Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Down and Out in Victorian Nottinghamshire

The National Archives and The National Trust (UK) have launched a new online resource that includes a searchable database of correspondence written from 1834 to 1871 between the guardians of the Southwell Poor Law Union in Nottinghamshire and the central poor law authorities based at Somerset House in London.

The Union ran the Southwell Workhouse, which in its daily regime, management, architecture, and division of the poor into "deserving" and "undeserving" categories provided the model for hundreds of similar institutions throughout the country that were created in the wake of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

The correspondence made accessible by "Being Poor in Victorian Southwell" paints a vivid picture of life in a nineteenth-century workhouse. It comprises thousands of letters, memos, and reports from the Southwell Union as well as draft responses from London. These include details of the treatment of individual paupers, activities of parish and union officers, and general accounts of the conditions in the workhouse as well as instances of cruelty, disturbances, and corruption.

Like so many local history initiatives, this one depended on the dogged persistence of volunteers. Says The Independent: "The 5,000 documents from the Southwell Poor Law Union between 1834 and 1871 went online yesterday [16 May] after a remarkable five-year partnership between the National Archives and a group of enthusiasts. Without the resources necessary to read and catalogue the muddled records, part of a vast library of documents covering all Victorian workhouses inherited from the Ministry of Health, the National Archives handed over electronic copies to the Southwell Workhouse Research Group, based in the property, which is owned by the National Trust.

"The 20 volunteers then painstakingly read through the vast quantities of correspondence, memos, and reports written in the spidery script of the era, providing a detailed description of the contents of each document so it could be searched online."

Hats off to these volunteers, who patiently examined eleven large volumes of bound correspondence! They have made an absolutely invaluable contribution to our understanding of Victorian Britain.

"This project has opened up a proportion of a really important, but usually pretty inaccessible, set of records," says Paul Carter, principal modern records specialist at The National Archives. "It is a fantastic collection of materials for family, local, and regional historians. However, as poor law unions dealt with issues such as pauper education, mental and physical health, as well as poverty, the new online resource will be invaluable to anyone interested in nineteenth century social history."

"The Workhouse and its records tell the story of the building, the paupers, and staff who lived there and wider issues with real contemporary relevance," adds Rachel Harrison, property manager of The Workhouse, National Trust. "This material, which is now available to the public for the first time, is uniquely placed to help visitors and researchers discover how important history is to them today."

The project is a further demonstration of the outstanding community partnership and outreach efforts that have been undertaken recently by The National Archives (here's another example: the Prisoner 4099 project).

The Southwell Workhouse was built in 1824 by the Reverend John T. Becher. The building is the least altered workhouse structure in existence today and was acquired in 1997 by the National Trust. It has been open to the public since 2002.

Related links:

The Workhouse, Southwell (National Trust)

The Workhouse

Shown here: (top) Luke Fildes, "Applicants for Admission to the Casual Ward" (1874); (bottom) Southwell Workhouse


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