Life inside The Workhouse

Costumed volunteer dressed as a female pauper making The Workhouse beds
Pauper life was regimented, controlled and monotonous National Trust / Phil Newman

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist painted a bleak picture of life in the workhouse. Here in this rural workhouse at Southwell, we show that - although harsh and monotonous - conditions for poor people may have been better than life on the outside.

A snapshot

  • Local poor people, paupers, who had nowhere else to turn entered this building as a last resort, cut off from the community outside.
  • Over 150 'inmates' could be housed at a time, managed by a paid Master and a Matron.
  • Their lives were severely restricted and regimented.
  • The 'idle and profligate' (another name for unemployed) were occupied with dull tasks, such as breaking stones for roads and pulling rope apart.
  • Aspects such as education, medical care or diet may actually have been better inside The Workhouse than for the poor in their own homes.

The inmate: staff ratio

The Workhouse could house up to 158 paupers. In comparison, the numbers of staff were tiny, comprising a Master, Matron, schoolteachers and a part-time Clerk.
Inmates were expected to play their part. Local unpaid ratepayers were elected to form a Board of Governors to administer the Poor Laws in the Union.

A regimented day

The elderly inmates and some with disabilities were considered to be 'infirm and guiltless'. They led an easier regime than the 'idle and profligate' paupers who were made to work.
Daily routine restricted inmates to two or three rooms and an exercise yard, provided for each class.
Those who worked also used large work yards and a vegetable garden, pasture and orchard in front of the building.

Manual labour

Jobs included cleaning and maintaining the building, preparing food, washing, and other arduous tasks such as breaking stones or turning a mill. A range of buildings at the rear provided a laundry, infirmary and cow house.
Life was very regimented, controlled and monotonous and all inmates wore uniforms. They rarely received visitors and could not leave unless they were formally discharged to find or take up work and provide for themselves.