BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  UK: England
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 8 April, 2002, 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK
Misery of Britain's workhouses revealed
Southwell workhouse, East Midlands
Workhouse were ruled by only two staff
test hello test
By the BBC's Martin Plaut

A chilling impression of how Britain's poor once lived is being recreated by the National Trust.

Visitors to the Trust's new property, Southwell Workhouse near Nottingham, step back in time 170 years to bleak surroundings.

Everywhere is the evidence of gruelling routines and the humiliation which blighted its residents' lives.

The National Trust has renovated the home in the East Midlands to give visitors a unique opportunity to glimpse what life was like for the poor in Victorian Britain and into the mid-1900s.

Notorious staff

For more than 100 years the three-storey red bricked building was the last resort for men and women with nowhere to go.

It was home to 135 of Britain's most underprivileged at any one time, and they came under the notorious stewardship of just two members of staff.

A lot of people who came here were very difficult members of society

Susanna Smith The National Trust

A 'master' and 'matron' single-handedly kept a tight reign at the home implementing a tough regime for men and women alike.

From the moment they arrived their lives were an unrelenting combination of gruelling work and isolation.

Men were expected to work on labour intensive projects such as breaking rocks or turning hand mills - even if there was nothing to grind.

Women literally 'worked their fingers to the bone' unpicking old ropes.

'Undeserving' poor

But it was not separating the sexes which concerned the matron and master - but dividing the poor into different 'classes' of poverty.

They divided their residents into the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor.

The deserving poor included those who were seen as 'blameless' for their poverty such as those who were too old to work, the disabled, people suffering from mental illness and children. The undeserving poor were able bodied people who were called 'idle and profligate'.

A typical dormitory at Southwell
Bleak: Sleeping conditions

"The idea was to deter those people from asking for help, unless they were absolutely desperate," said Susanna Smith, property manager of the workhouse. The matron and master were motivated by a fear the 'idle' may corrupt the 'blameless'.

Such was their paranoia that the building was itself designed to keep both groups apart.

They slept in separate dormitories and used separate staircases.

The notoriety of the workhouse was used as a deterrent to misbehaving children.

They would often be threatened with the chilling phrase 'If you don't behave, you'll end up in the workhouse'.


Ms Smith said: "A lot of people who came here were very difficult members of society, so the Master had to be a very strict person to keep discipline within the building."

Anyone who hit another inmate would be held in solitary confinement, and for lesser offences meat was withdrawn. The workhouse system came to an end with the establishment of the welfare state after the World War II.

Many workhouses were transformed into hospitals or night shelters.

The workhouse in Southwell was used as temporary homeless accommodation even as recently as 1977.

See also:

25 Oct 01 | Wales
National Trust to 'branch out'
16 Oct 01 | England
Slum it for the night
21 Jan 01 | UK
Victorian values at 100
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more England stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more England stories