The Story of London’s Last Workhouse
The Cleveland Street workhouse is the most intact example of an 18th century workhouse institution left standing in London. Built between 1775 and 1778, it has been standing for over 235 years, and its historical merits include becoming a cause celebre in Victorian times and a pioneer in medical history. The buildings have been in constant occupation since 1770s for the care of the London sick and poor, a unique example in London.
Located on the eastern side of Cleveland Street, the workhouse was built by the parish of St Paul, Covent Garden in 1778. Permission was sought to use part of the site as a burial ground for the parish. The ground was consecrated in 1790, and never deconsecrated. Original documents suggest there are thousand of human remains buried, going down twenty feet deep.
But there’s an interesting connection to Charles Dickens that has surfaced: his relationship with the building lasted most of his life, starting in 1815 until at least 1866. It turns out that for years Dickens lived less than ten doors from the workhouse.
This makes it likely that the story of Oliver Twist was first conceived when Dickens lived in the street, and that the Cleveland Street workhouse was the original institution in the book. We know that Dickens was living there in 1830, because 10 Norfolk Street was the address he gave when he signed for a Reader’s Ticket at the British Museum Reading Room, when he was just 18, and again a year later, in 1831. In 1830 Dickens had a calling-card printed for himself, giving his role as ‘Short-Hand Writer’ and his address as ’10 Norfolk Street, Fitzroy Square.’
Ruth Richardson, a British historian and preservationist, stumbled upon this after realizing that the street name had been changed. Dickens had grown up impoverished, a factory child worker, and did not relish sharing personal details of his upbringing after he became famous. Richardson started examining names of people and streets from the time and comparing them to Dickens’ works, and found close correspondences.
As the setting of ‘Oliver Twist’ and the last London workhouse, you’d think it deserved preservation. But now it is under threat again, and the building stands empty. The old enemy is – with grim inevitability – Camden Council, the plebeian destroyer of so much in the Central London area. If this was America, there’s be a concerted, well-organised effort to save the building, but here it’s impossible to find out information even from the sites setting out to protect it.
There’s an online petition to save the building here, but don’t get your hopes up.