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Punishing paupers? Control, discipline and mental health in the Southwell workhouse (1836–71)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2019

Paul Carter
The National Archives, Kew
Jeff James
Keeper of the National Archives, Kew
Steve King
School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester


This article focuses on the way that staff and guardians in the rural Nottinghamshire workhouse of Southwell sought to exert control and containment over pauper inmates. Fusing together local and central records for the period 1834–71, including locally held punishment books and correspondence at The National Archives, Kew (TNA), we argue that the notional power of the workhouse authorities was heavily shaded. Most paupers most of the time did not find their behaviour heavily and clumsily controlled. Rather, staff focused their attention in terms of detecting and punishing disorderly behaviour on a small group of long-term and often mentally ill paupers whose actions might create enmities or spiral into larger conflicts and dissent in the workhouse setting. Both inmates and those under threat of workhouse admission would have seen or heard about punishment of ‘the usual characters’. This has important implications for how we understand the intent and experience of the New Poor Law up to the formation of the Local Government Board (LGB) in 1871.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 Stanley’s ‘punishment career’ can be followed in: Nottinghamshire Archives (hereafter NA) Southwell Poor Law Union, punishment book, 1852–1936, between 8th March 1854 and 9th February 1869.

2 Crowther, M., The Workhouse System, 1834–1929: The History of an English Social Institution (London, 1982), pp. 116Google Scholar; Price, K., Medical Negligence in Victorian Britain: The Crisis of Care under the English Poor Law, c. 1834–1900 (London, 2015)Google Scholar; Doolittle, M., ‘The Duty to Provide: Fathers, Families and the Workhouse in England, 1880–1914’, in Althammer, B., Gestrich, A., and Gründler, J., eds, The Welfare State and the 'Deviant Poor' in Europe, 1870–1933 (Basingstoke, 2014), pp. 5877Google Scholar; Hurren, E., Protesting about Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England, 1870–1900 (Woodbridge, 2007)Google Scholar. For a more nuanced recent view rooted in the concept of policy process, see Shave, S., Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England, 1780–1850 (Manchester, 2017).Google Scholar

3 See Brundage, A., The Making of the New Poor Law: The Politics of Inquiry, Enactment and Implementation, 1832–39 (New Brunswick, 1978)Google Scholar, and Chinn, C., Poverty Amidst Prosperity: The Urban Poor in England, 1834–1914 (Manchester, 1995), pp. 4873.Google Scholar

4 See particularly Hollen-Lees, L., The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700–1949 (Cambridge, 1998)Google Scholar and Englander, D., Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Britain: From Chadwick to Booth, 1834–1914 (London, 1998).Google Scholar

5 Shave, Pauper Policies.

6 ‘Agency’ is a slippery concept and in terms of punishment it might be desirable to make a distinction between acts of agency (that is an action with a wider strategic intent) and simple personal reactions to encounters in the workhouse. We are grateful to an anonymous referee for this point. In the context of the argument here, however, strategic intent only becomes apparent by assembling ‘careers’ of confrontation, only a subset of which are punished. In this article we use a broader concept of agency: the ability of paupers to resist or to shape the processes to which they were notionally subject. This definition gets rather closer to the meaning of the circumstances in which punishable events were generated.

7 The Southwell Union consisted of sixty rural parishes. Park Leys joined in 1858. The Southwell workhouse had been the house for the Thurgarton Hundred Incorporation (formed in 1824 with forty-nine parishes) but the parish of Southwell was not a part of the Incorporation.

8 Parliamentary Papers (hereafter PP), Population tables. II. Ages, civil condition, occupations, and birth-place of the people: with the numbers and ages of the blind, the deaf-and-dumb, and the inmates of workhouses, prisons, lunatic asylums, and hospitals (1852–3), Vol. II, p. 579.

9 Of the forty-two adult male inmates at this date, twenty-six were returned as being formerly farmers, blacksmiths, gardeners, grooms, farm servants, farm labourers and agricultural labourers. The National Archives, Kew (hereafter TNA) RG 11/3370, 1881 census, fol. 28, p. 16–fol. 29, p. 18.

