Grim Insight into the Daily Grind of Life in a Workhouse Sheds New Light on 'Oliver Twist' ; HOME

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Thomas Marriott took a suitably dim view of the behaviour of the 796 "vagrants and trampers" who benefited in 1870 from the generous care offered by the Southwell Workhouse.

As the man entrusted with ensuring standards in this Nottinghamshire bastion of Victorian social engineering, Mr Marriott indignantly reported that in one month alone four paupers had set fire to their bedding. Writing to the guardians of the workhouse, he added: "Twelve were committed to prison for destroying their clothes; 18 had broken up the wooden bedsteads and burnt them, notwithstanding they had been supplied with a fire and warm gruel as well as bread on account of the severity of the weather."

The exasperation of Mr Marriott, a real-life version of that expressed by Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist, is just one of thousands of grim but fascinating insights into the daily grind of a Victorian workhouse offered for the first time by a free electronic archive.

Described as "invaluable" for research into Victorian social history, the records chronicle early attempts to provide a social safety net in the Midlands, from the appalling medical care suffered by an impoverished mother of twins to an illicit affair between the workhouse's two teachers.

The 5,000 documents from the Southwell Workhouse Poor Law Union between 1834 and 1871 went online yesterday after a remarkable five- year partnership between the National Archives and a group of enthusiasts. Without the resources necessary to read and catalogue the muddled records, part of a vast library of documents covering all Victorian workhouses inherited from the Ministry of Health, the National Archives handed over electronic copies to the Southwell Workhouse Research Group, based in the property, which is owned by the National Trust.

The 20 volunteers then painstakingly read through the vast quantities of correspondence, memos and reports written in the spidery script of the era, providing a detailed description of the contents of each document so it could be searched online.

Dr Paul Carter, principal modern records specialist at the National Archives in Kew, said: "It has been a unique project to make public a really important but normally pretty inaccessible set of archives.

"The result is a fantastic collection which is invaluable for researchers in a number of areas from pauper education to the medical treatment that was available to the poor in Victorian society."

Among the first-hand accounts of life in rural Nottinghamshire at the height of the Industrial Revolution offered by the archive is the case of Sarah Mayfield, a "poor woman" who was dangerously ill after a botched delivery of twins by an untrained midwife.

The archive includes a letter to the Poor Law Commission in London, which oversaw the workhouses, from a Southwell surgeon, Mr H R Smith, asking to be reimbursed a [pound]2 fee resulting from his being called out to treat Mrs Mayfield.

The surgeon describes in graphic detail the treatment received by his patient at the hands of the local midwife: "I found the patient had been delivered of twins [and] on inquiry I found that the midwife after the birth of the first child had been using her utmost endeavours for some time to extract the deficient placenta using no special instrument. …