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.
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.
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.
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.