Monthly Archives: April 2014

On Southwell Workhouse, and social history

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.


On historians and journalists

About a week ago, I finished reading Stasiland, wherein journalist Anna Funder details the lives of various people who lived in the former German Democratic Republic, and if you have not read it yet, I would definitely recommend it. It was whilst reading Stasiland that I began to reflect on the relationship between history and journalists, as I realised that some (if not most) of the most enjoyable and interesting history books I have read were written by journalists, rather than historians; and as such, the topic of today’s post will ask a simple question: what can historians learn from journalists when they write history?


One thing that immediately stands out when reading a history book written by a journalist is that there is far, far less attention paid to referencing. My problem with footnotes is mainly aesthetic, as whether we would like to admit it or not, a lot of general readers are put off by them. If they are used simply to list the sources the historian has used, or possibly to elaborate on an argument without breaking the flow of the main text, that is fine. But a lot of the time, footnotes are not used this way. Rather than using them to show the reader where they got their information from, a lot of historians use them to essentially show off, and impress the reader with how many archives they have been to; and instead of using them to add a little extra detail to an argument, the footnotes are used to present a lengthy treatise which runs parallel to the central argument, and which can often run for several pages.Admittedly, I still feel we need some sort of referencing system. After all, the legal case against David Irving was heavily reliant on a thorough analysis of his sources, which could only be found through his footnotes; but I still think we need to look at whether the referencing system can be changed to make it less daunting for the casual reader, whilst retaining its academic integrity.


Related to this, I think that journalists have taught us that narrative history is still the best way to write history for a general audience. This is not to say that historians should not raise theoretical issues such as the reliability of sources or the changing meaning and definition of words in a book written for a wider audience. Not only are they important, but if written properly these debates can be interesting. Rather, I believe that the focus of the text should be devoted to establishing the narrative, and then framing and discussing those ideas within that context, rather than being separated from it. Admittedly, most history books aimed at the public do this pretty well. But there are still plenty which devote sections, or entire chapters, to discussing theoretical issues, often in an almost deliberately obtuse manner, completely breaking the flow of the narrative, and which most likely serve to drive general readers away.


Similarly, historians need to be willing to inject their own voice into their work. Again, this is not to say that historians do not have distinct writing styles: they do. What I am trying to say is that we should be willing to make personal value judgements about the topic we are writing about. Certainly, journalists from both the right and the left are willing to make value judgments in their work; and whilst sometimes it comes across as unnecessarily rude or offensive, when done properly it can serve to reinforce the point they are making, rather than detract from it. It also serves to make the author more personable and relatable to the reader, and whilst I am not advocating a David Starkey-esque approach to the matter, I am saying we should be more willing to present our personal points of view in our work.


However, the main thing historians can learn from journalists is that we need to be far more open regarding the subjective nature of history. The idea of history as an objective search for a knowable set of truths is complete bunkum, and is an outdated relic from a time when history was trying to establish itself as a separate discipline. The problem is that history is now established as an academic discipline, and a subject of widespread popular interest. The battle has been won, by us. We can move on. But still many historians cling to this façade. Journalists have no qualms about being subjective. This is not to say they misrepresent facts, although I am sure many of them do; and nor is it to say that their arguments are not well thought out and logically sound. What I am trying to say is that if they openly admit their interpretation of current events is just that, an interpretation, instead of trying to present it as a fact which can be proven to be true, which so many historians still try and do. The fact is, history is a series of interpretations, some of which are more likely to be true than others, and some of which are severely flawed. But this is the same as any op-ed piece; and when we can finally accept this, and embrace the subjective element of history, I believe that history writing as a whole will be a lot better for it.


Overall, history writing is in a pretty good state. People are becoming more and more interested in reading about the past, and they are reading about increasingly diverse periods of it. However, I still believe there are far too many academic historians who are far, far too focused on writing for a narrow section of fellow academics, rather than trying to broaden their audience and appeal to people who would probably be pretty interested in what they have to say, if it was written in more accessible style. In this regard, historians should look to journalists, as whilst they are not perfect, they do have some valuable lessons to teach us about writing for a general audience, and which will only serve to strengthen the discipline going forward.