Bringing Southwell Workhouse history to life

Through a joint venture between The National Trust and The University of Nottingham, the stories of those who lived and worked at The Workhouse, Southwell are being brought to life. Leading this new research collaboration is Dr Paul Carter, currently based at the National Archives in London, who has been appointed to the new post of part-time research fellow.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the way in which assistance was given to the poor changed dramatically as government sought to cut poor relief funding. Nottinghamshire was at the forefront of new developments and local man Reverend JT Becher’s Workhouse, built in 1824, became the blueprint for hundreds of other institutions around the country.

After more than ten years of painstaking archival research by volunteers at The Workhouse, which has unearthed amazing stories of resilience and fortitude, the project is moving into a new phase. With Dr Carter’s help it is hoped to further develop a portfolio of historical studies of inmates and staff giving a snap shot of the daily routine for individuals from cradle to grave. ‘This kind of project opens the lid on Victorian England and looks into the dark corners of poverty, illness and unemployment commonplace for many in the nineteenth century,’ says Dr Carter. ‘I am delighted to be working alongside volunteers at The Workhouse who have already contributed so much to our understanding of the institution and its broader social context’.

Largely thanks to Workhouse volunteers’ efforts the public can now access all correspondence between The Workhouse and the Poor Law bodies up to 1901 which is available on The National Archive’s web site (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk). As part of this project and future collaboration, it is hoped that access to further sources of information will be made easier for people undertaking their own research.

This new research will be instrumental in transforming visitor experience as The Workhouse enters its second decade under National Trust custodianship. ‘We hope people will be able to reflect, feel and make connections with the building, its records and artefacts but most importantly its people, says property manager Rachel Harrison, ‘at times this may be challenging, emotive and thought provoking, at others amusing, uplifting and surprising.’