The Retirees go Aboard – The Workhouse Southwell and Rufford Mill

It was a pleasant Friday morning and we planned to visit Rufford Mill for a high tea. There was a special advertised in Amazon Local and it sounded interesting but to travel to Rufford Abbey some 50 minutes’ drive away for no other purpose than to have afternoon tea seemed extravagant. I pulled out the National Trust Guide and settled upon “the Workhouse” at Southwell. Generally in the same direction, the Workhouse had been one of the closed sites that we had wanted to visit. So two birds, one stone.

The morning started with sunshine but as with so many days in the UK, this is deceiving. The breeze was lightly chilling our cheeks as we walked to the car. Both of us had decided that scarves were necessary to keep the chill off our chests. The drive up to Southwell took about 50 minutes and we arrived at opening time of 12 noon. Already the carpark was occupied by dozen or more cars and a bus. From the carpark there is a long walk to the Workhouse past a field then the gardens then some walled areas which we later learnt were the exercise yards for the residents an d finally into the reception shop and tea room.

We both had an idea that this was a place of brutality and Dickensian forced labour camps, with orphaned children being sacrificed to industry as in Oliver, but we were wrong. This was a social experiment that commenced in 1824 and surprisingly continued right up to 1989. In some sense it was a catalyst for the “welfare state” introduced in the ‘40s by the labour governments after WW2.

The building has under gone many changes in its short history and its fundamental purpose changed as society changed but for the purpose of presenting the building and its history the Trust has in some respects taken the building back to 1824. For instance they have stripped out the toilets that had been installed.

The history starts in 1601 with the Poor Act which made parishes responsible for the paupers, elderly, infirm and orphaned. Each parish handled the administration with a board of governors and raised funds for the poor through taxes. Rev J T Becher proposed a revolutionary idea of centralising those in need of help in the form of the Workhouse and banded together 60 parishes to fund the building of the first Workhouse at Southwell.

The building is three stories high, has a central administration and accommodation tower for the Master and Matron and three wings one on the left for abled bodied women, and old and infirm women, the one on the right for able bodied men and old and infirm men and the children’s wing which included orphans. Other facilities such as the wash house were in buildings surrounding the main building. In front of the adult wings were the walled exercise yards with a community latrine open to the sky and beyond that were the gardens and orchard. There was a classroom for the children but it is uncertain as to whether any play areas were provided for the children.

The Master and Matron were usually a married couple and their living quarters in the central tower had indoor flushing toilets and were quite comfortable. Also in the central administration block was the governors meeting room, the Masters office and the clerk’s office. This arrangement allowed the Master to access any area quickly and keep control.

The intent of the programme was to reduce the cost of aiding and caring for the poor, elderly, infirm, and orphaned on the parish, to encourage the able bodied, idle and indolent to return to work by working them at monotonous and physically demanding chores and to make them self – sufficient. The programme was a success on the financial level and by Act of Parliament the New Poor Law saw this model replicated 500 times across the UK.

The system was in the case of an able bodied family – they were stripped of their clothes which were washed and stored securely, they were washed and de-loused and issued the workhouse uniform, segregated into men, women and children and put to work. The aged and infirm were also segregated and often lived the rest of their lives in the institution and the children would be taught to read and write and then some vocation. The idea was that the abled bodied would want to return to the community because the life for them was uncomfortable and demanding and for the children to equip them to join the community. This workhouse had up to 160 inmates completely segregated with no contact whatsoever between the various groups. Often this lead to children being abandoned in the workhouse by their parents.

In relation to the aged and infirm the system continued up til 1989. One of the National Trust guides told us that as a 65 year old in the late ‘80s he could recall visiting “some of the old girls” at the work house and they tended to be gaga. I have posted some photos below. Unfortunately I did not think to photograph one of the third floor rooms which have been left as they found them in 1990. Seriously depressing. The presentation of the rooms as they were in 1824 is misleading in my view as I doubt they were painted in light colours and as clean as they are today.

