Writing our History:Digging our Past
Connected Communities

Ongoing community research

Over the last year a dedicated group of local historians have been working with the National Trust at the Southwell Workhouse and the University of Nottingham. The work of this group has been focused on the lives of the local Southwell Poor Law Union poor and the way in which the Victorian ‘welfare system’ was managed and operated there. 

Southwell Workhouse Project

Southwell Workhouse

The Southwell Workhouse project has allowed academics to work with The National Trust and local volunteer editors who have an interest in local, social and family history.

The Thurgarton Hundred Incorporation Workhouse, later the Southwell Poor Law Union Workhouse, was built in 1824 and was a template for the harsh ‘deterrent’ Victorian workhouse system ushered in nationally with the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The property was restored by the National Trust and for the last ten years has allowed the public a flavour of the ‘indoor pauper experience’ within the workhouse walls.

Southwell Poor Law Union

A poor law union was simply a collection of parishes brought together for the administration of poor relief under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The Southwell Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and was made up of the following parishes:

Averham, Bathley, Bilsthorpe, Bleasby, Boughton, Budby, Bulcote, Carlton-upon-Trent, Caunton, Caythorpe, Clipstone, Cromwell, Edingley, Edwinstow, Eakring, East Stroke, Egmanton, Elston, Epperstone, Farnsfield, Fiskerton, Gonaldstone [Gonalstone], Grassthorpe, Gunthorpe, Halam, Halloughton, Hockerton, Holme, Hoveringham, Kelham, Kersall, Kirklington, Kirton, Kneesall, Laxton with Moorhouse, Lowdham, Maplebeck, Morton, North Muskham, South Muskham, Norwell, Norwell Woodhouse, Ollerton, Ompton, Ossington, Oxton, Perlethorpe, Rolleston, Rufford, Southwell, Staythorpe, Sutton-on-Trent, Syerstone, Thorpe, Thurgarton, Upton, Walesby, Wellow, Weston, Winkbourn. Park Leys was added in 1858.

Data collection

The key source for the Southwell Workhouse poverty project has been The Nottinghamshire Guardian from around 1849 up to (currently) the early 1870s.

Here, in the pages of the local newspapers, were the reports of the monthly meetings of the Southwell poor law guardians providing the numbers of paupers relieved, the various costs and expenditure, the names of the guardians who attended the meetings, notices of which local tradesmen secured contracts, the names of paupers who died in the workhouse or who ended up in the local petty sessions accused of refusing to work, breaking windows or escaping and running away.

Collectively the group made up annual collections of Southwell Union related images from The Nottinghamshire Guardian which were distributed across the group via email. Each annual collection was allocated to a single member of the team who was also allocated a spreadsheet. Into this spreadsheet the data was transcribed to agreed and specified column headings. Once the data for that year was transcribed it was quality assured (checked by another member of the group). As more ‘data years’ were completed then the spreadsheets were run together and a spreadsheet of several thousands of entries has been compiled.

This spreadsheet has now been added to a further spreadsheet containing data from other records including the Southwell Poor Law Union correspondence, Staff Registers and the census returns for the Southwell Workhouse (held at The National Archives) and the Southwell Workhouse Punishment Book and Southwell Board of Guardians Minute Books (held at the Nottinghamshire Archives). Together some 16,000+ entries are now in the spreadsheet database by which the local research group can bring together data on individuals or groups and which allows more sophisticated research questions to be asked and answered. This allows for a great accuracy in regard to the interpretation of the building and those people associated with it



Current and further collaboration

The project so far has allowed academics to work with The National Trust and local volunteer editors who have an interest in local, social and family history. Already the data has told us much of the plight of pauper lunatics, orphan children and the problems faced by aged labourers unable to earn a subsistence wage. In light of current health, housing and general welfare reforms, the language of poor law reform appears very modern as people are assigned into the categories of able-bodied poor, single parent families or those moving from place to place looking for work [job seekers]. We hope in time to establish local groups elsewhere to allow regional comparisons in regard to issues such as healthcare, approaches to unemployment caused by economic downturn and the reaction and interaction of the poor with the poor law authorities.  


Writing our History: Digging our Past

For more information and how to get involved in our project please see: