Save the Workhouse?

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    Campaigns to save threatened buildings of historical interest are two a penny: but it’s still a surprise to see the once-hated workhouse at the centre of a row about preserving the past. The Cleveland Street Workhouse, near London’s British Telecom Tower, has recently been the focus of a well-organised campaign against proposals to demolish the building and make way for a new development consisting of housing, offices and shops. In recent months, Charles Dickens himself has been enlisted in the preservationist cause (based on the idea that this was the workhouse that inspired Oliver Twist, a master stroke in PR terms). And some of London’s leading historians have signed up to support the campaign.

    The Cleveland Street workhouse, which dates back to 1775, was an evolving institution, principally designed for the care of the sick poor: like all workhouses the buildings were constantly extended and adapted over the years, most notably after the scandals of the mid-Victorian period which the medical reformer Joseph Rogers helped to expose. Transformed into a sick asylum and then a Poor Law infirmary, in recent years the site was used as an outpatients department of Middlesex Hospital. This history is well told (and well illustrated) on the campaigners’ website.

    I understand the workhouse enthusiasts’ case. I admire them for their brazen attempt to link Dickens to this campaign, though I doubt even that is enough to stop the development. For what do you do with an old workhouse? With the demise of the Poor Law and the coming of the welfare state in the mid-twentieth century, many survived as hospital and health service buildings, and there are still quite a few around. A couple of them have been turned into museums – and rather grim places they are too – though would be difficult in the case of Cleveland Street, given the size and location of the site.

    Unlikely as it may seem, it has even been suggested that the Cleveland Street workhouse be converted into much-needed housing. In a letter sent by one campaigner to The Times, the lowly reputation of workhouse architecture is turned into a virtue: ‘It is easy to judge the Workhouse negatively. Its aesthetic is certainly austere, yet this is exactly as it should be: it presents an excellent example of the plain utilitarian workhouse design of the Georgian era, set back from the street, comfortable in its own site. It fits well among the more elegant neighbouring period properties, many of which it pre-dates, and contributes to the historic charm and scale of the Conservation Area in which it stands. Its exceptional social and medical history renders it of national importance……Many local people believe that the Workhouse could easily be converted for housing.’

    You couldn’t really make this up. One can readily imagine what Dickens himself would have made of such a brazen defence of the workhouse aesthetic: austerity complementing elegance, Victorian values redeemed by ‘Georgian’ aesthetics, and pauperism once more in its place….After all, it was an aesthetic that actually ‘worked’ (as Bentham might have said, all by a simple idea in architecture): for generations after the passing of the new Poor Law, the workhouse inspired dread amongst those who came within its reach. Such an experience is not altogether beyond the grasp of twenty-first century historians. In fact, I myself once stayed the night in a workhouse – vagrant wards, to be precise, converted into hotel rooms – on the Welsh borders. It was an experience I won’t forget (though the restaurant was superb, and yes I did ask for more).

    Ironically, in the media furore over the future of this workhouse, the key issue of wider public concern – the provision of local housing – has been all but lost. Bluntly put, the need for more affordable housing in London is self-evident, whereas the need to keep a large workhouse complex intact is not, at least to those living in the less salubrious parts of Fitzrovia. The campaign would certainly not have got this far without the influence of local politics, and eye-catching headlines about the fate of ‘Oliver Twist’s workhouse’. Local Lib Dems in the Labour-run Camden Council blame the Labour MP Frank Dobson – a former Health Secretary – for failing to support their case for listing the building. For his part, Frank Dobson insists the main issue is affordable housing, and gleefully points out the criticisms which Joseph Rogers himself made of the workhouse in his memoirs – though campaigners insist these were more about the regime than the building.

    It’s fascinating to see these arguments over the Poor Law – and what Victorian critics of the workhouse really meant – replayed in the twenty-first century, especially as echoes of ‘less eligibility’ and the ‘labour test’ are all around us in the present government’s full-scale assault on welfare expenditure. In Victorian times, as now, local politics and national publicity shaped the future of the workhouse. The Cleveland Street controversy also provides an exemplary case study in the relationship between politics, history and the media, especially in the way academic research can be exploited in public debate. As far as I am concerned, though, one of the real heroes of this story is the workhouse enthusiast Peter Higginbotham, whose amazing workhouse website provides a national context in which to view this particular dispute. His efforts over more than a decade to put workhouse history online have made knowledge of the system available to legions of local and family historians more effectively than many a learned tome. That’s a real lesson in public history.

    Felix Driver

    The workhouse campaign website is at
    http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org/Home.html

    Peter Higginbotham’s excellent workhouse website is at
    http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

    Frank Dobson versus the Bloomsbury Lib Dems at
    http://www.bloomsburylibdems.org.uk/