10 Hurren, E., Protesting about Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England, 1870–1900 (Woodbridge, 2015).Google Scholar

11 Price, Medical Negligence, pp. 3–16.

12 King, S., Women, Welfare and Local Politics, 1880–1920 (Brighton, 2010).Google Scholar

13 MH12 runs to over 17,000 volumes. See Carter, N. and Carter, P., Living the Poor Life: A Guide to the Poor Law Union Correspondence, c. 1834–1871 held at the National Archives (London, 2011).Google Scholar

14 Shave, S., ‘“Great inhumanity”: scandal, child punishment and policymaking in the early years of the New Poor Law workhouse system’, Continuity and Change, 33:3 (2018), 339–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Frost, G., ‘Under the guardians' supervision: illegitimacy, family, and the English poor law, 1870–1930’, Journal of Family History, 38:2 (2013), 122–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Humphries, J., ‘Care and Cruelty in the Workhouse: Children’s Experiences of Residential Poor Relief in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England’, in Goose, N. and Honeyman, K., eds, Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England (Farnham, 2013), pp. 115–34.Google Scholar

15 Driver, F., Power and Pauperism: The Workhouse System, 1834–1884 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 79.Google Scholar

16 For the ongoing importance and meaning of outdoor relief, see Snell, K. D. M., Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950 (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 207338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 The Times, 2nd May 1834.

18 Miller, E., ‘Variations in the official prevalence and disposal of the insane in England under the poor law, 1850–1900’, History of Psychiatry, 18:1 (2007), 2538.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

19 Initial plans envisaging a continued use for some pre-existing parish workhouses were quickly abandoned and the Poor Law Commission encouraged and cajoled guardians to construct new large buildings. See Crowther, The Workhouse System, p. 37, and Mandler, P., ‘Tories and paupers: Christian political economy and the making of the New Poor Law’, Historical Journal, 33:1 (1990), 81103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 Appointed on 28th October 1834, he served for a year before resigning. See Webb, S. and Webb, B., English Poor Law History: Part II: The Last Hundred Years, Vol. I (London, 1929), pp. 122–7.Google Scholar

21 For a sense that this ‘othering’ was not shared in localities, see Snell, Parish and Belonging.

22 See Edsall, N., The Anti-Poor Law Movement, 1834–44 (Manchester, 1971)Google Scholar; Knott, J., Popular Opposition to the 1834 Poor Law (London, 1986)Google Scholar; Wells, R., ‘Resistance to the New Poor Law in the Rural South’, in Rule, J. and Wells, R., eds, Crime, Protest and Popular Politics in Southern England, 1740–1850 (London, 1997).Google Scholar

23 Knott, Popular Opposition, p. 232

24 Ibid., p. 229.

25 Crowther, Workhouse System, p. 31.

26 Though we know much more about scandals in urban than rural unions. For theoretical and empirical perspective on the meaning and role of individual scandals, see Price, Medical Negligence and Shave, Pauper Policies, who both anatomise particular events.

27 Roberts, D., ‘How cruel was the Victorian poor law?’, Historical Journal, 6:1 (1963), 97107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 Ibid., 104.

29 Henriques, U., ‘How cruel was the Victorian poor law?’, Historical Journal, 11:2 (1968), 365–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 For unruly paupers, see Green, D., ‘Pauper protests: power and resistance in early nineteenth-century London workhouses’, Social History, 31:2 (2006), 137–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 Englander, Poverty and Poor Law Reform, pp. 38–9.

32 Green, ‘Pauper protests’; Green, D., Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790–1870 (Aldershot, 2010).Google Scholar

33 Englander, D., ‘From the abyss: pauper petitions and correspondence in Victorian London’, London Journal, 25 (2000), 72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Green, ‘Pauper protests’, 138–9. On the problems with identifying underlying intent from individual instances of disruption, see note 6.

35 Nonetheless, both Englander and Green focus on London, and the class of paupers highlighted in Green’s analysis was mainly (but not exclusively) the casual or vagrant inmate. Ordinary inmates of rural unions are conspicuous by their absence in the background literature.

36 Crowther, Workhouse System, pp. 193–221.

37 Shave, ‘“Great inhumanity”’; James, J., ‘Sophia Heathfield of Hawnes, Bedfordshire: punishment victim or victor?’, Family and Community History, 21:3 (2018).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 Punishment books are part of the individual union archive and the survival rate is highly variable. As small bureaucracies, poor law unions regularly weeded early records they considered superfluous to their later requirements where there were no legal requirements to maintain them. There is no comprehensive list of surviving material but an archival survey done in 2017 by one of the authors (focusing on Yorkshire, Lancashire, the English Midlands down as far as Gloucestershire and a collection of Welsh unions) found that surviving books covering the periods of the Poor Law Commission (hereafter PLC) and Poor Law Board (hereafter PLB) (from 1834–71) are rarer than those of the first thirty years of the Local Government Board (hereafter LGB). Survival rates increase again for the twentieth century. None survive for Nottinghamshire unions other than Southwell.

