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Charles Dickens and the Cleveland Street Workhouse

By Dr. Ruth Richardson- Special to the Charles Dickens Page

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I originally had no idea that the workhouse in Cleveland Street had anything to do with Charles Dickens beyond an article I had written about years ago. I'm a historian of medicine, mostly.

In 1866 Dickens wrote a characteristically robust letter of support to a fine nineteenth century medical man, Dr Joseph Rogers. Rogers was the Medical Officer inside what was then known as the Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street, and had witnessed and worked among the terrible conditions inside the place. The experience had led him to resolve to change things. So when he founded the Association for Improvement of London Workhouse Infirmaries, the letter Rogers received from Dickens was read out at the first meeting in 1866:

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"My Dear Sir,
My knowledge of the general condition of the Sick Poor in workhouses is not of yesterday, nor are my efforts in my vocation to call merciful attention to it. Few anomalies in England are so horrible to me as the unchecked existence of many shameful sick wards for paupers, side by side with a constantly recurring expansion of conventional wonder that the poor should creep into corners to die, rather than fester and rot in such infamous places"

I published it in an article about Rogers in the British Medical Journal in 1989 (there is a link to it on www.workhouses.org). The long term results of this paper were first: Rogers was honoured with a blue plaque on his old home at 33 Dean St Soho, and second: it was how local people in the Cleveland Street area knew I had an interest in the workhouse, and they made contact last October, asking for my help in saving the workhouse, which is under threat of demolition for a really uninteresting modern block of posh apartments.

The Dickens quote has since taken on new meaning, because after I had spent time writing letters to individuals and framing a good public letter for The Times, and gathering good signatures of support (Nov 3rd 2010) I turned my mind to researching the street... and found that Dickens knew far more about the workhouse than I had ever guessed.

I suspected that when he was in the blacking factory, young Dickens might have been inside the catchment area for the workhouse, since it was originally built on fields to the north in 1775 (*under the Old Poor Law) for the parish of St Paul Covent Garden, and that he might therefore have been working alongside children who had been apprenticed out from Cleveland Street.

I knew there was an 'unofficial' blue plaque on a house in Chandos Street (now Place) saying that Dickens had worked there as a child, so I first had to double-check (I generally take little on trust) that the plaque was correctly sited. Finding it correct, I then went to check parish boundaries for the dense area around the Strand, and found that yes! the Chandos St house WAS inside St Paul Covent Garden Parish. So if poor Dickens was ever threatened with the workhouse - it would have been THIS one that was meant. He was working alongside some very poor children there, and if any of them had been workhouse apprentices, they would have had stories to tell, of that there can be no doubt.

While I was doing that work I had noticed that the Dickens family had lived in rather a surprising number of different addresses when he was a child - they moved about a lot, partly for his father's work, and partly to avoid creditors - and that one of these addresses was in Marylebone. I was rather puzzled because Marylebone is an expensive district of London, and always has been.

Strangely, too, the same address cropped up again later: they had lived there twice. For their second stay they had moved there following an eviction, in quite a poor area - Somers Town, so I was perplexed as to whereabouts in Marylebone they might have managed to afford - it would have to be in an area with some kind of blight on it. The workhouse is on a street which is itself the border of Marylebone - the divide runs down the middle of the street for much of its length. I think I was hoping that it might be nearby, perhaps.

So I took a look again at the address and didn't recognise it: 10 Norfolk Street. I checked on a modern AtoZ of London, and found that it doesn't exist any longer. It could have been bombed in the Blitz, or demolished for a new street/big rebuilding programme - there are any number of reasons for roads to disappear in London, in 200 years. But when I found it on an old map, I nearly fell off my chair in the Library! Norfolk Street is the southernmost end of what is now Cleveland Street - so Dickens was living in a London street with a workhouse in it!!

Then I had to locate the actual house, which was not entirely straightforward - but I eventually found a map which had street numbers, and which showed that number 10 was on the corner with Tottenham Street. The same map showed that there were only nine houses standing between Dickens' old home and the workhouse.

The pleasure of it is, that the old house still stands!! It's a lovely Georgian corner shop, and the front door and curved shop window are still there, just as they were in Dickens' day! You can see the workhouse and the old house on Google earth - just look one block south of the Telecom BT Tower for the workhouse, and another block south to see Dickens old home.

I have since double-checked all the biographies I could lay my hands on, and none of them mention the fact there was a workhouse within doors of Dickens' first London home. None of them go into detail about this interesting house, in which Dickens had lived twice, except Una Pope-Hennesey's biography, now half-a-century old itself. She had noted that the landlord was a Mr Dodd, a cheesemonger. Mr Leslie Styles, a past editor of The Dickensian had published a photograph of the house in an article on Dickens' London homes, in 1951, but hadn't noticed the workhouse, either. Among all the many books on Dickens' London, even the one by Peter Ackroyd, I haven't found anyone who has noticed the close contiguity of the workhouse. So this feels like a new discovery!!

I have been very heartened to find that there are discoveries still to be made about Dickens - Michael Allen's wonderful talk on the UK National Archives website shows that there are still things to be unearthed - his work concerns the blacking factory and the Chancery case in Bleak House - a stunningly good lecture - a half-hour talk available online, and SUCH a pleasurable half hour! There can be no doubt that had Michael Allen continued his lovely book on Dickens' childhood up to the period when he left home (rather than ending when he left school) that this discovery would have been his rather than mine. But I am very happy to have been the one to find it - to put together a fact known to Dickens scholars, with another fact known to this historian of the Poor Law!

The finding of the connection is wonderful for the workhouse, because of course it means that the building may have been the original of the one in Oliver Twist, and so that it is not just an old workhouse, but the most famous workhouse in the world!!

Other places have been suggested as models for the workhouse in Oliver Twist, especially as Dickens was at pains to place it outside London. But his geography is not only hazy but contradictory (David Paroissien's Companion to Oliver Twist discusses this) and now we know that there was a workhouse doors from Dickens' own home, it seems perverse to think that it might have been anywhere else. The Poor Law historian Peter Higginbotham (author of the excellent www.workhouses.org website) has pointed out that the one in Oliver Twist has a 'branch' workhouse where children were farmed out (Oliver is farmed out after birth) and that only workhouses in the centre of London had this - London had a special Act of Parliament to allow it. So the workhouse in Oliver Twist has to be a central London one, and Dickens was probably covering his tracks when he placed it elsewhere.

Peter Higginbotham has commented: 'Over the years, a number of other workhouses have vied for the recognition as being the one that inspired Oliver Twist. However, until now, the most obvious and convincing candidate has been overlooked.'

I would be so grateful if readers of your page who have not already done so would sign the e-petition as soon as possible, and tell friends about it - because the petition has to be submitted to government probably within the next week. We are close to 2000 signatories, and it would be wonderful if we could reach that number before submission, and splendid if they were your readers! Letters to the planners and the government Minister (details + addresses etc appear on the same website) are even better - they are particularly valuable if they come from outside the UK, as the minister is also Minister for Tourism.

Warmest wishes to you, David, and to all your readers!

Dr Ruth Richardson, historian.