The Workhouse | Visit Nottinghamshire

Image: The front of The Workhouse as you walk up the path from the carpark.

Our team were invited to the beautiful Market Town of Southwell to explore The Workhouse, the most complete workhouse in existence, run by the National Trust. Built in 1824, this venue was home to some of the first ideas of social care in the UK, decades before the NHS was created.

During our visit we learnt all about this venue, public health history, the impact on Nottinghamshire, and the wonderful legacy of social care which can still be felt today.

Once the backbone of the social care system in Nottinghamshire, The Workhouse provided the vulnerable, disabled and out of work a safe place to stay until jobs were available, or until the occupants were able to move on. Indeed, many residents were disabled, elderly, single mothers and out of work farm hands.

This unique venue focuses on the individuals and families who lived here – a wonderful personal touch which you may not expect from a National Trust property. This is also a refreshing take, as history often overlooks stories from normal, everyday people and their day to day struggles. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people have relatives linked to Workhouses, after all, so this may well be your history.

Keep reading to see what we made of our day exploring this important site!

The Workhouse | Visit Nottinghamshire

Image: One of the accomodation rooms, authentically recreated.

The Workhouse can be found just a short way from Southwell Minster. We parked up in their free car park and made our way to the reception and visitor centre before embarking up the path towards the main compound. Here we passed their delightful second-hand bookstore and saw the old Infirmary. This is where the new café is found, which is a perfect spot for a nice drink and maybe a slice of cake while reflecting.

The National Trust have recently renovated the museum, which we were very impressed with from the outset. The smart layout, impeccable displays and technological upgrades allowed us to be immersed in what life was like for the residents and read the informative displays easily.

We picked up a digital reader at the start of our tour. This simple bit of kit made it easier than ever to read the information, without being overwhelmed by large paragraphs of text. You simply place the device on the designated and highlighted touchpoints as you move through the rooms, and it brings up the info on the screen for you to read at your leisure.

You will read first-hand accounts highlighted throughout the venue. This means you hear the story told from the perspective of those who lived and worked here. It is impossible to resist putting yourself in the shoes of what it was like to live and work there, and your mind will wander to the good and bad parts of such a living arrangement.

The Workhouse | Visit Nottinghamshire

Image: Digital readers which you can pick up at the start of your journey.

You can expect to learn about daily schedules, the staff, segregation of genders and even the school! You will come to understand why a person may apply to live there, and why they would leave. You can also see the tasks they completed, and the work undertaken to keep the facility running.

As you progress, you will come upon character actors in costume who you can speak with, some audio installations and even a projector in the cellars! These immersive techniques mimic the sounds of activity and sights which you may have found in Victorian times. All of this allows for a multi-sensory experience, where you are totally immersed in the changing history of the venue. You will pass through rooms re-modelled to be accurate to the early Victorian years, before continuing into an authentic recreation of the venue when it was still used in the 1970s.

The one-way system goes through uneven flooring in places, which is simply the nature of the old building, and speaks to its history and use. Some of the stairways can also be narrow if going around as a group.

The Workhouse | Visit Nottinghamshire

Image: Touchpoint for a digital reader on a prop display.

As well as this fascinating museum and café, the venue also hosts a full programme of living history events, seasonal events, tours and exhibitions. They often host family-friendly trails, dressing-up activities and craft days over the school holidays, for example, and you can also bring a picnic - which is allowed anywhere in the gardens and grounds.

In fine weather you can also enjoy the recreated Victorian vegetable garden. The garden, which is maintained by volunteers, is planted with heritage varieties and seasonal produce. Every Saturday in August, you can stop by for some produce at one of their Pauper Pickings, involving costumed characters!

This venue is the perfect opportunity to get closer to Victorian England, but also the local area of Nottinghamshire. It is a venue steeped in history and resonates with many important issues of social care which are still relevant today.

Rather than a ghoulish and sordid past, the museum seeks to humanise the former residents, and it does a fantastic job of educating you with sensitivity and reverence in mind.

The Workhouse | Visit Nottinghamshire

Image: A first-hand account from a former resident regarding the 'uniform'.

This blog was written by Katherine Taylor, Marketing Executive at Visit Nottinghamshire.


The Workhouse and Infirmary
The Workhouse | Visit Nottinghamshire

Built in 1824 The Workhouse at Southwell was a means of relief for the Victorian poor. Pioneering in its design and approach it became a blueprint for similar institutions across the country.



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