Housing & Welfare

Save the Workhouse?

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.

The workhouse campaign website is at

Peter Higginbotham’s excellent workhouse website is at

Frank Dobson versus the Bloomsbury Lib Dems at


  1. “What does one do with an old workhouse?” Felix Driver asks. Well, I have the answer in a document leaked to me by an occasionally reliable source. This is a government-commissioned report authored by one E Chadwick, calling for a national network of workhouses to house all those ‘unemployed’ loafers and scroungers currently living it up on our hard-earned taxes. Far from being slated for demolition, the Cleveland Street workhouse, my source tells me, is seen as a model for this long over-due welfare reform. Apparently some bleeding-heart Lib Dems in the cabinet who object to the plan have been seen waving copies of Oliver Twist, but everyone knows about that pinko Boz and his cute little kids… So ignore all the fuss; take a good look at Cleveland Street, and see the future! (My source also tells me that the government has placed a very large order for treadmills, for all those ‘disabled’ people who just need to get off their fat behinds…)

  2. Much as I admire Felix Driver’s brave case for pulling down a historically significant, architecturally valued, eighteenth century building in wonderful Fitzrovia … OK, you get where I’m coming from.

    I haven’t pored over the plans, but I fear that the redevelopment of the Middlesex Hospital and adjoining sites might do for one part of Fitzrovia what the (I know I am old fashioned) Post Office Tower and nearby development did for another corner of the district – remove the sense of the local and replace with the bland and impersonal.

    It is of course an act of genius to bring Dickens and ‘Oliver Twist’ into play to save the Cleveland Street Workshouse – resulting in the remarkably phenomenon of a live discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme in which all agreed (though not with Felix).

    The link to the Today programme audio is:


  3. Felix Driver thinks it a stroke of genius to associate Oliver Twist and the workhouse in Cleveland Street… but does not concern himself with the real history of the place.
    His links seem to make the false suggestion that its only Liberals that support the workhouse. There are already 5000+ signatures on our e-petition, from conservationists, historians, London lovers, and Dickens enthusiasts from all over the world, and from all political persuasions.
    I was called in by local people to help save the place from demolition because I had written on the Poor Law Medical Officer there, Dr Joseph Rogers, a long time ago. I investigated the history of the site and the street in as much depth as I could in the time available, and discovered something that all Dickens’ biographers hitherto seem to have missed – that Dickens lived 9 doors away for at least 4 years of his life – possibly more – and before he wrote Oliver Twist. The workhouse in the novel is an Old Poor Law workhouse, as the one in Cleveland Street is, and the children born there were farmed out (as only London children were), and brought back when it was time to be apprenticed out (as the children in that workhouse were).
    If it’s genius to associate Dickens with the workhouse, then the genius is of the place, as Dickens old home is still standing on the corner of Tottenham Street. The International Dickens Fellowship has now endorsed the plan to erect a blue plaque there.
    It seems to me to be quite a-historical of Mr Driver to think that an ugly, densely-packed block of modern private apartments eleven storeys high is a more appropriate way of dealing with the site than preserving the workhouse building for some other use – the oldest part predates the Brighton Pavilion, and has been in constant use for the sick poor of London ever since it was first built on the fields – Old Poor Law, New Poor Law, Central London Sick Asylum, Middlesex Hospital maternity wing, and Annexe before and since the NHS, right up to its closure in 2005/6 when it was still in use as that loved Hospital’s Outpatients’ Department. It is true that the building is austere in style – its a 4 storey utilitarian Georgian building, but it stands in consecrated ground, surrounded by a deep graveyard full of poor Londoners to a depth of 20 feet, and the whole site is within a conservation area.
    The building has also shown itself to be extremely versatile – I recently had a splendid letter from a neurologist who trained there, describing how well suited the rooms were to neurological assessments. So not all of its life has been grim.
    It is an interesting phenomenon to witness people such as Mr Driver and Mr Frank Dobson serving unimaginative developers, keen to obliterate the history of London, is it not?? We have already seen what’s happened to the Middlesex Hospital site – a vast open field of broken brick, and nothing doing. We all know what modern buildings are like – ugly, greedy of land, devouring all local charcater, and designed to last no more than 30 years.
    The Cleveland Street Workhouse is still a fine and an interesting building, it suits the local street landscape both in its local clay brick fabric and its scale, it belongs where it is. It is an extraordinary survival from the eighteenth century, and we can all be sure that if it were the house of some eighteenth century nobleman, it would have been listed long ago.
    The association with Charles Dickens makes the Cleveland Street Workhouse even more extraordinary, and of world-wide interest and importance. It is not any old brown-field site, which is how Mr Dobson wants it to be regarded. No, indeed!
    Dr Ruth Richardson, historian.

  4. As the Cleveland Street workhouse was successfully converted into a hospital, I don’t really see why it can’t be converted once again but this time for housing.

