Saturday, October 22, 2011

Southwell Workhouse

This is every Victorian era novel's nightmare place, the workhouse. This one, in fact, isn't as bad as the ones in the big cities, supposedly, but it still seemed pretty dismal. The reason it wasn't quite as dismal was because it was in a rural area, and at least some of the people who went in would be able to leave seasonally for farm labor.

It's not quite as huge as it looks, because the ceilings aren't nearly as high as in a lot of places you see pictures of, and it's also basically one room deep. One side is for men, one side for women, and there's a back area for children.

The whole place house about 150 people, which would be incredibly crowded and noisy, I bet. These beds have straw mattresses, a single blanket, and that's about it. And the window, we were told (the volunteers gave us a GREAT tour!) would have been locked open, even on very cold nights.

And everyone who could work would have been set to some sort of hard work: gardening, breaking rocks, preparing food, or picking oakum. This is where women prepared food, in the basement, which (they told us) would sometimes fill with up to 7 inches of water. What a nasty place to have to work! Food would be kept up on the bench things, but the women would have to stand in the water while they peeled potatoes and such.

They had a food schedule thing up, so we could see how much food people got to eat, and boy, did they have a lot of potatoes. And gruel. And no, they didn't get raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar on their porridge, I'm pretty sure.

Oakum is the stuff they used to caulk wooden ships. They'd take old ship rope which was usually caked with tar and such, and prisoners and workhouse folks would be set to tear it apart into the fibers. Then the fibers would be resold to the shipyards and mixed with tar (or pine tar) and used to caulk wooden ships.

I tried to take a picture to give an overview of the exercise yards, but it didn't work out too well. You can see the partially circular parts, though, which is where the outdoor latrines are. Yes, it's just that luxurious.

It's not a widely known fact, but I have a latrine rating system. On a scale of 1-10. It's true. I have a feeling these latrines would have been right down with the very worst I've ever used.

The students paired learning about the workhouse and learning about life in the Abbey recently, and I have to say, from what I saw there was a lot to learn.

And once again, I'm very glad not to live in the Victorian era!


  1. It's funny, the exterior looks quite handsome...

    Sometimes my students ask me if I would have liked to have lived in the past, and I say, since we all probably would have been peasants, I'm glad I didn't live 100, or 400 years ago. Of course our expectations would have been different, but still!

  2. Loving these travelogues. "Please, sir, may I have some more?" :-)

  3. Your latrine rating scale reminds me of a dig I used to volunteer on. When I was there, they were only down to the "Victorian slum" level, but they did find a communal latrine, whose grey-water flushing mechanism still worked! Video here: (the latrine's about halfway through the video) :)