What’s on : Activities

Visit to Southwell Minster and Workhouse

13 Jun 2024
Start time
8:45 AM
Visit to Southwell Minster and Workhouse

Event Information

Visit to Southwell Minster and Workhouse

Cost: £43 per person plus National Trust entrance fee at the Workhouse for non-NT members

Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire has a long history, much of it associated with York. Now a cathedral it is the seat of the bishop of Southwell ad Nottingham and has acted as mother church for the surrounding area since the Middle Ages. Much of the Minster is built in the Norman Romanesque style but with 14th Century additions as, for example, in the choir and Chapter House. Like York Minster the Chapter House is octagonal with, unusually, no supporting central pier, while the entrance portal is famous for its carved foliage-see Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Leaves of Southwell.

From the Minster it is a short journey to the Workhouse built in 1824 and probably the best-preserved example of the hundreds of workhouses built across the country in the 19th century.

Leaving York from Memorial Gardens by coach at 8.45am we will travel to Southwell for a guided tour of the Minster followed by lunch (not included). In the afternoon we will have a further guided tour of the Workhouse and Infirmary before leaving at approximately 4pm for our journey back to York.

Booking Form with further details:

Southwell visit booking form

Member’s report

Southwell Minster is a mixture of Norman (Romanesque) and Gothic architecture with elements of Saxon or Roman workings hidden beneath the bread pews in the south transept. Our group was greeted on arrival by Jean, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, who took us through the genesis of the building pointing out its connections to York including the wonderful west window installed by Keith Barley of Barley Studios Dunnington, the connections with St Paulinus and Archbishop Walter de Grey and the octagonal Chapter House with no central column. Southwell Minster is a delight and the highpoint for many was the very intricate and beautiful carving at the entrance to the Chapter House featuring leaves, vines and branches cut away completely from behind in a most sophisticated manner. Apparently we were not on our own as the Minster attracts visitors from around the world to view this fine craftsmanship.

Other highlights included the spectacular carving over the north door, the Bramley Apple window also from Barley Studios, the Patchwork window comprising fragments of mediaeval glass, the 16th century Jean Chastellain windows in the East End and a 20th century war memorial window by Nicholas Mynheer.

After a short journey we arrived at the Workhouse for lunch, followed by a tour around the outside of the building, which preceded and was the model for other workhouses under the New Poor Law of 1834. Southwell was the brainchild of the Rev. J.T.Becher who, after experimenting on a small scale, encouraged 49 neighbouring parishes to pool their resources with his and build the new workhouse in 1824 and now in the hands of the National Trust. Becher divided the poor into the deserving and the undeserving and separated the men from the women and the building reflects this in its layout. It was run on a day to day basis by a Master assisted by a Matron and Schoolteacher and overseen by the Board of Guardians. Life was hard and food although adequate was hardly gourmet, consisting mainly of bread and gruel. It was seen as the last resort for those in need who had to register for admission beforehand, unless, as in the case of vagrants, they stayed one night and worked in exchange for food before moving on.

In 1929, authority for the Workhouse was transferred from the Guardians to the Local Authority and Southwell became a Public Assistance Institution. With the Welfare State reforms actioned in 1948 former elderly residents were moved into the two Infirmaries – one for men and one for women, while the main house was used for staff and as a kitchen. In addition, until as late as 1977, the council used the women’s wing as temporary homeless accommodation with beds crammed up against each other and families forced to share sanitary facilities.

The building itself is very fine and is based on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon principle, looking out over the site and in particular over a very good vegetable and herb garden. The grand entrance at the front was, of course, only used by the Guardians and the Master; never by the residents who inhabited the warren like rooms entered from the rear, many up narrow cold stone stairs. This was not so much a place to enjoy but to find informative and for reflection – a genuine contrast with the beauty of the Minster.

Dorothy Nott