All work and no play at The Workhouse?

Colllection of Victorian toys

Charles Dickens presented such a grim picture of workhouse life for children in Oliver Twist (1838) that it comes as a surprise to find that play was encouraged by the Poor Law Commissioners. During the summer, visitors can try their hand at some of the Victorian games which pauper children would have enjoyed and which provided respite from their harsh daily routine.

Not much is known about how children played at Southwell Workhouse, but there are a few clues in the Guardians' Minutes.  In 1837 the Guardians seceded that children should be allowed to exercise in the grounds under supervision. In 1841 we find the 'Girls to be provided with shuttlecocks and battledores and the boys with hoops etc' and in 1847 that 'pole ropes' to be fixed up in the boys playground'.

Children playing like Victorians at The Workhouse
Children with Victorian toys in Workhouse school yard
Children playing like Victorians at The Workhouse

Some of the games are still popular today and others have their roots back in time. Cup and ball dates back to the sixteenth century while spinning tops date back thousands of years. Hoops and sticks were very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and newspapers raged against 'The Hoop Nuisance' on the streets and hoops were confiscated by the police!

No such action will be taken at The Workhouse today where children will be able to try out these and other games during the summer. Skipping ropes, hoop and sticks, cup and ball, whip and top will be available outside or in the schoolroom. Or, let off steam with a sack race or hopscotch on the field.

Family try out the Wander The Workhouse app in the garden
Family using Wander The Workhouse app on smartphone in garden
Family try out the Wander The Workhouse app in the garden

For those who enjoy playing with new technology there is a unique opportunity to personalsie your visit on Mondays and Tuesdays in August. Using innovative approaches, visitors can select their own route round the building and follow a particular character's experience of living or working in the institution. Testing new approaches to experiencing the site is part of the 'Re-imagining The Workhouse' initiative which aims to engage visitors in new ways and help shape the site's future role.