    There seems to be an assumption in Felix Driver’s piece that some buildings are tainted by their past and that in reusing them we are trying to deny what went on there. But given the work the architect David Chipperfield has done with the Neues Museum in Berlin don’t we now have an example of how to handle ‘problematic’ historic buildings?

  5. You just can’t go around destroying historic buildings all around London – especially those which are rich in social history. Buildings less than 30 years old are now being preserved by UNESCO. There is no question that 300 year old examples of Georgian civic architecture should be protected for future generations. Otherwise you are wiping out our cultural history. You can’t replace it.

  6. I would be more impressed by the cited need for affordable accommodation if other available sites were being used to supply this crucial need rather than instead being used for yet more London-defacing skyscrapers to be hired out at premium rents for offices or for luxury apartments.

  7. I personally feel the issue of affordable accommodation is almost certainly a bit of a red herring. The fact of the matter is that other sites, including one on Tottenham Court Road also owned by the UCLH trust have been vacant for decades. I therefore strongly suspect there are more hidden interests in this case, but it would be unwise for me to publish my theories on this.

    As a local who actually lives only a few streets away in Fitzrovia, I would be disappointed to find not only a heritage site destroyed, but then to find some faceless modern light sucking monstrosity put in its place. It’s only fair that we don’t just protect the nearby Georgian squares, but also to protect the buildings that housed the sick and poor. Anyone who knows Fitzrovia will be aware that the building does work well when viewed with all the other local Georgian buildings. Both Fitzrovia and London deserve more that what Mr Dobson is proposing.

    It should be noted that not a single member of our group is not in favour of development. We just want development that also protects our past.

    If any of you have not done so, I suggest you review the site our group has been busy putting together as well as sign our petition. Your support will be much appreciated.


  8. ‘This building is part of Fitzrovia’s heritage; it is part of working class history’.

    The battle of Cleveland Street has it all. Politicians turned historians, and historians turned politicians; fat cat property developers and twittering local activists; and an argument about how best to remember the dark side of the nation’s history.

    On their informative website, the Cleveland Street campaigners highlight the ‘austere beauty’ of the workhouse, one describing it a ‘living monument to an experiment in social theory’. Their case for preservation depends not simply on the supposed aesthetic merits of the building – or rather its Georgian frontage, as much of the interior was transformed from the 1870s onwards – but also on the wider value of social memory in the face of rampant capitalist development. Don’t ignore history! If popular association with inhumanity and suffering provided the sole basis for deciding the future of historic buildings, they say, we would have no Tower of London! ‘There’s lots of British history we’re not terribly proud of, but the answer is not to destroy it or pretend it never happened’.

    But is the answer to preserve it? Is this what Charles Dickens had in mind when he once described the workhouse sick wards of England as ‘infamous places’ – that they would one day be turned into visitor attractions? The Dickens connection, especially the suggestion that “Oliver Twist’s workhouse” is under threat, has certainly received a great deal of media attention. With Ruth Richardson, we can hardly fail to be intrigued by the proximity of Dickens’ early home to the Cleveland Street workhouse, though it needs to be added that Dickens moved a great deal around London in his childhood and early years, and would have lived near a great many other workhouses. At any rate, what’s crucial about the novel (as the late and much-missed Sally Ledger argued) is that it offers not a factual history but an imaginative critique of political economy – which is not to say that Dickens’ personal knowledge of workhouses is unimportant, just that there were an awful lot of them in Dickens’ world, real and imagined.

    One of the fascinating aspects of this episode is the renewed attention it has brought to the work of Victorian campaigners like Joseph Rogers. Reading his Reminiscences of a Workhouse Medical Officer (published 1889, available online), you can hardly fail to be struck by his bitter contempt for local politicians: when one of the penny-pinching Guardians died of heart disease, Rogers notes that it was ‘the only evidence he had ever afforded that he had one’. Such dark humour could have come from a Dickens novel or from one of his sharply critical essays in Household Words – and very possibly it did. As Ruth Richardson and Brian Hurwitz point out in their essay memorialising Joseph Rogers (in HWJ 43), Dickens himself intervened in the scandal over London’s workhouse provision in the 1860s to urge the case for reform. In view of the social problems of twenty-first century London, surely this is the Dickens we should be remembering?

  9. The outcry to save these structures pre-dates Dr Richardson’s involvement. Her announcement around Christmas 2010 of the Dickens’ residence (re)discovery 9 doors away from the Cleveland St former workhouse, for two separate periods, was made with the multiple and varied efforts to save the buildings already long underway.

    Her research contribution in this point is subsequent and removed from local activities which started long before.

