligate' was that workhouses should be a 'deterrent' and a 'test'; only the truly destitute would submit themselves to such a deliberately harsh regime. In this way The Workhouse would reduce the ratepayers' bills. It was also intended to achieve a 'moral' improvement, with the poor trying to provide for themselves if at all possible. However, children and the 'old and infirm' were to be treated tenderly.
Becher and Nicholls drew on over 200 years development of changing care for the poor since the 'Old Poor Law' of 1601. Their development and application of contemporary ideas to introduce a revolutionary but strict 'welfare' system attracted much attention. The Poor Law Commission investigated this model system before producing the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Often known as the New Poor Law, this Act established a similar system nation-wide. Following the Act, hundreds of workhouses were set up across the country as part of a national government system, run from London offices. The workhouses provided for the poor of several parishes which were grouped into 'unions', so that many workhouses became known as union workhouses.
Becher's building, originally named the Thurgarton Hundred Incorporated Workhouse, was renamed Southwell Union Workhouse two years after the 1834 Act and brought into the national structure. For most of the 20th century it was known as Greet House, although workhouses were generally renamed 'institutions' before the 1st World War. In 1929 the New Poor Law system was disbanded and workhouses or institutions were handed over to local authorities. Most continued either as hospitals or, like The Workhouse, Southwell, as institutions to house the poor, homeless and elderly.
Once the modern welfare system was introduced in 1948, the building gradually evolved, providing temporary homeless accommodation until 1976. It was used mainly as staff accommodation and storage until the 1980s while the rest of the site was being used as a residential home for the elderly.
The importance of the building resides in its important historical role as prototype and its unusual survival of 19th-century workhouse features but also in the ability to demonstrate this later typical development of workhouse sites.
 The workhouse accommodation block is a three-storey building of red brick construction with hipped slate roofs. It has a central octagonal hub, housing the guardians’ meeting room on the ground floor, with the governor’s bedroom, storage cupboard and an indoor privy on the first floor and bedrooms in the attic. To the east and west are 7-bay wings containing men’s and women’s day rooms, dormitories and bedrooms, with a shorter 3-bay wing to the north housing the former schoolroom with children’s dormitories over. The central hub has a decorative south face, with an imposing, stuccoed porch and a recessed panel with a rounded head above. The three wings are in a plainer style, with round headed windows with brick lintels and moulded stone sills. In the south face, there are central porches to each wing, accessing the exercise yards. These each allow two separate entrances into the infirm and able-bodied accommodation. The north elevation, facing onto the work yards, has identical windows to the south face, with some bricked in. There are three entrances at ground floor level to the western (women’s) wing, two into the eastern (men’s) wing and one into the schoolroom in the north wing. The doors are all round-headed with brick sills, a stone lintel and a rectangular light over.
At least two of the doors are later insertions, one into the women’s wing is post-1930, one into the men's wing is post-1828. The two inserted doors offered direct access to the work yards from the able-bodied men and women’s day rooms. It is interesting to note that the 1828 plan suggests that the able-bodied inmates would have had to pass through the infirm and aged inmates’ day room and a corridor to access the work yard, which seems an unusual arrangement given the supposed separation of the different classes of inmate and since the infirm residents would not have been expected to work. There are inset boot-scrapers with stone surrounds adjacent to one door in each wing. By the 1930s, internal doors had been inserted into the day rooms and stairwells to allow easier access to the entrance into the work yards, as well as a western door into the scullery.
A post-1828 scullery extension in the west wing has been removed. The east and west gables both have a single blind window in each storey. There are four brick ridge stacks on the roof, each with multiple chimney pots. Internally, the renovations have restored the rooms to their conjectured 19th-century appearance, based as far as possible on archaeological evidence. The residents’ areas on the ground floor have stone flag floor and bare brick walls, whilst the governor’s office, treasurer’s office and committee room have floorboards, plastered walls and more decorative details such as skirting boards, picture rails and mantelpieces. The first and second floors have concrete surfaces. There is a basement below the western half of the building, with arched ceilings to the corridor and rooms. The rooms have raised stone benches around the sides, and low-height access openings between them, as well as circular light wells running through the walls in the central room. A square hatch in the western wall of the central cellar room is accessed via an external staircase adjacent to the west gable.
- SNA64710 - Collection: National Trust. Undated excavations at Thurgaton Workhouse (Workhouse, Southwell).
- SNA67149 - Report: ArcHeritage. 2017. The Workhouse, Southwell: Archaeological Survey. Feature 101.
- SNA67206 - Aerial Photograph: Ordnance Survey. 1988. OS aerial photo of The Workhouse, Southwell.
- SNA67207 - Aerial Photograph: RAF. 1948. Aerial photo of The Workhouse, Southwell.
- SNA67208 - Aerial Photograph: RAF. 1948. Aerial photo of The Workhouse, Southwell.
- SNA67426 - Report: John Samuels Archaeological Consultants. 2000. Interim report on an Archaeological Watching Brief undertaken during works at Thurgarton Workhouse, Southwell, Nottingham.
Other Statuses and References
- ENA6198 - Archaeological Intervention, Undated excavations at Thurgaton Workhouse (Workhouse, Southwell)
- ENA8681 - Archaeological Intervention, Excavation of a series of Test Pits within Thurgarton Workhouse, Southwell
- ENA8686 - Heritage Assessment, The Workhouse, Southwell: Archaeological Survey
- ENA8890 - Archaeological Intervention, Archaeological Watching Brief during groundworks, The Workhouse