39 PP, First Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales (1835), pp. 60–1. As under the Old Poor Law, however, there was a risk that magistrates would take the side of the poor in these encounters, provoking a confidence for more disruption once an individual was returned to the workhouse.

40 TNA HO 44/27/2 for the poster, and HO 44/27/1/52, fols 298–302 for the letter that enclosed it, 6th November 1834. The poster was sent to the Home Office by the Reverend John Hyde. He and other magistrates had detained two men for exhibiting the poster that had been designed to turn people against the workings of the New Poor Law. Hyde asked how the magistrates should proceed.

41 The best rendering of these issues is Hurren, E., Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929 (Basingstoke, 2011).Google Scholar

42 See Shave, S., ‘“Immediate Death or a Life of Torture Are the Consequences of the System”: The Bridgewater Union Scandal and Policy Change’, in Reinarz, J. and Schwarz, L., eds, Medicine and the Workhouse (Rochester, 2013), pp. 164–91.Google Scholar

43 For analysis of the genesis of these changes, with particularly rich discussion of the Assistant Commissioners correspondence and evidence before the 1837 Select Committee, see Shave, ‘“Great inhumanity”’, 351–3.

44 PP, Seventh Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales (1841), pp. 18, 71–6.

45 General Consolidated Order (July 1847). The punishments for misbehaviour are contained within articles 127–47. Both directives also restricted the range of punishable activities and sought to vary punishment form and duration by age and gender. The latter clauses, an anonymous referee reminds us, might be read as giving a differential scope for agency, since the consequences of action by some groups of inmates were less severe than for others. On the other hand, the disproportionate focus of punishment on inmates with mental illness traced later in this article might contradict such a reading.

46 King, Women, Welfare, pp. 18–26; Shave, ‘“Great inhumanity”’, 356, notes that from 1841 it was individual staff who were held responsible for abuses.

47 L. Foster, ‘The Representation of the Workhouse in Nineteenth-Century Culture’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cardiff, 2014), pp. 89–132. Much less, of course, is known about rural unions such as Southwell.

48 TNA HO 107/867, 1841 census, fols 16/19, p. 5; TNA HO 107/2134, 1851 census, fol. 425, p. 27; RG 9/2472, 1861 census, fol. 40, p. 22; and RG 10/3534, 1871 census, fol. 5, p. 1.

49 TNA MH 12/9534/30, letter from H. A. Farnall, Poor Law Inspector, to the PLB, 4th February 1867, fols 42–43.

50 TNA MH 9/15, Register of Paid Officers and Staff Appointed by the Board of Guardians.

51 TNA MH 12/9536/30, printed appointment forms from John Kirkland, Clerk to the Guardians of the Southwell Poor Law Union, to the LGB, 24th September 1873, fols 182–183.

52 TNA MH 12/9527/314, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk to the Guardians of the Southwell Union, to the PLC, 15th October 1845, fol. 408.

53 TNA MH 12/9527/512, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk to the Guardians of the Southwell Union, to the PLC, 11th December 1846, fol. 634; MH 12/9528/35, letter from the Robert Weale, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, to the PLC, 14th April 1847, fol. 55.

54 TNA MH 12/9544/307, appointment form for Frank Neale, as porter to the Southwell Poor Law Union Workhouse, 28th February 1896, fols 419–420.

55 Local archives contain good minute books but no admission or discharge registers. The newspaper, however, regularly carried stories of the numbers on out-relief, inmates and vagrants. To obtain a broad sense of the ‘stock’ of workhouse inmates we have taken each report, totalled the number of inmates reported and divided these by the number of board meetings recorded in that year. We would like to thank the Workhouse Historical Interest Group (WHIGs) at Southwell for their help in collating these figures.

56 TNA MH 12/9528/10, detailed workhouse report from Robert Weale, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, to the PLC, 13th February 1847, fols 15–19. The number of inmates for the Christmas quarter 1845 was 138 and the same period for 1846 was 143. MH 12/9528/176, detailed workhouse report from Robert Weale, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, to the PLC, 7th August 1847, fols 234–235, the number of inmates for the Midsummer quarter 1846 was 118, and the same period for 1847 was 155.