    A competent internet investigation, which would constitute basic research, would reveal that opinion in favour is presented within a variety of reasons and that public letters were being published as early as 2008, with no connection to Dr Richardson or her association of a link to Dickens’s writing. If that is too much, then 15 minutes of reading the random pages of the petition comments would reveal disparate motivations for support; some of which profess influence by the Dickens connection but not the majority. You would also find out that there are multiple local groups, as well as others further afield, wanting the former workhouse preserved. An example was entered this morning:

    #5181 – Dr Hugh Callum, Chairman
    “The Bloomsbury Advisory Committee strongly believe that this building [sic] should be listed and preserved and converted for housing or community use. The building makes an important contribution to the street and is of great historic importance.”

    As that is dealt with thoroughly elsewhere, I shall restrict my comments to what is misleading about the piece. For a start, the mis- characterisation of the varied campaigns (plural) as singular is pretty “brazen” in itself.

    The centre building has been around for 235 years with later additions to create a unique complex layout which adds to the historical interest and understanding of the development of Fitzrovia, or west Bloomsbury as then was. As such, even if it were not a workhouse, the Georgian front block is a survivor from the origins of the development of the Bedford Estate.

    The buildings, especially in the beginning, were appreciated as a refuge from early industrialisation and city expansion. You present “an evolving institution” but summarise no evolution or change in the standards that were adopted or the attitudes towards that relief, going straight to the notorious mid-nineteenth century period in which Dr Rogers successfully campaigned who, as you point out, worked at THIS particular workhouse, just as Dickens created the popular stereotypical depiction you so readily draw from to form your argument. What about the bookend periods? Countering such one dimensional analysis only adds impetus to the revelation of a much more nuanced study which these buildings can only illustrate as the compact on-site adaption you point out, but would like to see the evidence for which permanently obliterated. Like the other proponents who wish to see these buildings destroyed, it is their own immovable “hatred” of what these buildings represent to them which is what is being justified, and which, though not admitted, taints the approach…

    The proponents for destruction bring in unrelated and somewhat nonsensical factors into the argument. Having a debate about Dickens’s opinion of buildings is not what is being considered. You might like to have that debate about any aspect of London life during his time, but you do not require those buildings, or even conditions, to be preserved, in order to do so. That discussion is unrelated to the matter at hand. You may think that you know the opinion of somebody long gone to justify your present view but as that person is not here to state otherwise and is not in a position to compare modern development, it is a fool’s quest – or perhaps Dickens told you his opinion in a séance?

    The affirmation of Peter Higginbotham’s web study is more appropriate. Not only is he alive to examine the site’s present status, he is also in print in The Times as wanting to see these buildings preserved and refuting fully erroneous assertions used to justify its destruction, and which you repeat.

    “What do you do with an old workhouse?” Well, you then go on to answer your own question: a museum, accommodation… – it doesn’t really matter as long as a viable use is found for it which is what is being sought: offices, workshops, facilities, market stalls in the courtyard, or a combination of any of these… it is not being proposed that these buildings be reconverted into a workhouse – cue some ignorant, “post-modernist,” wag claiming to peer into the future.

    Frank Dobson MP is the main proponent for the destruction of this site. He has been quietly pushing for it to go since he was Health Minister in 1998. // In a recent letter to the DCMS, Dobson makes outrageous claims that UCH Trust will likely sue if the DCMS list the buildings. This is a bluff. Personally, I would like to see that happen for UCH Trust cannot do so without disclosing their cosy relationship with Dobson and his full efforts in seeking these buildings destroyed, and his being at the core of not placing affordable housing more proportionally at other sites as were then available. And here we come to the nub: while you take it as “self-evident” of the need for cheap housing, the proposed homes will not necessarily go to locals. The fact that the luxury housing was dumped on one site across the municipal border in Westminster and the affordable housing is meant for the Camden site should give you some indication of the political calculation behind these decisions. It is odd that your argument is so in tune with that hidden agenda, and you criticise efforts to expose it.

    For a site devoted to radical history and “history from below,” why are you ignoring local majority opinion in favour of the corporate agenda and political machinations which are there to be uncovered. UCH Trust claim majority support for their proposals, but their numbers include people who omitted comments: their data has blatantly been manipulated. While it is true that not every local group is in favour of keeping these buildings, nor indeed every single local individual (a curious alliance of “anarchists”, architects and bankers), it would be worth looking more closely into their reasons for wanting the current site destroyed.

    Really, your article is about the tenuous PR use of Dickens to support a campaign. In this I agree but again this deserves further exploration. It has brought extensive media coverage world-wide, but why are the views of a still (thankfully)vibrant community ignored until such an association with fame is presented? Because it is a story, pure and simple, and intelligent people will see it as a means to an end and not be sucked into the angle presented. People are glad to demonstrate that the area can be marketed as having a connection to Dickens because that is the language which receives attention. You are proof it works: it got your attention, didn’t it?

