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A small magazine that I edit recently carried an article written by a man who was sent to the workhouse in Boston, Lincolnshire, at the age of 6 years old, following the death of his parents. What made the episode even more heart-rending was the fact that he went to live there with his younger brother but his siblings were looked after by relatives. It was an experience that the writer detested, circumstances from which he tried to escape, and a place he was glad to see the back of when he was old enough to leave.
I thought about this man's story as we walked down the path in today's photograph, through well-tended vegetable patches, towards the large workhouse building, one of a group that constituted, from 1834, the Southwell Poor Law Union Workhouse. It was our second visit to a building that was erected in 1824 for 158 poor people of all ages who could not, mainly through age or infirmity, support themselves. Most "inmates" were elderly but some were of working age and there were children too. From the outset a great stigma attached to being sent to the workhouse. People who were subjected to its spartan regime felt failures, and whilst there were those who went willingly because the alternative was homelessness, hunger and death, there were many who went reluctantly and looked forward to the time when they would be able to leave.
To my twentieth and twenty-first century eyes the building looks forbidding, having all the welcoming character of a factory or a prison. Passing into the outdoor exercise yards, where inmates were segregated by age and sex, the penal comparison becomes stronger. Walking up and down the stairs from sparsely furnished room to sparsely furnished room - all very much the same - and down into the depths where food was prepared, the feeling of a prison was further reinforced.
The building is in the care of the National Trust, one of the buildings they have bought and opened to the public that is not a former country house. Perhaps, as I said to my wife, an antidote to the excess of their multiple mansions.
photograph and text © Tony Boughen
Camera: Olympus E-M10
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 12mm (24mm - 35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/1250 sec
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On