Last week, I visited Southwell Workhouse, and all in all I had a pretty good time. Not only were the staff were exceptionally helpful, the museum covered several interesting and important topics such as welfare and the social impact Industrial revolution. As such, in today’s post I’m going to talk about some of the things which I particularly liked about Southwell, as well as using it to address the wider issue of the relationship between social history and the heritage industry.
The first thing that struck me about the Workhouse is that it was unafraid to use the history of the building to ask questions about the present. When you first arrive, a placard asks you the question of whether Workhouses should be re-introduced today, and this theme continues throughout the Workhouse. The Workhouse constantly makes you reflect on whether Workhouses were both a morally and economically justifiable solution to the problem of poverty in the nineteenth, and indeed early twentieth centuries, as well as raising questions about our general attitudes towards welfare and the less well off, such as the oft-repeated dichotomy of the undeserving and deserving poor. Similarly, the Workhouse framed its origins and history within wider developments in welfare policy, starting with the Poor Laws of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ending with the creation of the welfare state in 1948. This is especially refreshing considering many historical properties, in particular stately homes, are content to simply show you a load of nice artefacts without really trying to make you think deeper about the issues they represent, or their place in a wider historical context.
I also liked the fact that Southwell challenged people’s conceptions of Workhouses in general. Rather simply repeat the Dickensian line of how bad Workhouses were, the audio guide (which was excellent by the way) pointed out that more often than not, the people in the workhouse were better fed than those who on the outside. Furthermore, it also highlighted that the fact people had to come in and leave as a family meant the children of workhouse paupers often received a better education than if their parents had decided against going into the Workhouse. This is not to say that it was an apologist for the workhouses: plenty of attention was paid to the negative aspects of workhouse life. But it was refreshing to see a museum challenge popular attitudes towards a controversial and potentially emotive subject, and not just play it safe.
However, one of the most interesting thing about the Workhouse is the fact that before it was purchased by the National Trust the Workhouse, it was originally going to be converted into a block of flats by a private developer. To me, this decision raises an interesting question about our attitudes towards social history in Britain. Just for a moment, try and imagine how people would react if it was announced that Windsor Castle was going to be turned into flats. Or the Tower of London. There would be national outrage, and with good reason.
So why then, was the news that what is generally recognised as the prototype nineteenth century workhouse to be sold off for private development not just as controversial? Whilst the decisions of the local gentry obviously affected the lives of many people living in the nineteenth century, I’m willing to bet that the workhouse played a far more prominent role in their day to day lives. Similarly I’m sure more people have had relatives live, work or associate with workhouses than they have the aristocracy. As such the decision to allow such an important part of our national history to effectively be destroyed reeks of an indifference to social history.
However, I don’t think it is quite that simple. Rather, it is more likely that the decision to allow the Workhouse to be turned into flats lies in the fact that even in the late twentieth century it still carried a social stigma which everyone associated with it wanted to forget. Being in the workhouse was seen as the ultimate social low, and carried with it a sense of shame that many people century would rather starve than be burdened with. As workhouses were not closed until 1948, it is likely that there were people around in the 1980s who had lived in Southwell, or at least knew people who had lived there, and as such knew exactly what it meant to have lived in the workhouse. Indeed, even when it was used as a shelter for abused women in the 1970s, moving there led to a degree of isolation from the rest of the community; and so whilst I personally feel it is important to preserve Southwell due to its historical importance, it would be fair to argue that the decision to allow it to be redeveloped was less a case of elitist destruction of social history, and more a reaction to popular sentiment.
Overall, I would encourage anyone with any interest in social history to go to Southwell Workhouse. It raises several pertinent questions regarding contemporary attitudes towards welfare policy, it makes you reflect on you, and the café does a pretty mean flapjack. However, it also raises the general question of whether it is right to preserve places such as Southwell, Bethlem Royal Hospital or Park Hill Estate, as whilst they are important remnants of our national history, historians should bear in mind that they are also reminders of a past which a lot of people want to forget.