    My (personal) objection to the destruction of these buildings, apart from their being part of the community memory as the Middlesex Outpatient Annexe, is that while we keep hearing about the sustainability agenda these buildings are perfectly useable, and have been deliberately neglected in order to justify preposterous assertions that they need to be demolished for their current shoddy state. There is nothing sustainable about destroying well constructed buildings which could be adapted with far less cost; also, they have an interesting layout offering a future of imaginative restoration worked into the surround which is far preferable to the bog-standard tower block on offer. That’s another thing: why can’t social/affordable housing be integrated into communities instead of dumped in mass blocks, and why is a “radical” supporting that wretched agenda, as funnelled via Dobson?

    Before the threat existed, nobody knew that this was a former workhouse. Local people are not incensed because a former workhouse is threatened with destruction but because a local monument which is well known and which served the area well as an infirmary and hospital is being threatened. This has happened all too many times in Fitzrovia – just take a stroll round. Why are you not supporting us? The memory of the workhouse is dimmed and so, for many, that is not what the campaign is about, or what it means to them – you do not examine how community strength is effected by the outside imposition of a corporate agenda with political stitch-ups. Again, this is very strange for a so-called “radical” history web site. Really, while claiming to present a history from below, in not bothering to listen to locals you are presenting an inverted reactionaryism and pushing a somewhat faceless and unaccountable agenda. Wise up, Felix!

    [this comment has been edited to remove allegations against a named individual]

  10. First, let me say that I very much appreciate the approbation that has been expressed by Felix and others for my work on the workhouse web site.
    Although my interest in this vast topic was initially sparked through family history researches, the single thing that got me really hooked was the realisation (thanks especially due to Kathryn Morrison and her colleagues at EH) that many workhouse buildings were actually still standing, I could actually go and stand and look at the place where my great-great-grandfather spent his final days. Other wonders awaited me. The Andover workhouse, I discovered, was (and is) still largely intact – I could go and wander around very building that looms so large in the annals of the new poor law and work out which was the men’s side, and which the various yards were, and where the McDougals’ quarters were located etc. Thomas Worthington’s pioneering pavilion-plan hospital was there (but sadly no longer) to be admired at Chorlton. For me at least, bricks and mortar are incredibly potent in giving a sense of history. Sadly, during the decade that I’ve been documenting these structures, a good many have bitten the dust to make way for new buildings, car parks etc.
    I think the Cleveland Street debate also forces us to think about about much importance we honestly do place on understanding the lives of the poor and affirming the value of their experience. If we really do care about such things, then preserving a building like Cleveland Street is a rare chance to prove it. London has a particularly abysmal record of workhouse preservation. Of the 492 workhouse-related structures currently having listed status, only eight are in London (a group of 2 at Hampstead, 3 at West Ham, 1 at Kensington, 1 at Shoreditch, and 1 at Manette Street – the only pre-1834 building currently listed).
    As to how the Cleveland Street building might be used, well I must admit I’m struck by how many museums London has related to medical matters (see e.g. http://www.medicalmuseums.org/) but precious few relating to the lives of the poor (the Foundling and Ragged School museums) and nothing, as far as I am aware relating to the workhouse (or yet the Metropolitan Asylums Board). Personally, I’d be very happy to see the building, or part of it at least, turned over to such a purpose. However, preservation of the building itself for whatever use would, naturally be my main priority.
    I don’t know much about the internals of the Cleveland Street building but there are certainly some good examples of imaginative and sympathetic reuse of workhouse buildings around. One particularly nice example is the former Bedminster Union workhouse, now a home to a number of small businesses (www.farleigh-court.co.uk). Some clever reworking of the building’s interior made the space much more usable while still essentially preserving the basic structure.
    Peter Higginbotham

    1. Peter’s comment about imaginative and sympathetic reuse of institutional buildings makes a lot of sense, as do some of the above remarks about sensitive development of historic sites. The Bedminster/Farleigh Court example looks interesting – incidentally it also highlights that some celebrated Victorian architects (George Gilbert Scott in this case) made a good living from the extensive workhouse building programme which followed the passing of the new Poor Law. Those who condemn modern architects for making fortunes out of unsympathetic development take note! Simply opposing redevelopment of decaying sites on the basis that all development is wrong is surely not going to work in London, unless we are to have a city full of dead spaces, where history is frozen for the delectation of those who like a bit of Dickens in the neighbourhood.

      I certainly agree that bricks and mortar can give a potent sense of history. In this respect, the figures Peter gives are striking – 492 workhouse buildings currently having listed status, I presume this means many more Poor Law structures survive across England and Wales than most people realise (unless they are familiar with his website!). And bricks and mortar have other purposes too, especially in the context of the current crisis in affordable housing in London. There are plenty of examples from earlier times of workhouses-turned-hospitals (in fact quite a few of us were born in them), but are there any examples at all of former workhouses being converted into modern housing? This may turn out to be a key question in the case of Cleveland Street.

