Rich rewards from poverty

4th April 2003 at 01:00
The cold, the hard work, the gruel... Life for 19th century paupers in Nottinghamshire offers valuable insights for today, finds David Bocking

There are still a few people in the Nottinghamshire parish of Southwell who are afraid of the imposing red building stretched out in the fields on the edge of town. But that's the point, says National Trust education officer Sarah Hutchinson. People were supposed to dread the place. So it's no surprise some still do, 170 years after the foundation of the Southwell Union Workhouse.

The building tells its story subtly. First of all, it's so very clean. (It had to be: that was one of the jobs of the inmates.) The rooms are light, but small (except for the dormitories for the old and infirm "blameless poor", which were rather larger, and split into two or three rooms).

On the walls of the outdoor recreation area sundials have been carved, as well as games and, more ominously, a long series of lines marking the passage of days. And if you look carefully above the narrow stairways you will see another set of stairs on the floor above, but no matter which way you turn, the stairs never meet. You'll hear the passage of your family's footsteps, but while you're in the workhouse you won't meet them.

"We can describe a workhouse to the children, but they don't know what we're talking about," says Shirley Harrison, a Year 6 teacher from Hunters Bar Junior School in Sheffield. "They've got nothing in their own life to compare it to.

"But to put a pauper's uniform on and stand against the wall and be told what to do by the Master or the Matron, and to see how families were segregated, to see where they lived - you can't teach something like that in the classroom. The children could feel something of what the workhouse children would have felt. And they were actually quite scared."

Last November Hunters Bar was the pilot primary school for the National Trust's citizenship programme, launched this spring by staff at The Workhouse. The Trust bought the Southwell workhouse in 1997; after lengthy research, repair and restoration, the building opened to the public a year ago. Now The Workhouse and its archives are used as a history resource by students from key stage 1 up to postgraduate level.

Back in Sheffield, a group of Hunters Bar children are recapping on their citizenship work at The Workhouse. "Do you all agree, we take away fast food, the bicycle, the personal stereo, your own bedroom, the TV and money to spend as you like?" asks 11-year-old Megan Tomson. "What about a playground and recreation?"

"You might need to exercise," says Joe Maloney, also 11. "And a playground gives you a chance to mix with other people."

This is the "wants and needs" key stage 2 and 3 Workhouse exercise: children are given cards illustrating aspects of a child's life and they have to divide them into essentials and non-essentials. They usually have no difficulty in placing clean air and water, or the TV and fashionable clothes, but if they have to whittle their choice of essentials down to eight or even six items, where do they place freedom of expression, or freedom to practise their own religion?

"The wants and needs exercise made the children realise how the modern world had showered them with material goods," says Shirley Harrison, "and yet the people in the workhouse actually had everything they needed to survive. It helped the children empathise with the workhouse children, and then we could relate that back to refugees nowadays, and see there are people now who haven't even got what the people in the workhouse had."

KS2 children can also take part in a debate on child labour, adopting the roles of mill owners, pauper children and social reformers. The exercise is illustrated with case studies, statistics and contemporary photographs of child labourers with missing limbs, torn off by factory machines. "It was horrible," says George Cunliffe, 11. "There were people with no arms and legs."

But, the Hunters Bar pupils concede, many of the pauper children had to make money somehow. "It was a very good debate," says Hunters Bar citizenship co-ordinator Joanne Brocklesby. "It was good for their questioning and answering and discussion skills. They could see the arguments." Joanne and Shirley Harrison agree that the morning history session around the workhouse was an important prelude to the afternoon's citizenship work.

After being treated as pauper children by a fearsome Master and Matron, the children had a good idea of what it was like to be poor in the 19th century. The segregation from your family, the cold, the hard work, the noise of the clogs, the fact that you'd have nine children in a room with four beds, the open toilets in the yard, the gruel. "It was bad, but it wasn't as grim as I thought it would be," says Joe Maloney. "And to some people it was actually a pleasure to be in the workhouse, rather than out on the streets," says Megan Tomson.

A citizenship advisory group including local teachers will help staff from The Workhouse develop ideas for a programme of citizenship courses. For older KS4 children, Sarah Hutchinson and her colleagues have already unearthed case studies of Southwell Union inmates, which pupils debate as workhouse guardians.

What should be done about the Trickett family, for example? The father has been sent to jail for three months and his wife and seven children can't survive on the eldest son's wages of five shillings a week. Should they go into the workhouse, where they'll cost a considerable sum of public money, or should the guardians subsidise the son's wages until the father gets out of jail?

And what about 15-year-old Mary Wilson, a "naive and helpful girl," say the records, "who is now of the age to be moved to the able-bodied section of the workhouse, which is full of undesirable women. What shall be done with her?"

The Tricketts were given six shillings "in kind" per week to tide them over, but the fate of Mary Wilson is unrecorded. The Southwell Union Workhouse still holds some secrets.

Citizenship links Themes

* Conflict resolutionsocial moral dilemmas

* Employer and employee rights and responsibilities

* Social change

* Human rights and responsibilities Skills

* Empathy

* Discussion and debate

* Negotiation

* Making decisions

The Workhouse. Upton Road, Southwell, Nottinghamshire NG25 0PT. Tel 01636 817250. Opening times: From March 29 to November 2. Open Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Groups must book through the education officer.

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