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Re-imagining The Workhouse

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

When the National Trust acquired The Workhouse, Southwell, the initial focus was on the monumental task of opening, and telling the story of, the main workhouse. Now, thanks to the ‘Re-imagining The Workhouse' project, Firbeck Infirmary is open for visitors to experience too. Discover how this project unfolded and how it’s helping to shape conservation today.

Opening Firbeck Infirmary

Re-imagining The Workhouse was a conservation and visitor experience project which aimed to reinforce and re-establish the role that The Workhouse, Southwell, should play in society today, by sharing powerful stories of welfare from the 1800s to 1980s with visitors.

This included the decision to open up Firbeck Infirmary for the public to experience, alongside protecting and enhancing the building for future generations to enjoy and learn from. This was made possible thanks to external funding and your generous donations.

Conservation and restoration work

Work to enhance, restore and protect the building included:

  • New frames built for the sash windows, with the historical glass then re-instated.
  • The replacement of heating pipes to make the building fit for use.
  • External weatherproofing was undertaken through masonry and pointing.
  • The installation of an internal lift, as part of our committment to accessibility.

Telling the story of The Workhouse and Firbeck Infirmary

A key part of the project was to show how the workhouse was relevent to the 21st century, by engaging visitors and connecting the property to its history, stories and place in today’s world. This was achieved by:

  • Re-dressing rooms to show how different spaces might have looked in the 1870s and later as a 1970s care ward.
  • Making workhouse records, such as census returns and inspector’s reports, available for visitors to see.
  • Laying a new floor in the Reading Room that features an 1835 map showing all the parishes served by the Southwell Union Workhouse.
  • Conserving and renovating vintage wallpaper found in the infirmary, some of which can still be seen in place. The full range has been archived and framed, retaining an important snapshot in history.
Close-up of a sash window at The Workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, showing the surrounding arched brickwork
The original glass in the sash windows remain | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Improving visitor experience at The Workhouse and Infirmary

While working on the Re-imagining The Workhouse project, we also used the opportunity to extend the process of engaging visitors by adding:

  • Interactive spaces for younger visitors to engage with and enjoy
  • New reception facilities
  • A new visitor route
  • Digital handheld guides that tell the stories of past inmates
  • A new visitor hub
  • New information boards
  • Redressed rooms with new props.

Designing exhibitions and events

Testing exhibition spaces

In collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, The Workhouse ran an art exhibition celebrating 100 years since women were granted the right to vote.

Bringing history to life, it included paintings, drawings, photographs and archival documents commemorating the battles faced by working class women who lacked the power of political representation.

Testing new ideas

An interactive show was produced and delivered in collaboration with The Workhouse volunteers, the Bare Project (a theatre and interactive arts company) and Newark Emmaus Trust (a local independent charity supporting young homeless people).

This was an artistic response to archive reports from The Workhouse, giving them a more contemporary relevance. Feedback from these interactive shows was then used to guide the delivery of similar events as part of the project.

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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