  11. I think the bottom line is that while everyone is welcome to comment on this matter, nobody has full authority to do so. The one and only body who is appointed (by the Government, no less) to express an authoritative opinion is English Heritage. For what I read, they have reviewed this case twice and twice they have come back with the same verdict: the workhouse is well worth listed status and it is to be added to the buildings to be preserved for their architcural and historical relevance. And I think this is where all our personal opinions suddenly cease to be of any importance: those with maximum authority have spoken and, if we are at all intelligent beings able to learn and receive, we have to listen and shape our opinion accordingly.

    As pointed out above, there is plenty of space where to build a housing complex, without compromising the historical tissue of an already rather historical empoverished area.

    Also, Felix may read within those thousands of comments, that many former workhouses have been indeed turned very succesfully into modern housing.

    And that’s your key question answered…

  12. Louisa, thanks, but however fine a body English Heritage is (and it has done excellent work on workhouses in the past) we intelligent beings still need to discuss this and hear a variety of opinions, local and otherwise, expert and non-expert, interested and disinterested – that’s how public opinion works, isn’t it? I would still be really interested to hear about former workhouses being turned very successfully into modern housing – can you give any examples?

  13. A large number of the EH listings are for for parish workhouse properties, many of which are on a domestic scale and, as would be expected, mostly now residential. However, there are some good examples of larger Old Poor Law properties in residential use, e.g. Bedford, Nantwich, Hambledon (Surrey), Richmond (Surrey), Stone (Staffs), Bradford on Avon, Tewkesbury etc. etc. plus some a fair number of the East Anglian Incorporation workhouses e.g. Cosford, Blything, Samford, Stow etc.
    Residential conversion is now by far the most common use for surviving New Poor Law premises – my personal database suggests that a couple of hundres such properties (includes cottage homes sites etc.) survive, at least in part, in residential use. The Andover workhouse I mentioned is a good example but there are examples in every county. The Gilbert Scott ones have survived particularly well, with examples at Witham, Amersham, Dunmow, Tavistock and, most stunningly, at Windsor. Other nice eaxmples include the Kempthorne Y-plan workhouse at Warminster, George Wilkinson’s design at Chipping Norton, and the Donthorn workhouses at Ely and Oakham (actually part of school).
    If you go to my web site and search for the phrase “residential use” (in quotes) will pick up many of these and more. Searching for “residential accommodation” will find a few more.

  14. Peter Higginbotham’s work has revealed the extent of survivals of Poor Law architecture – often quite small scale (cottage homes etc), readily capable of adaptation – across the country. Many of these buildings survive without much if any acknowledgement or public knowledge of their former function. The question raised by the Cleveland Street issue, aside from the media’s interest in Oliver Twist, is whether we need to preserve a large urban workhouse facility in physical form, and if so what kind of use it might appropriately have today. I am looking forward to seeing practical ideas about this in the case of Cleveland Street, based on comparable examples of large urban institutions.

    The most compelling aspect of the campaign to save the workhouse is the proposition that ‘heritage’ includes both the urban fabric and social memory – a proposition put very clearly both by those who want to preserve the building itself (in the face of what they regard as anonymous modernisation), and those experts in English Heritage whose definition of heritage goes beyond aesthetics. Personally I am sympathetic to this point of view – as in fact the History Workshop movement has always been: my definition of heritage is not just about the look of a place, it is about its meaning and purpose in the present day. The question then becomes, for whom are we preserving this heritage? How best should we honour this history? In the case of the workhouse, of all institutions, this is to say the least a complicated matter.

  15. To make an argument as to how the workhouse complex should be used is valid, but the immediate question is whether to save it. There is a call to arms, so to speak, and then there is pontificating over concern about who will benefit. I am struck by how numerous other sites have quickly grasped the mettle, and by contrast there are displays of pondering confusion characteristic of the entrenched orthodoxy of a bygone era.

    These buildings are no longer a workhouse – that bogeyman has long vanished. That fight is over: done and dusted. It is a former workhouse. What some are finding difficult to grasp is that because that spectre is no-longer present, except in the imagination, that gut-wrenching dread of being interned is gone, or are we really to fear someone being deposited there? Really? Some people have ancestral connections to it, good, bad or unknown. Some people will interpret it as a symbol of something, as seems the case, and that is up to them. I would suggest there are no direct parallels between that period and the modern welfare state. The workhouse was a precursor, the direct antecedent but no, sensible, person is looking to revive the workhouse system. Historical analogy is, in this case, muddying the waters. If, let’s suppose, the equivalent of the workhouse system were being imposed now it would take a completely different form and is not relevant to this workhouse except in the most flippant of terms: Labour, in Camden and in government, wanted the workhouse destroyed and look at what they did with immigration detention camps.

