My nan grew up in a workhouse: a curator's personal reflection

Published: 04 July 2019

Last update: 04 July 2019

Blog post
A room at the recently reopened Firbeck Infirmary at The Workhouse, Southwell

My nan grew up in a workhouse. Now I have the honour of telling stories like hers.

I am Curator of Urban and Social History for the National Trust. I work with several places in the Midlands including The Workhouse, Southwell, which has just reopened after a major refurbishment. This development allows visitors to explore much more of the site, including the adjacent building of Firbeck Infirmary which was previously not accessible to the public.

It's a fascinating and moving place to work. Like many of our visitors, I have a personal connection to the history of our places.

The austere building of The Workhouse, Southwell, is the most complete workhouse in existence. It was built in 1824 as a place of last resort for the destitute
The Workhouse and gardens in summer
The austere building of The Workhouse, Southwell, is the most complete workhouse in existence. It was built in 1824 as a place of last resort for the destitute

My nan and her twin sister spent the first 16 years of their lives in an orphanage in rural Ireland. For them, ‘home’ was a building that had once been a workhouse, a building not unlike The Workhouse in Southwell. They weren’t orphans in the traditional sense, but their mother was unmarried –  a fierce social stigma in the 1920s.

Both my nan and her sister survived their institutionalised childhood and grew into strong, kind and generous women. My nan died long before my birth. However, I was fortunate to know my Auntie Norrie, a straight talking, funny, intelligent and kind Irish woman. The walls of her flat were adorned with psychedelic wallpaper and some pretty scary evocations of Jesus. She worked hard and smoked a lot.

I last saw Auntie Norrie in a nursing home in North London. She made us laugh, telling jokes and dancing with the manager of the home. Later that afternoon, her mood changed and her gaze became distant. Quietly, she started singing and talking. In that moment she was back in the orphanage, sharing secret songs and games with her sister, Biddie.

I hold the memory of that afternoon close to me as I work.

Undated photograph of children and a nurse outside of Firbeck Infirmary
Historic photograph of children and nurse outside of Firbeck building
Undated photograph of children and a nurse outside of Firbeck Infirmary

How do we capture the intangible traces of the human spirit of a place such as The Workhouse, Southwell? Where are its secret songs and games?

Some of the most vulnerable people in society passed through the gates of The Workhouse from the 1820s until the 1980s. Many of these people left little record of their existence.

Staff and volunteers at The Workhouse have worked tirelessly to uncover their stories that, until now, have been hidden in the archives. As a project team we have agonised over which excerpts of their lives to share.

Display at the recently re-opened Workhouse, Southwell
A room at the recently reopened Firbeck Infirmary at The Workhouse, Southwell
Display at the recently re-opened Workhouse, Southwell

Whose story do we choose? How can we communicate the small acts of kindness, and cruelty, which undermined the rigid rules of the institution?

Sometimes the physical remains of the institution can tell us as much as the archive. The very buildings of The Workhouse bear witness to changing policy and attitudes towards social care.

View of a corridor at Firbeck Infirmary
View of a corridor at Firbeck Infirmary
View of a corridor at Firbeck Infirmary

What does the 'ever so nice' wall paper in a room bolted from the outside tell us about power, privacy and care in the 1980s?

View of a room inside Firbeck Infirmary
Room at Firbeck Infirmary
View of a room inside Firbeck Infirmary

This site has never been a prison. Over 160 years it has had many functions, changing slowly from a workhouse into a type of nursing home. People have always been able to ask permission to leave. Some residents stayed for one night, others became institutionalised and stayed most of their lives. 

For a few, like little Biddie and Norrie, this must have been the only home they had ever known. I feel fortunate to be able to bring their stories to light.  

Front view of Firbeck Infirmary

Explore the newly conserved Firbeck Infirmary (5 July 2019)

Discover the history of Firbeck Infirmary, its role and why we are bringing it back into the visitor experience at The Workhouse.