A workhouse holiday

rear view of the building showing garden and red brick building

The rear view of the Red House Museum – a lot more welcoming than I’d expected!

I went away for a week recently with my family, and I just had to do a little bit of work while away, so we visited the Red House Museum in Christchurch, Dorset, an ex-workhouse that’s now a local museum.

The Red House was built in 1764, and the building was really not at all what I had expected. The Blean workhouse was built only thirty or so years later, in 1791, but the buildings look nothing alike. This made me focus on what I imagined the workhouse to be like, and I decided that most of my ideas probably come from Oliver Twist and the few photos I’ve seen.

I guess I imagined a large, dark, cold building with high ceilings and plenty of space for people. Instead, the Red House was small, with low wood-beamed ceilings and small rooms – it was hard to imagine that a large number of people would have lived there at a time. I was sorry that there was so little information about the workhouse itself; there was a display of the fusee chains, the tiny watch chains that the people – including children – would have sat making for hours at a time, and there were a couple more displays, but the museum covered all aspects of the area’s history, not just the workhouse.

The study room within the museum

The study room within the museum

At this point I started to feel indignant that those who lived there were so unrecorded, but at least the workhouse stands in their memory. In fact research is encouraged, with a small room in the building itself devoted to local study. Still, I’m glad that I’m researching our workhouse, and I’d like my work to stand in memory of the poorest amongst us, the problems they faced and their fate.

Children were encouraged to explore the museum, with activity packs designed to help them learn more about the life of a specific child, or about the master of the workhouse, and I read these with interest. I had always assumed that the life of the children would be similar to the lives our children lead now, but according to their records the children had about ten minutes of schooling a day and the rest of the day would be spent working, particularly on those tiny chains that I would strain to see properly, let alone assemble into watch chains.

The yards were divided into men’s yard, boys’ yard, girls’ yard and the laundry yard – presumably the women spent their time working on the laundry rather than marching round the yard exercising. The gardens are very pleasant to walk around and sit in now, but I wondered just what they would have been like in workhouse days – did they do any work in the garden? did they grow their own food? did they get to play games out there?

The master's desk

The master’s desk

Another feature of the museum was the master’s desk. He originally had his own office, but when the poor law came into effect and the board of guardians needed somewhere to meet, his desk was moved to the half landing, where I admired his collection of books and papers.

Probably the part I found most interesting was the kitchen, being forced to consider the practicalities of feeding such a large group of people efficiently. The workhouse at Blean was criticised for its poor diet, with the meat being mostly fat and gristle, and recommendations being made for improvement of diet, but I can’t imagine it would be easy to feed so many people. The kitchen at the Red House was fitted out with all sorts of Victorian paraphernalia, and I tried to imagine the groups of people rushing around preparing meals – did they have a rota? did the people cook for themselves, or did someone come in to do it? I gathered they were in charge of doing their own laundry.

large fireplace with victorian artefacts

Fancy catering for large numbers on this?

I’ve reached the point where the research on the inmates is going well but I really need to start focusing on the workhouse itself, and on life generally in those times, to get a better idea of what conditions were like, what happened on a day to day basis and what their lives would have been like inside the workhouse and outside.

Some new software is helping me to organise my research and notes into something resembling a book, so I’m starting to feel I’m really making progress. Now I need to transfer the information that’s in family tree form into text and start playing with it and working out how to make it interesting for the reader, and to start the more general research. I also want to get back to the archives and continue my work there. Next time I’ll be taking the laptop, as I’m starting to want to record more than pencilled notes. I’ll also look into paying for a camera licence for the day, so I can keep pictorial records as well as written records.



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