    What is meant by who will benefit? The heritage knowledge is accessible to anybody who chooses to access it via the work of those who have studied (and, if preserved, will study!) the Cleveland St Site. The existence of the site would at the very least offer the possibility of gaining access at some point, certainly more so than destroyed. Are we meant to understand who will gain financially, or who will own, or who will decide the purpose of the site? For whatever use the current layout might be designated that can change at some future point in ways which are unforeseeable.

    It’s a straight forward question. There is a planning application. The Planning Committee considers the application before them. They are not considering multiple proposals. If, in the course of an objection, somebody wishes to raise other criteria which they think that the committee should be taking into account then that can be included but it is more difficult now with legislative straight-jacketing diminishing the human faculty of judging unique and particular circumstances. Planning arbitrators are not allowed to take into their deliberations speculative suggestions. They cannot consider a different proposal which is not real but Camden Council can liaise with the developers along the lines of what is required for the area.

    The listing process is likewise straight jacketed: the value of the architectural and historical national merit is what is supposed to be weighed regardless of whether a purpose is yet found for it, though in this case, Dobson interfered at the DCMS for reasons alluded to above and distorted that process which we hope will be fully exposed.

    I have a great deal of respect for your question as to how to honour the memory of the history for it is undoubted that though charity, humanism, idealism, and pragmatism wrapped in religiosity were part of the initial motivation, many suffered within its walls and others dedicated their entire lives to alleviating those terrible hardships – though Dobson’s distilling this down to one herculean individual, Dr Rogers, is farcical: others were involved. It is facile to boil this workhouse down to Dr Rogers. While I dismiss much of your standpoint, perhaps overly so for I am one trying to preserve what remains from when the danger became public and know how much debate is already underway and am very aware that many “doubt even that is enough to stop the development,” to this question there is a great deal of recognition of the sorrow that those walls have witnessed in the past and it is almost impossible to take in the gravity of what was endured. Who of us can speak for the wishes of the interned? Would they have hated the place for all eternity or preferred its sorrows to be redeemed? Were some so deprived of sustenance and care that they were grateful for the shelter and relative security when entering as the only alternative to death? Did they look back at their lives and wonder at the decisions, their own and by others, which brought them their fate? Did they find comfort or community or fellowship in sharing their ordeals? I cannot answer these, or any of the other endless questions that can be asked. What I, and many others, hope is that in preserving this site we will contribute to the opportunity for these questions to be asked in the future, in that having the vestibule for these stories still in existence provides a direct invitation to explore, to ponder, to commemorate and, yes, to honour their memories in so far as one is able. Dobson wants to place a blue “plaque-atement” dedicated to Dr Rogers, who already has a blue plaque on Dean St, on the monstrous replacement tower. This token gesture is beyond contempt

    As explained in my first post, most of the local community relate to these buildings through living memory and the positive association with the Middlesex Hospital bypassing all the questions above. The buildings are seen, in this way, on their own merits and with a completely different emotional attachment. They were officially valued as making a positive contribution to the Charlotte St Conservation Area until 2008 when that Conservation Area protection was revoked – that’s two years after the decision to destroy them. Strange?

    What is curious is how the association of these buildings has changed. What is residually being claimed as vestiges of the old class system are now at the forefront of the struggle against corporate encroachment.

    Fitzrovia is well known for having very few chain stores. We have successfully seen off typical high-street blandness but the major landholders are not going for just high streets now but are trying to brand the area in one. They are trying to claim the identity of an entire district. That is what we are up against. For example, London Derwent is re-skinning its buildings according to corporate fashion. They are even presenting open space as corporate space. They are destroying unremarkable brick buildings which nevertheless contribute something to the spirit of Fitzrovia, not because they are “decaying sites,” they are utilised sites, but because they don’t fit in with the latest fashionable corporate image which they wish to market. On Chitty St, they want to destroy the used and useful 1940s respectably spiv building of a grunge charm while the 1960s standard stuff is being kept: those were the first round attempt in a process which is now gathering momentum and being implemented on an industrial scale. There are 8 massive developments all planned for Camden Fitzrovia, west of Tottenham Ct Rd – let alone the many which have already happened. When the interesting brick buildings are all gone outside of the protected areas, Fitzrovia will be a corporate district which is why the removal of the Conservation Area protection for the former workhouse is so alarming. At least UCH Trust and UCLH’s other developments really are of no significance at all.

