Amidst the deluge of coursework and controlled assessments (the phrases ‘turning point’ and ‘impact’ have lost all meaning) I’ve spent the second half of the Easter weekend visiting friends in the East Midlands. Every time we visit we think ‘what shall we do with our day’, and this time, history won out!
We visited the National Trust’s Workhouse at Southwell, just outside Nottingham, for an insight into the life of the poor in the nineteenth century. I hadn’t studied this period in depth since my A-Levels, so my knowledge was a little hazy, but a special Easter Monday afternoon tour meant we got the full experience from a very knowledgeable but kooky tour guide (a topic for another blog perhaps- why are tour guides always crazy?).
Southwell Workhouse was fascinating. Founded by Reverend Beecher in 1824, it was the first workhouse of its type, a pioneer and forerunner of what would come after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The design of the building reflected the reason that the Workhouses were created in the first place- to be economical places that dealt with the poor, at the least possible expense to the ratepayers. However, I was surprised how this was not always negative- the building and its surroundings was designed to be self-sufficient in terms of water and most forms of food, with the design of the sewage system particularly intuitive.
On a wall in one quarter hung a Proverb from the Bible- ‘He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand, but the hand of the diligent maketh rich’. An ancient view that sums up thinking throughout history, thinking that in principle many would agree with, but thinking that sadly often leads to a lack of compassion in capitalist societies.
As I looked around, I was struck by the irony of the timing of our visit. Today, the British government began a range of benefit cuts that, like the poor laws before them, claim to make a system of dealing with those in poverty ‘fairer’, whilst emphasising the need at these times of austerity to cut costs.
The similarities are stark, but so is the potential damage it will more than likely do to the poorest of Britain’s population. It feels like the return of A Victorian era that focuses on the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. In fact, as I walked around Southwell Workhouse, I was struck by how the experiences of the ‘blameless’ and the ‘idle’ were so different.
History teachers are often quote/paraphrase the words of George Santayana- ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, and as the Coalition bring into force laws that may well define their time in government, Santayana’s words may well define them too.