Workhouse saved

The good news has just come through that the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of the very few surviving 18th-century workhouses, has been listed, and gained therefore a stay of execution. Instead of being turned into another (yawn) block of ‘luxury’ flats (does anyone ever put up flats that are projected to be ‘ordinary’?) we will have preserved one of the few reminders of the hated Poor Laws, to which our beloved government seems to be hoping to return us (but that, my pets, is another story).

This workhouse, and the excellent work done on its history by Ruth Richardson and the Cleveland Street Workhouse group, is an amazing nexus of historical goodies. Thomas Hardwick, the Georgian architect who renovated St Paul’s, Covent Garden, and Inigo Jones’s St James’s, Piccadilly, designed part of it; Giles and Gough (architects of the Langham Hotel nearby, on Portland Place) later updated a pavilion behind the building.


Cleveland Street in the 1930s, with the workhouse (both images courtesy of Cleveland Street Workhouse group and website)

Every bit as thrilling is the Dickens connection. Dr Richardson has done some astonishing detective work to discover that the house Dickens lived in as a child at 10 Norfolk Street , previously thought to have been destroyed, is in fact still standing, renumbered as 22 Cleveland Street, a mere nine buildings away from the workhouse.

Dickens' home in 1830, now numbered 22 Cleveland Street

It is impossible to imagine that Dickens walked past the workhouse on his way to and from home, without taking some note of it. (One only has to read Sketches by Boz to realize how much the city meant to Dickens.) Thus, there is almost no doubt that when it came time to create a fictional workhouse in Oliver Twist, although it was located outside of London, this daily site was not utilized in some degree.

Dr Richardson’s 1987 book, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (apart from having one of the greatest titles ever) is a tour-de-force of readable scholarship opening up an entirely new subject to general readers. For that alone, she has always been one of my heroes. Now her work on discovering Dickens’ early home, and in the campaign to save the workhouse, shows just how important serious scholarship is: not just an ivory-tower pursuit, but transforming and preserving the fabric of our daily lives.