57 TNA MH 12/9527/151, draft letter from the PLC, to Thomas Marriott, Clerk to the Guardians, 12th March 1844, fol. 214.

58 From the inmate pauper data in MH 12/9528/176 and the Nottinghamshire Guardian newspaper reports 1849–71.

59 TNA HO 107/853, 1841 census, fols 58–61, pp. 1–3; HO 107/2139, 1851 census, fols 137–139, pp. 1–5; RG 9/2483, 1861 census, fols 1–3, pp. 103–04; RG 10/3546, 1871 census, fol. 53, pp. 1–2.

60 TNA HO 107/867, 1841 census, fols 36–41, pp. 1–20; HO 107/1473, 1851 census, fols 541–550, pp. 1–19; RG 9/2460, 1861 census, fols 101–118, pp. 1–35; RG 10/3519, 1871 census, fols 65–78, pp. 1–27.

61 King, Women, Welfare, pp. 83–97.

62 See contributions to Carter, P. and Thompson, K., eds, Pauper Prisons … Pauper Palaces: The Victorian Poor Law in the East and West Midlands, 1834–1871 (Kibworth Beauchamp, 2018).Google Scholar

63 SO PUS 3/3/1, NA Southwell Poor Law Union, punishment book, 1852–1936. An anonymous referee notes that punishment might have been more likely if offences took place in the public rather than the private spaces of the workhouse. The punishment book does not systematically record such information.

64 Including NA PUS 1/1/1–22: union minutes books; TNA MH 12/9524-9548: correspondence with the Poor Law Commission, Poor Law Board and Local Government Board; and material in Parliamentary Papers.

65 PP, Abstract Returns of the Number of Persons Committed to Prison in England and Wales for any Offence in a Union Workhouse, Established under the Poor Law Amendment Act, Local Acts, and Gilbert's Act (1843). Such returns exist episodically up to 1894 and notionally afford the opportunity for regional and typographical comparison, but we argue below that these sources pick up only a small subset of punishments.

66 NA PUS 1/1/1 Guardian Minute Book, 26th June 1837.

67 NA PUS 1/1/2, Southwell Poor Law Guardian’s Minute Book, 7th January 1840.

68 The Nottinghamshire Guardian, 2nd February 1849. We could find no overlap between the guardians or union staff and those involved with the house of correction.

69 TNA MH 12/9360/303, letter from S. Weightman, Workhouse Master, Southwell Poor Law Union, to Robert Weale, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, 4th November 1844.

70 TNA MH 12/9361/20, letter from William Wilson to the PLC, 1st February 1845, fols 25–26. This episode reflects our earlier observation that seeking to involve magistrates in dealing with disorderly paupers could be a double-edged sword for officials.

71 TNA MH 12/9528/227, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 1st February 1848, fols 306–307. This letter enclosed a routine return giving details of numbers of vagrants relieved in Southwell. If the return had not been due it is unlikely that any mention of the disturbance would be recorded at all. There is no mention of these events in the guardians’ minute books and no evidence of formal punishment for the actions taken.

72 Out of 1788 pauper committals across England and Wales in 1852, London accounted for 356 (or almost 20 per cent) of them. Green, ‘Pauper protests’, 141.

73 Others have also recently argued this. See, for instance, Tomkins, A., ‘Workhouse Medical Care from Working-Class Autobiographies, 1750–1834’, in Reinarz, and Schwarz, , eds, Medicine and the Workhouse, pp. 86–102; J. Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 2010).Google Scholar

74 Quantifying the data is difficult and we must be clear what we are counting. NA PUS 3/3/1, Southwell workhouse punishment book, 1852–1936, is the source of the data and we have enumerated each offence up to 1871. Thus George Rhodes, a pauper inmate who ‘Refused to assist in scouring the bedrooms and has been very insolent’ both refused to undertake work allotted to him as well as having indulged in verbal abuse, equating to two offences.

75 There is no evidence in the union minutes or newspapers that other ‘triggers’, such as a changed composition of workhouse inmates or changes to core parts of the workhouse regime, such as dietaries or work patterns at these times. Equally there is no evidence that staffing turnover coincides in any systematic way with these peaks. In a small rural workhouse individual pauper personality may have been important but the distribution of offences (absconding and personal conflict for instance) does suggest that overcrowding had both a direct and indirect effect.

76 It became notably difficult to meaningfully punish young women for instance, though there are no systematic gender patterns in the Southwell records. See Green, ‘Pauper protests’.

77 James, ‘Sophia Heathfield’.

78 The category of ‘others’ includes one-off instances/events not easy to combine for statistical purposes; for example, ‘wetting the chamber floor’. We are not primarily interested in the nature of punishments, but these conformed to the matrix of those set out in the 1841 and 1847 orders.

79 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 19th November 1864.

