RESEARCH: LIFE IN THE WORKHOUSE
In the book I am currently writing the two main characters have spent part of their childhood in a workhouse at the beginning of the 20th century. I do a lot of research for my work and one of the first and best books I bought was 'The Workhouse Encyclopaedia' by Peter Higginbotham who is an acknowledged expert on the subject. This had a list of former workhouses and I found that The Weaver Hall Museum (formerly known as The Salt Museum) in Nantwich, Cheshire, is housed in a former workhouse. Being able to visit Nantwich quite easily, I and my research partner (she accompanies me and asks questions, sometimes awkward ones) went to Nantwich - not so much to visit the museum, as to look at the building. While we were there I saw a notice announcing that there was going to be a Workhouse Study Day in a few weeks, so I signed up to attend.
I had to set off extremely early in the morning to attend the study day; registration was at 9.45 in the morning and I had to catch two buses to get to Nantwich - but there was coffee and biscuits when I arrived!
The day had a varied programme: Roy Clinging, a musician and local historian, told us about the background to some of the songs written about the workhouse and poverty. He and his wife sang several of them, accompanied by a sqeezebox or penny whistle.
I was able to speak to Peter Higginbotham and thank him for replying to a question I had e-mailed him. He told us about the food that was served up to the inmates. He has published several books on aspects of life in the workhouse and I bought a copy of 'The Workhouse Cookbook'.
At the beginning of the workhouse era the food was very poor; bread and butter and bread and cheese alternating for supper; poor quality meat and broth for dinner and bread and beer for breakfast, but it did slowly improve over the years. In 1901 (just before my story is set) The National School of Cookery was instructed to devise a manual of workhouse cookery containing a variety of recipes for soups, main courses and puddings. Mr Higginbotham had come prepared and actually cooked some of the dishes for us to try. Golden Pudding containing flour, fat and golden syrup was extremely nice and most of us enjoyed trying it, but other dishes were not so popular.
In another session workhouse discipline was discussed and Dr Carter used documents from Southwell Workhouse to illustrate his talk. The Workhouse, Southwell, is owned by the National Trust and is the most complete workhouse in existence (half of the Nantwich workhouse had been pulled down). To visit Southwell would mean a journey of 160 miles there and back but a friend of mine has similar interests in social history and her husband was willing to take us there and back. Bless him.
The Workhouse is a fascinating place to visit and is presented as it was in the 19th century although it was still in use in the 20th; renamed Greet House in 1913 to house elderly people, in 1926 a new hospital treated cancer and tuberculosis patients. In 1929 all former workhouses passed from the Guardians who had previously been in charge of them to the local authorities, and Southwell became a Public Assistance Institution which still segregated inmates by sex and age - and those who could were still expected to work. The women's wing was used by the council until 1977 as temporary homeless accommodation in bed-sits for mothers and children awaiting permanent housing. It wasn't until the 1990s that the last of the staff and residents moved away.
When visiting The Workhouse today you can explore the yards separated by high walls for men, women and children. There was only one place in the yards where you could not be overlooked by the Master, whose private rooms and office were in the centre of the complex.
As you go into Southwell there is a video explaining its history and also a scale model showing the various rooms and their relationship to each other.
It is a given that life in the workhouse was very hard. We went down into the cellars, very cold with the only light coming from small round windows high up in the wall at the end of tunnels through the walls which are at least two feet thick. Women used to work down there preparing vegetables for the kitchen, often in water up to their ankles.
The staircases in the house were arranged so that men and women had no contact with each other on their way to and from the dormitories and day-rooms. In the dormitories you could see how the beds had been arranged with a peg in the wall beside each bed to hang up your clothes at night. The guide pointed out that the rooms were well ventilated but were cold in the winter and hot in the summer, especially those near the roof. Windows were frosted so that one section could not see into another, and every aspect of daily life was ruled by routine.
The work of the house was carried out by the inmates; cleaning, cooking, any nursing that was required, laundry and gardening, but you could leave the workhouse by giving only three hours' notice. You had to surrender your workhouse uniform and collect your own clothes, and a man had to take his family with him, but otherwise you were free to leave.
The workhouse was not a prison, but I am sure it often felt like one to the people obliged to live there.