To sum up, not the Dickensian workhouse that I had expected or been lead to believe was the norm by novels such as Oliver and Dark House but still a dark social experiment in many ways. Well I am pleased to say the high tea was a lot more comfortable than the workhouse. Starting with a glass of sparkling wine and finishing with the same, we stuffed ourselves on finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes before returning home. Rufford Mill was just that an old water powered mill, originally for grinding corn but finishing life as a timber mill. The lake which provides the water to drive the waterwheel is now a haven for bird life and one can walk around the lake to the old ruined Abbey and the Rufford Country Park and golf links.

Sherwood Forest, Thoresby Abbey, Rufford Country Park and Wellsby Abbey


August 13, 2014
Sherwood Forest, Thoresby Abbey, Rufford Abbey Country Park and Wellsby Abbey
It is Wednesday our wedding anniversary so we have planned to catch up with Ingrid and John Pears plus revisit Thoresby Abbey. Ingrid is a world renowned glass blower with her furnace and shop at Thoresby courtyard and past President of the Nottingham Rotary Club. Thoresby is now a Warner Hotel but Warner has restored the Abbey magnificently. It is about 55 minutes north of Long Eaton.
On the way (as usually happens) we were distracted with a sign to Newstead Abbey but the Abbey building is closed during the week. This diversion meant that we approached Thoresby from a different direction and we ran into Rufford Abbey Country Park. Rufford is now a ruin but has an interesting history. The Abbey was founded by Cistercian monks in 1147. Henry VIII closed the Abbey and it ended up in the hands of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury and converted to a country house. Now remember Bess of Hardwick. One of her husbands was the Earl of Shrewsbury so the Abbey might have ended up in the hands of the Cavendish family except that it passed along the female line and ended up in the hands of the Saville Family until sold to Nottingham County Council in 1952 and became England’s first country park. It is 150 acres in size and regularly frequented by families.
Below you will see photos of the Abbey as is today showing
• The interior ground floor of the monks quarters
• The base of a corbel (support for the upper floor) and its grotesque
• One part of the under croft with displays of abbey furniture and
• The other part showing the lay monks quarters and
• What is now called the Orangeries but started life as a bath house with a swimming pool (in 1740 this was quite unique) and the view from the Orangeries to the grounds.

You can read more at website:

We then moved on to the only remnant of Sherwood Forest remaining. Mining and logging over the years has decimated the forest and the Brits are desperately trying to hold on to this little bit. It is near the village of Edwinstowe and includes a visitor centre and various walks in the forest. We took the walk to Major Oak said to be the tree Robin Hood and men used as a hiding spot because the trunk has a cavity which can hold 13 men. All of the good oak trees have been cut out leaving the stunted and diseased but even these have grown to enormous proportions over 800 years. In Robin’s time the forest was a Royal Hunting Forest made up of villages open heath woodland sunny glades and farmland. I was surprised to learn that the ecology of the forest is quite unique and includes 200 different species of spider and 1500 species of beetle.
I have given you below photos of
• The entrance to the visitors centre
• Major Oak (11m in circumference and longest limbs being 28m)
• An eagle and a hawk at the visitors centre

• The Robin Hood supply wagon

• and us enjoying a cuppa

You can read more at website:

Finally we made our way to Thoresby. Having been there before we went straight to the Courtyard (the former stables turned into a retail centre for the hotel) in the hope of catching up with Ingrid and John. We had heard that Ingrid had been ill so it came as no real surprise that her studio was closed. So we went to the hotel to have lunch but ended up visiting the restored abbey because it is so outstanding. I have attached photos of the:
• the entrance to the courtyard
• the abbey in the distance
• the grand hall
• the blue room restaurant and the hand-made silk wall paper costing 500 pound per metre
• a carving of “major oak” and
• examples of towel art

You can read more at website:
There is reference in the tourist guides to the “the Dukeries” which is a reference to the 4 great ducal estates in the region south of Worksop. The Duke of Newcastle (Clumber House – no longer there) Duke of Portland (Welbeck Abbey – questionably there) the Duke of Kingston (Thoresby Hall) and the Duke of Norfolk (Worksop Manor). To find out more about the Dukeries and to get some lunch we went to Welbeck Abbey. We were puzzled by the crowds of people visiting this former abbey which is now just a group of shops selling plants to produce. Not worth the visit unfortunately and no photos.