    There is no prospect of a city full of dead spaces (not here), but quite the opposite, a city full of activity, indeed bursting with activity, according to corporate interest, not resident interests – whatever the spin. What will that mean? Well, I think it will add to social problems, don’t you, adding to the sense of increasing restriction, making citizens feel insignificant which is what the equivalent architecture symbolically achieves. Don’t you think it will affect people’s psychological state? With the trend in this direction, open space, free space, wild space is at a premium. “Dead space,” hmmm, one of my favourite streets in Fitzrovia was Riding House St which held the ugly utility facilities for the old Middlesex Hospital before its destruction. Walking through there in the early hours was like time travelling to the 1920s because it was too insignificant to keep tampering with it, about which there was zero prospect of convincing anybody of its value: too outside of the dictates of corporate defined useful space which is why every effort must go into those buildings and street scenes which do have a chance, including with counter marketing.

    What’s strange about all of these developments is that Camden’s own policy obligation is that there is a requirement for more open amenity space and more open nature space being prioritised from new developments. Despite the proximity of Regent’s Park, population and employee density is already so high that there is insufficient open space for current levels yet you are asking about housing without local context, thereby exacerbating that problem. There is no secondary school south of the Euston Rd – again promised by Camden. There is a well publicised campaign for which the workhouse campus might well be a temporary, at least, solution – ideal usage, I think. Camden is not implementing its own policies. Calling for more housing, affordable or otherwise, without knowing the wider issues on the ground is not enough. Because these issues relate to the part of my earlier post which you deleted, each succeeding development decision constrains the options for meeting as many relevant policy factors as possible which is why Dobson’s meddling is so terrible. Those poor decisions will feature for decades in the civic fabric.

    The former workhouse is “set back from the street.” Important because all the new developments are not only bigger and taller but also are built as close to the street as possible. The workhouse retains some variety in its footprint.

    History is at the forefront of this struggle, not by distorting history and trying to make it palatable but by making positive association in what was once hidden with visceral aversion. This has occurred naturally relating to these buildings and because of recent development experience. The difference with past ages is that discussion about aesthetics is virtually non-existant. The Cleveland St workhouse architecture, strange as this is to state, shorn of the immediate and now neutered threat, displays characteristics which are worthy of exploration and comparison. People are more than receptive to that through the substantial physical document on the street: history doesn’t have to be in a book or online and its presence is valid in that sense, and appeals to a different audience. Most people take an interest in their own neighbourhood, or would if all historical sites of interest weren’t being blown away. To the non-academic, they are then forgotten, beyond living memory, and so effect local identity. They also root an area from the dizzying commercial forces which so often influence people to lose themselves in the lies which are presented as opportunities for consumption. As to being “decaying”, don’t fall for a developers’ ruse.

    I don’t care what the Cleveland St former workhouse is used for because its retention will be a victory. The question of whether to keep it is in the now. That’s not complicated. Prevarication, at this point, is an indulgence.

    Taking a look at the council exchange sites, period properties and large living space are by and far what people seek. There are council properties overlooking Fitzroy Sq. Isn’t that great? One of the most prestigious addresses in London and it has council flats! There are clusters of period Fitzrovian housing association properties around Gt Titchfield St/Gosfield St/Hanson St and around Warren St as well as individual buildings dotted around, integrated with private and short-let properties. Wouldn’t it be great to add another major period building complex to that list with large generous proportions, not pokey little hutches as most modern flats are? I would suggest that a mixed appeal is better because it gives opportunity for integration of people from different income scales plus a decent amount of investment, but you may disagree. If affordable housing is what you care about then write to Camden Council for goodness sake, but don’t endorse a tower cramming in as many people as possible into an area which is already without sufficient amenity because in seeming to meet an immediate, contrived, problem it creates other issues, long term, the consequences of which you do not have to live with.

  16. Felix,

    Firstly I must say that your blog is very curious. On one hand you claim to be a historian, however most historians would not think to file an FOI request which is the only way you would ever know that Dobson recently claimed to DCMS (23rd December 2010) that there was a possibility that UCLH trust could sue. I agree with Leon however that the trust potentially suing is all puff.

    Regardless of where you stand on the issue, you must be aware that UCLH have had alternative sites for decades. If trust were ever realistically going to fulfil any of their section 106 obligations, they could have used the site which has lain empty for decades on Tottenham Court Road. Recent advice however suggests that the 106 obligations have almost certainly lapsed and as I mentioned in my post above, I see the whole debate over housing, and specifically social housing all a bit of a red herring. Arthur Stantey House which is both vacant and owned by the trust is located literally only meters away from the workhouse could be argued to be an even more appropriate site than either the workhouse or the TCR site. Regardless of all of these facts, the Cleveland Street Workhouse could also very easily be converted into both private and social housing.

    In respect to how the workhouse site should be used going forwards, there are many options which may or may not present themselves, and I think it is important to be aware that the whole of the Cleveland Street Workhouse campaign group are open to all ideas. In fact, as we are not owners of the site, I think it would be foolish of us to try to take a stand on this. I will however leave you with another fact – University Hospital Lewisham is itself a workhouse. In fact, Frank Dobson himself opened a wing there during his tenure as Secretary of State for Health. I hope that irony has not passed you by. I am also not sure how debating the future use of the workhouse is of much relevance to a history blog. Hopefully as a supposed historian yourself you would have been aware that had the building not been part of the NHS, it would have automatically been listed both due to its age and rarity.