80 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 7th November 1864.

81 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 19th November 1864.

82 Carter, P. and King, S., ‘Keeping track: modern methods, administration and the Victorian poor law, 1834–1871’, Archives, 60 (2014), 3152.Google Scholar

83 TNA MH 12/9529/582, draft letter from the PLB, to the Reverend F. Powell, Chaplain, 24th June 1852, fol. 783.

84 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 9th June 1854.

85 TNA MH 12/9531/510, detailed workhouse report from John Lambert, Poor Law Inspector, to the PLB, 10th March 1859, fols 625–626. This punishment was not recorded in the book.

86 In only six cases from sixty-three instances of personal violence were staff the victims.

87 Long-term inmates can be identified through inter-census linkage, evidence reported in correspondence between centre and locality, the union minute books and the punishment book itself. Sojourners undoubtedly ended up in confrontations but we see much less of them in punishment books or wider union correspondence.

88 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 10th August 1852; 24th December 1853; 2nd August 1869 and 15th October 1869.

89 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 24th April 1852.

90 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 1st September 1852; 7th August 1853.

91 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 11th April 1860 and 14th May 1862.

92 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 6th September 1854.

93 NA PUS 3/3/1, punishment book, 14th May 1864.

94 Cross referencing was made to censuses and poor law union correspondence, but also to guardians’ minute books and reports by or returns to the Lunacy Commissioners.

95 It seems likely the percentage would have been higher had we been able to account for those who were on shorter sojourns in the workhouse. Few of these people appear in the punishment books but some would certainly have had a mental condition.

96 Such practices also of course highlight the lack of day-to-day control that officials actually maintained. None of these chastisements were officially recorded, though they do explain Stanley’s attempts to abscond.

97 TNA MH 12/9530/338, letter from John Manwaring, Poor Law Inspector, to the PLB, 14th July 1854, fols 413–414; MH 12/9530/339, draft letter from the Poor Law Board to Thomas Marriott, Clerk, 15th July 1854, fols 415–416; MH 12/9530/340, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 17th July 1854, fol. 417; MH 12/9530/341, draft letter from the PLB to Thomas Marriott, Clerk, 24th July 1854, fol. 418; MH 12/9530/346, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 26th July 1854, fol. 424; MH 12/9530/347, draft letter from the PLB to Thomas Marriott, Clerk, 4th August 1854, fol. 425; MH 12/9530/348, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 9th August 1854, fol. 426; MH 12/9530/349, draft letter from the PLB to Thomas Marriott, Clerk, 19th August 1854, fol. 427; MH 12/9530/352, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 23rd August 1854, fol. 430.

98 The following forms (sometimes with enclosure letters) are the surviving annual returns listing 'Lunatics, Idiots and other persons of Unsound Mind' chargeable to the Southwell Union: TNA MH 12/9530/418, Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 13th January 1855, fol. 519; MH 12/9531/24, Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 1st February 1856, fol. 26; MH 12/9531/177, John Kirkland, Clerk, to the PLB, 5th February 1857, fols 215–216; MH 12/9531/315, John Kirkland, Clerk, to the PLB, 29th January 1858, fol. 385; MH 12/9531/474, John Kirkland, Clerk, to the PLB, 20th January 1859, fol. 583; MH 12/9532/95, John Kirkland, Clerk, to the PLB, 20th January 1861, fol. 145. Census returns and lunacy Commission reports provide comprehensive data thereafter.

99 Miller, ‘Variations’. Also Wright, D., ‘Learning disability and the New Poor Law in England, 1834–1867, Disability & Society, 15:5 (2000), 731–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

100 MH 12/9530/346, letter from Thomas Marriott, Clerk, to the PLB, 26th July 1854, fol. 424.

101 It is for this reason that the 1845 Lunacy Act had a particular focus on the ‘problem’ of the insane in workhouses.

102 PP, Supplement to the Twelfth Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor (1859), pp. 6–7.

103 Walton, J., ‘The Treatment of Pauper Lunatics in Victorian England: The Case of Lancaster Asylum, 1816–1870’, in Scull, A., ed., Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era (London, 1981), pp. 186–7.Google Scholar

104 Bartlett, P., The Poor Law of Lunacy: The Administration of Pauper Lunatics in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (Leicester, 1999), p. 9.Google Scholar

105 Carter, P. and Wileman, D., ‘Managing Useless Work: the Southwell and Mansfield Hand-Crank of the 1840s’, in Carter, and Thompson, , eds, Pauper Prisons, pp. 3756.Google Scholar

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