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Workhouse museums

November 2, 2017

As curator of the Red House Museum, a former workhouse, I am painfully aware of how little workhouse related material we have on public display.  The material poverty of workhouse inmates resulted in few artefacts being kept for posterity for future generations.  At the Red House of course we have the building, a mid Georgian purpose built brick workhouse, which has not been radically changed since it ceased to be a workhouse.

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Red House Museum & Gardens with Christchurch Priory lurking behind

In an attempt to explore the story of the workhouse, a workhouse museum network has been established, led by Gressenhall Farm Museum in Norfolk, but other museums that were former workhouses in Wales, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, as well as the Red House Museum in Dorset. We all face similar challenges.  The scarcity of material collections can often result in generic interpretation and sometimes stereotypical illustrations of the past, as typified by Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

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Gressenhall Workhouse before it became a museum

A more accurate picture of the story of old workhouses,the inmates and the story of welfare is far more complex. Workhouses radically changed over the last couple of hundred years. The same institution could be very different in the early nineteenth century from the same one in 1900.  Workhouses did provide a last resort for the destitute poor, but they also provided schooling, care for the elderly, sick and in some cases the mentally unstable.  Until the 1834 Poor Law Act local parishes were left to manage and operate workhouses pretty much as they saw fit, meaning that some workhouses were humane places while others were downright awful.  The 1834 Poor Law Act brought uniformity to the workhouse system resulting in a harshness that was designed to act as a deterrent.  This was gradually softened and by the early the twentieth century many institutions had introduced cottage homes, compulsory schooling and more comprehensive healthcare. The original purpose of the workhouse was eventually superseded with the introduction of the Welfare State after the Second World War.

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The Workhouse Master and Mistress courtesy of Dickens

 

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