The Retirees go Aboard – The Workhouse Southwell and Rufford Mill

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It was a pleasant Friday morning and we planned to visit Rufford Mill for a high tea. There was a special advertised in Amazon Local and it sounded interesting but to travel to Rufford Abbey some 50 minutes’ drive away for no other purpose than to have afternoon tea seemed extravagant. I pulled out the National Trust Guide and settled upon “the Workhouse” at Southwell. Generally in the same direction, the Workhouse had been one of the closed sites that we had wanted to visit. So two birds, one stone.

The morning started with sunshine but as with so many days in the UK, this is deceiving. The breeze was lightly chilling our cheeks as we walked to the car. Both of us had decided that scarves were necessary to keep the chill off our chests. The drive up to Southwell took about 50 minutes and we arrived at opening time of 12 noon. Already the carpark was occupied by dozen or more cars and a bus. From the carpark there is a long walk to the Workhouse past a field then the gardens then some walled areas which we later learnt were the exercise yards for the residents an d finally into the reception shop and tea room.

We both had an idea that this was a place of brutality and Dickensian forced labour camps, with orphaned children being sacrificed to industry as in Oliver, but we were wrong. This was a social experiment that commenced in 1824 and surprisingly continued right up to 1989. In some sense it was a catalyst for the “welfare state” introduced in the ‘40s by the labour governments after WW2.

The building has under gone many changes in its short history and its fundamental purpose changed as society changed but for the purpose of presenting the building and its history the Trust has in some respects taken the building back to 1824. For instance they have stripped out the toilets that had been installed.

The history starts in 1601 with the Poor Act which made parishes responsible for the paupers, elderly, infirm and orphaned. Each parish handled the administration with a board of governors and raised funds for the poor through taxes. Rev J T Becher proposed a revolutionary idea of centralising those in need of help in the form of the Workhouse and banded together 60 parishes to fund the building of the first Workhouse at Southwell.

The building is three stories high, has a central administration and accommodation tower for the Master and Matron and three wings one on the left for abled bodied women, and old and infirm women, the one on the right for able bodied men and old and infirm men and the children’s wing which included orphans. Other facilities such as the wash house were in buildings surrounding the main building. In front of the adult wings were the walled exercise yards with a community latrine open to the sky and beyond that were the gardens and orchard. There was a classroom for the children but it is uncertain as to whether any play areas were provided for the children.

The Master and Matron were usually a married couple and their living quarters in the central tower had indoor flushing toilets and were quite comfortable. Also in the central administration block was the governors meeting room, the Masters office and the clerk’s office. This arrangement allowed the Master to access any area quickly and keep control.

The intent of the programme was to reduce the cost of aiding and caring for the poor, elderly, infirm, and orphaned on the parish, to encourage the able bodied, idle and indolent to return to work by working them at monotonous and physically demanding chores and to make them self – sufficient. The programme was a success on the financial level and by Act of Parliament the New Poor Law saw this model replicated 500 times across the UK.

The system was in the case of an able bodied family – they were stripped of their clothes which were washed and stored securely, they were washed and de-loused and issued the workhouse uniform, segregated into men, women and children and put to work. The aged and infirm were also segregated and often lived the rest of their lives in the institution and the children would be taught to read and write and then some vocation. The idea was that the abled bodied would want to return to the community because the life for them was uncomfortable and demanding and for the children to equip them to join the community. This workhouse had up to 160 inmates completely segregated with no contact whatsoever between the various groups. Often this lead to children being abandoned in the workhouse by their parents.

In relation to the aged and infirm the system continued up til 1989. One of the National Trust guides told us that as a 65 year old in the late ‘80s he could recall visiting “some of the old girls” at the work house and they tended to be gaga. I have posted some photos below. Unfortunately I did not think to photograph one of the third floor rooms which have been left as they found them in 1990. Seriously depressing. The presentation of the rooms as they were in 1824 is misleading in my view as I doubt they were painted in light colours and as clean as they are today.

To sum up, not the Dickensian workhouse that I had expected or been lead to believe was the norm by novels such as Oliver and Dark House but still a dark social experiment in many ways. Well I am pleased to say the high tea was a lot more comfortable than the workhouse. Starting with a glass of sparkling wine and finishing with the same, we stuffed ourselves on finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes before returning home. Rufford Mill was just that an old water powered mill, originally for grinding corn but finishing life as a timber mill. The lake which provides the water to drive the waterwheel is now a haven for bird life and one can walk around the lake to the old ruined Abbey and the Rufford Country Park and golf links.

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