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Florence Cole as a child

Life
in a workhouse

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Rules and regulations for workhouse inmates

At one time my father was the 'labour master' at the Edmonton workhouse in Silver Street, but he didn't speak about his work much. He did say that the life of the inmates was very harsh and that the food was very basic indeed. The idea was to discourage people from going there to live off charity - although doubtless cost had much to do with it as workhouses were funded by the parish.

The men were given some tobacco once a week as a treat, which seems rather strange in the circumstances.

A child's experience of the workhouse

In June 1930, my mother put my brother, my sister and me into the workhouse at Bishop's Castle. I was three years old; my brother was 13 months older and my sister was just a baby. We were to remain there until the following year.

I can recall something of the workhouse:

extract from the memoirs of
Brenda May Wilson, courtesy of her son, Kevin Flynn

The workhouse at Southwell

One of the very best places to get a 'feel' for life in a workhouse is the National Trust workhouse at Southwell which is kept as a memorial to the workhouse system. When I visited it, I found it a dismal place. The aim was to make workhouse life so unpleasant that no-one wanted to stay. The fewer the number of inmates, the less cost to the parish and the more apparently ethical its parishioners.

The food was basic; and husbands and wives were separated. Their accommodation was in dormitories on separate floors which even had separate staircases so that men and women couldn't meet in passing. Families were allowed to meet for a short time in a common room on Sundays.

The top floor of the Southwell workhouse was for people who were too old or ill to work or be looked after in their homes. It wasn't pleasant, but it was not intentionally made unpleasant, as was so much in the workhouse system. (The Edmonton workhouse, which my mother remembers, had aits infirmary in a separate building.)

Pat Cryer, webmaster
and daughter of the principal author

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