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A history of workhouses and the Firbeck Infirmary

Visitors outside the entrance of The Workhouse, Nottinghamshire with blue sky overhead
Visitors outside the entrance of The Workhouse | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Built in 1824, The Workhouse is the best-preserved example of the hundreds of workhouses built across the country. Discover more about their development, the way in which the poor were treated during the 19th century, and the role that Florence Nightingale played in the introduction of infirmaries.

An economic solution

Reverend John Thomas Becher was a clergyman and a magistrate, but is probably best known as a social reformer.

Born to parents from Cork, Ireland, in 1770 he moved to Southwell in 1792 after being educated at Oxford and becoming ordained as a priest.

Looking after the poor was a national social issue throughout the Elizabethan and mid-Victorian years.

To try and resolve this, Becher and other social reformers devised the 'workhouse test', the rule that no relief be granted to able-bodied people without them entering a workhouse.

Workhouses are created

It was Becher's idea that local parishes combine funds and build a workhouse to house the destitute rather than each parish supporting individuals with food, fuel and clothing.  

Up to 158 inmates at a time, from 62 parishes, entered this building as a last resort. Becher's view was that workhouses should be a 'deterrent' to ensure that only the truly destitute would submit themselves to such a harsh regime.  

It was also intended to achieve a 'moral' improvement, with the poor providing for themselves if at all possible.


Adults were divided into categories: those unable to work (called 'blameless') and those capable of work but unemployed (considered 'idle and profligate able bodied').

They were further subdivided into men and women and children were kept separate. Each group lived in different areas, meaning families couldn’t meet.  

Inmates were fed, clothed, housed and some were made to work. Children received a form of education.  

The New Poor Law

Becher's ideas were based on the social welfare schemes that evolved after the Old Poor Law of 1601. Their revolutionary but strict system attracted much attention.

The Poor Law Commission used their model to inform the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, known as the New Poor Law.  

Hundreds of workhouses were set up across the country as part of a national government system, run from London offices.

Workhouses were often referred to as Union Workhouses to reflect the union of the local parishes.  

Nightingale Nurses

The first Nightingale Nurses started work at Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary in 1865.

This didn’t happen by chance: before the 1860s workhouse inmates who fell sick were looked after by able-bodied inmates with little or no nursing knowledge or compassion.

Florence Nightingale pioneered the use of trained nurses in workhouse infirmaries. 

Notes on Hospitals published

Her experience in the Crimea showed her that insanitary and poorly ventilated environments promoted disease and illness.

In 1863 she published her Notes on Hospitals in which she combined her experience with some of the best practice of the time and went into great detail about the needs of patients.


Florence Nightingale’s writings and her dogged determination had a revolutionary influence on late Victorian politicians and philanthropists.

Her work improved the lot of the pauper sick and changed her, and subsequent generations', attitudes towards hospitals, sanitation and nursing. 

Raising awareness

Nightingale and other social reformers slowly began to raise awareness of the need for better conditions in which to treat the sick, and this trickled through to the Poor Law Board, the central government department which supervised local workhouses.

The inspector of Southwell Workhouse in 1867 and 1868 found major defects in the way Southwell Workhouse Board of Guardians treated the sick:   

‘The Sick Wards are in the body of the House and are now supplied with Earth night stools but no soil is placed in them. There are no Bathrooms nor Lavatories. There is no paid Nurse.’

- 1868 inspection report  

This was no longer acceptable. In 1870, the Board of Guardians agreed to build an infirmary for 25 people.

It was designed to a Poor Law Board approved standard by architect Mr Sudbury and opened in 1871.

Changing times

In 1929 the New Poor Law system was disbanded, and workhouses were handed over to local authorities. Most continued either as hospitals or, like The Workhouse, as institutions for the poor, homeless and elderly.  

A new system

With the advent of the modern welfare system in 1948, the building's use changed, providing temporary homeless accommodation until 1976.  

It was mainly used for staff accommodation and storage until the 1980s while the rest of the site became a residential home for the elderly.

A history of Firbeck Infirmary at The Workhouse

Every workhouse had a designated area for use as an infirmary. These were within the existing workhouse buildings and were often lacking in sanitation and unfit for purpose.

So how did Firbeck Infirmary come into existence at The Workhouse? Twenty years of research by dedicated staff and volunteers has allowed us to piece this story together, seen in the timeline below.

The Childrens Dormitory at The Workhouse, Nottinghamshire
The Childrens' Dormitory at the Workhouse | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Timeline of Firbeck Infirmary's existence


The Workhouse

The Workhouse was built in 1824 as a place of last resort for the destitute. Its architecture was influenced by prison design and its harsh regime became a blueprint for workhouses throughout the country.

The system implemented here was developed by the Reverend John T. Becher and George Nicholls whose ideas shaped the way in which the poor were treated during the 19th century. 

The Workhouse today

Part of the building now houses the café and office space for staff. A large part of the building has remained derelict. However, much of this space opened up to the public in July 2019. 

Many of us have a workhouse past in our family history. Have you?

A relocated library within Firbeck Infirmary is open to the public, giving an opportunity for you to investigate, share and capture stories of your ancestors.  

Exterior of The Workhouse and Infirmary, Nottinghamshire

Discover more at The Workhouse and Infirmary

Find out when The Workhouse and Infirmary is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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Things to see and do at The Workhouse and Infirmary 

Find out more about visiting The Workhouse and Infirmary, where guided tours, exhibitions and activities help bring to life the stories of the people who had to work to receive food, shelter and medical care here.

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Take a sneak peek into the treasure trove that is the collection of The Workhouse and Infirmary and learn what these objects tell us about the history of this special place.

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Our work at The Workhouse and Firbeck Infirmary 

Discover how we care for The Workhouse, Southwell and the items in its collection, including original Victorian wallpaper from the Firbeck Infirmary.

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