Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dickens' Workhouse Saved from Wrecker's Ball

From the Guardian UK Online: The derelict Georgian building in Cleveland Street, London, which in Dickens's day was known as the Strand Union workhouse, has been given listed status by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. ... Built in 1775 as the workhouse for the parish of St Paul's church in Covent Garden, by the mid-1830s the building had been taken over under the New Poor Law legislation – the real target for Dickens's anger – to serve a number of poor central London parishes. Conditions there were notably harsh and it became a target for later Victorian reformers such as Louisa Twining and Joseph Rogers. The lintel over the entrance bore the message: "Avoid idleness and intemperance."

From Oliver Twist: [T]he parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be "farmed" ... or despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny's worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself.

Charles Dickens Asleep
in the Blacking Factory
From Books and the City: Dickens’ father was always struggling to keep his family above the poverty line, and as a young boy Charles would have been well aware of the threat of life in the Workhouse. During his childhood he had also worked at Warren’s Blacking Factory, situated within the parish of St Paul Covent Garden. Undoubtedly a number of his fellow workers would have experienced the terrors of workhouse life first-hand, and may well have shared their stories with the young Dickens. The evidence suggests that the workhouse scenes in Dickens’ Oliver Twist were inspired by his early life in the shadow of the Cleveland Street institution.

I am sure that Charles Dickens would be pleased by the efforts of those who worked so hard to preserve the Cleveland workhouse as a reminder of a past when children were robbed of their childhood or as he put it in the closing chapter of Oliver Twist:  "I would fain linger yet with a few of those among whom I have so long moved and share their happiness by endeavouring to depict it."


  1. Interesting reading Mary. My great-great-grandmother was in a workhouse in Poplar, East London in the 1880's and had to give up her two younger children to Barnardo's (they got sent to Canada). I also had a great-grandmother born in the workhouse near Manchester. Heart breaking stuff. So glad to know they are preserving some of this difficult but incredible history.

  2. Jenny, Those are such sad stories. The things our ancestors endured can break your heart. Thanks for sharing.