The Story of London’s Last Workhouse

London

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.

11 comments on “The Story of London’s Last Workhouse”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Very interesting. It should be saved. And in America the chances are good it would be for several reasons the most important being Dickens himself. We have some “Charles Dickens slept/lectured here” plaques.

  2. agatha hamilton says:

    Of course it should be saved. Thanks for writing about it. Have signed petition. On the subject of Dickens, workhouses and prisons, I think there is only one wall of the Marshalsea still standing isn’t there? You feel impelled to touch it when you pass – in memory of Little Dorrit.

  3. snowy says:

    It was Grade II listed only 2 years ago? UCLH wanted to knock it down, but Westminster City Council objected, insisting that it be refurbished.

    The petition seems to be about 3 years old? *confused face*

    But it has an interesting history, I will rustle up a link, for those that are keen.

  4. snowy says:

    Linky link

    http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Strand/

    It starts with a bit of background before getting to the building itself.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Snowy, for a fascinating bit of history. The whole concept of Workhouse is strange and when you see the size of the buildings, realize the crowding inside and remember the number uncared for it wouldn’t be surprising if the guardians had thrown up their hands in despair. And now I see why what I thought were hoardings are such an unusual shape.

  6. Ken Murray says:

    WhIle doing some family tree research a few years back I discovered there was a workhouse in Buckingham Palace Road. I’m not sure if the building still exists but it was there around 1900? As for illustrious neighbours…

  7. snowy says:

    Ken,

    Rather than bother our host by making him approve another link if you change the letters ‘Strand’ to ‘StGeorges’, keeping the oblique strokes intact. It will take you to a full page including some more links.

    There were a number of buildings used but the one off BP Road [pictured on the page linked] survived into the 1920s.

  8. Ken Murray says:

    Thanks for the link Snowy! I think this is where my grandfather was born in 1901. Interesting how ‘grand’ the building looked on the outside. However I doubt it was as glamorous on the inside?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Everything seems to be aimed at appearing grand. I really feel for the poor Zulu who must have been terrified by everything happening to him.

  10. glasgow1975 says:

    It might need to be put to use again soon if the ConDems continue down their road of cut cut cut and councils evict people who can no longer afford their rents.

  11. Mary Lint says:

    I had never heard of this workhouse before. I’m glad to see it’s a listed building now. I wish they would turn it into a workhouse themed museum to see how the poor that ended up in such places were treated. I just read a book called ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way’ about Will Crooks. He was sent to the Poplar Workhouse as a boy but then when he grew up he actually became chairman of the very board that years earlier had sent him to the workhouse. He then set about humanising and reforming the workhouse system. I hear so much talk these days about how the government should bring back workhouses. I’m sure a museum of what life was like for the poor in many of these establishments would soon change that line of thought. Thanks for a great post!

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