Richer for Poorer

Charlotte Crow examines the restoration of Southwell Workhouse, the latest project from the National Trust.

In an ambitious departure from the type of buildings and style of historical presentation more commonly associated with the National Trust, this month sees the opening of its latest project, an early nineteenth-century workhouse at Southwell in Nottinghamshire, described by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England as ‘Quite simply, the best preserved workhouse standing in England today’.

The Trust purchased the 1824 building in July 1997, following a survey by the Commission, which revealed that of hundreds of workhouses erected in England in the nineteenth century only six retained most of their original features by the mid-1990s. The project, and successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund of a grant of some £2.25 million (half the total cost), reflects the Trust’s efforts to secure a threatened part of the nation’s heritage. The workhouse, though immortalised on paper by Dickens and others, was on the verge of disappearing altogether from the historical landscape.

It was at Southwell in the 1820s that pioneering campaigners first devised the workhouse regime and architectural model that would provide a national prototype for the New Poor Law of 1834, spawning hundreds of similar institutions across the country. The initiative reflected current ideas concerning poverty and morality alongside a burgeoning increase in the cost of poor relief, and was the vision of the Nottinghamshire reformer and Vicar General, the Reverend J.T. Becher.

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