At the Workhouse on Cleveland St
My esteemed colleague Dr Ruth Richardson outlines the background to her bravura campaign that saved an eighteenth century workhouse from demolition and uncovered important literary history at the same time. Yet, as she reports, the battle to preserve the building in a way that respects its cultural significance continues.
Please Sir, I want some more!
Many readers will be aware of the successful campaign waged in late 2010 and early 2011 to prevent the destruction of the Workhouse on Cleveland St – which stands at the Goodge St end of Fitzrovia, in Camden on the border with Marylebone.
In October 2010, when I was asked to become the historian of the campaign, I was in the midst of other things but the plea was plaintive and urgent, and something told me I should not put it aside. For generations, the building had been a major London workhouse – the Strand Union Workhouse – before it became an annexe of the Middlesex Hospital in 1948. Back in 1989, I and my sweetheart had written about a Poor Law Medical Officer – Joseph Rogers – who had worked in the building in the mid-Victorian era. The campaigner who tracked me down had read our article.
Dr Rogers’ Reminiscences of a Workhouse Medical Officer make the place unique, because Cleveland St is the only workhouse in England to have a published doctor’s memoir detailing the regime as it operated, written from the inside. Dr Rogers instigated a ground-breaking series of investigative articles in The Lancet in the eighteen-sixties which lifted the lid on the terrible conditions for the sick poor in such places. He founded the ‘Society for the Improvement of Workhouse Infirmaries’ which attracted influential supporters including Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens. The reforms that followed in the eighteen-seventies, that originated in Cleveland St, involved the erection of major new hospitals in a ring round London and other cities, establishing many of the locations still in use for NHS health-care provision today.
When I went over to Cleveland St to meet the campaigners, I was horror-struck to find the Middlesex Hospital – a once proud and venerable institution, always buzzing with vitality – just a vast field of rubble. My father’s life had been saved there, I loved the place. I was aghast. The other campaigners, I soon realised, were also suffering what can only be described as post-traumatic shock, after the wilful destruction of that fine institution. In place of the beating heart of the neighbourhood, there was a black hole.
All of us had that crater in our minds as we worked. It was the sheer vandalism of its destruction which gave focus to the campaign to save the Middlesex Hospital’s Outpatients Department. The Camden Council planning meeting that could permit the demolition was only five weeks away.
English Heritage had done a thorough job in recommending the Workhouse building should be listed. Every scrap of supportive evidence had been submitted, including our work on Dr Rogers. Only a tiny number of recommendations are ever rejected, but after lobbying by the local MP Frank Dobson, Margaret Hodge, the minister responsible under the previous Labour government, had refused to list the Workhouse. A ministerial decision cannot be appealed without ‘substantive’ new evidence and we had nothing to add.
I had only ever worked on one such campaign before. At the height of the Thatcher era, the last-minute attempt to save the Rose Theatre had been half-successful. I knew from that experience that without Mr Shakespeare, this one stood little chance. But the Rose had garnered huge support in only six days and here we had five weeks. Our chances of saving the Workhouse were dismal but – and this was the important thing – at least we could put up a good fight. Future historians looking at its loss would know a battle had taken place.
I spent the first week drafting a good letter to The Times and getting a decent clutch of signatures for it, agreeing the final tweaks to the text with every signatory. Such things take time. The Times came up trumps with a colour photo and a dream headline, “Georgian Gem on the Danger List.” The workhouse is certainly Georgian – it is older than Brighton Pavilion, built in the seventeen-seventies. But it is not a beautiful building. It is plain and utilitarian, built in local London stock brick shortly after the overcrowded parish of St Paul Covent Garden had purchased a field from the Duke of Bedford for its new poorhouse and burial ground.
I was enormously grateful to The Times for that headline. Now we had only four weeks to find something on which to base an appeal to the Conservative minister. While I was digging in the history, I pondered the identity of the patron saint of workhouses? It had to be Saint Charles. I prayed that he and Mr Dickens would sort it out between them, and they did.
The first glimmer of hope was when I discovered that one of the two blacking factories in which Charles Dickens had worked as a boy had been within the parish of Covent Garden, so he might have worked alongside parish apprentices sent out from this workhouse. That was something, especially as he had named the villain ‘Fagin’ in Oliver Twist after a boy in the factory.
Wondering where he had been living at that time, while his family was incarcerated in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, I landed upon the answer which became the key to solve my problem. The Dickens family had moved about a lot and one of their London addresses – which curiously appeared twice – was in a street called Norfolk St, near the Middlesex Hospital.
The street-name no longer exists but, poring over an old map in the Westminster Archives with a magnifying glass, I think I yelped out loud with delight. Norfolk St is now the southern end of Cleveland St! None of the biographers had ever made a connection between that address and the Workhouse, yet Dickens lived there for nearly five years before he wrote Oliver Twist.
When I shared the news with my fellow campaigners, we found ourselves shaking with a sense of blissful coincidence. It was sufficient new evidence to delay matters until we could mount an appeal and, when we did, the Minister referred the matter back to English Heritage who again recommended listing. This time, because of the connection with Dickens, the Minister listed the building.
Since then, I have done further research on the street and the district in Dickens’ day, and found good grounds for supposing that the Workhouse was important to Oliver Twist - the central plotline fits the topography, and the uniforms and regime were closely similar between the reality and his book. Not least, right opposite the Workhouse I found that, in Dickens’ day, there had been a shopkeeper called – YES – Bill Sykes!
Regrettably, when the Minister listed the Workhouse, he also issued what is known as a ‘certificate of immunity’ on the rest of the site, which exempts it from protection. Quite why this was done to a location with significant heritage is unclear. Dead from the Strand parishes are buried deep in the ground around the Workhouse and there are several good solid Victorian buildings, including the Master’s House and the Receiving Wards, on each side of the listed building. At the back, there are two splendid Nightingale Wards which are unique in London for being attached to an eighteenth century poorhouse.
The owners of the site have recently put forward plans which envisage the destruction of everything but the listed building. A high-rise apartment block will occupy the burial ground and glitzy buildings are planned to flank the most famous Workhouse in the world, which will be broken up internally for expensive flats. I asked a man who said he was the architect if his buildings would last as long as those already standing there have done – yet, for some reason, he seemed unable to enunciate a reply.
Dickens house with the blue plaque
Charles Dickens’ calling card while resident in Fitzrovia. (reproduced courtesy of Dan Cilanesco)
Showing the proximity of Dickens’ childhood home and the Strand Union Workhouse
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