    Should we not as a society not just look at preserving the Georgian terraces and squares but also buildings that housed the poor?

    I am however curious as to why you have obviously not chosen to review the proposed plans for the site which are freely available via Camden’s website. I therefore strongly urge you make yourself familiar with them as you seem keen to discuss the site potential future use.

    My view however is that the above plans are in sharp contrast to the status quo, and certainly not in keeping with the architecture in our area. Not a single heritage element has been retained in the proposed design, and instead we as a community are left with what amounts to a very large faceless modern monstrosity. In fact, the proposed development could be almost anywhere in the world – New York, Frankfurt or even Sydney. Nothing about the proposed site contains any fabric of London, nor does the design look for the building to try and blend in elements with either the Georgian buildings down the street, or the Victorian buildings across the road. Quite sad in an area where so many Georgian era buildings have been destroyed thanks to war. This makes it even more important (in my eyes) to try to save what we have left.

    I also think it is important to be aware that this campaign is far more than just a ‘Liberal Democrat’ campaign, although that said, there are more signatories from Camden LD members than from other of the local political groups. Our core campaign group actually represent several of the major UK political parties, and in my case, if you press hard enough, you will clearly see that I have largely worn my Fitzrovia Residents Association hat during all the recent media attention. I as well as the rest of the campaign team have been keen not to make it just a political diatribe, so I am disappointed by some of the inferences you are trying to make. Any intelligent person reading our campaign site, petition and press releases would very quickly see this.

  17. The last posts on this subject have unfortunately diverted attention from the key issues about heritage and history which I hoped to raise. For the record, Aimery, I have never filed an FOI request, I don’t know anything about Frank Dobson’s tactics beyond what is in my blog, and I never said this was just a Lib Dem campaign. I appreciate this is a heated issue locally – especially to Lib Dems, it appears – but hope we can discuss it in a friendly and open way. And to Leon (Trotsky), I would say this: your lengthy posts raise many interesting issues. Where we part company is that I think people should care what the workhouse is used for, assuming it is to be saved: the future use of the site matters a great deal, if only because – in my view at least – conservation is not an end in itself. And I can’t agree that the housing issue is a red herring.

    More generally, contrary to what has been said above, I do believe that debating the future of historic sites is relevant to a history blog. In this case, claims for the significance of the history – all that talk about Oliver Twist’s workhouse, remember – may have a significant influence on the planning process. I am not at all objecting to the right of the campaigners to make these points and to use whatever media tools they have at their disposal. I am merely saying that those with an interest in or knowledge of history – “supposed” historians or not – have every right to join the discussion. Ultimately, it all depends on your definition of heritage – thoughts on this issue welcome.

  18. This is an interesting line of responses and goes further from what I was told outside it on Sunday by Marylebone residents and other sight see-ers looking for it! It’s half way between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Ct Rd and yes, next to Telecom Tower though I wasn’t looking for it. I chanced upon it and got drawn into a discussion with a small group in front of it and was shown the place around the corner which did look vacant. The thing is that I did remember the story on tv perhaps because of the oliver musical jingle and the film clip but only half listened to the report. From thinking, a workhouse, Nah, my view has changed and I agree with the arguments to keep it. The oliver film connection sort of got my attention but the reasons for keeping it are described in detail by others. I think the accusation of not caring from FelixD is unfair and the only way it will be saved is if people care enough to protest and keep trying to persuade more. The first reaction which I had about this was why is that worth saving? My question to FD is has your opinion changed in answer to the introduction question you wrote for your own blog title?

  19. I don’t know how heated the issue could be described. One of the features locally is that the few people who do want the workhouse destroyed retreat, babbling nonsensically, in the face of the evidence for its significance, perhaps in the realisation that their arguments are disintegrating and in withdrawing can maintain their illusions without external questioning – perhaps Aimery’s experiences are different. Similarly, the previous government relied on pulling the levers of power, behind the scenes, assuming that they would get away with it, rather than facing up to openly debating the merits of the site’s cultural worth or the real basis for their position, hardly a creditable approach. With the second attempt to spot list, Dobson has written one letter to The Times, easily rebutted by Mr Higginbotham, and as far as trying to win the public that’s been about it. Based on what has been uncovered of Dobson’s manoeuvrings that is understandable. Why would he shine a spotlight on where there is plenty to be embarrassed about? There hasn’t been much opportunity to get heated with anybody.

    The worth of the site complex can be summarised under the reasons of: social historical, architectural (despite some {overstated} alteration) including connection to recognised architects of note and a significant plan form, a remnant of the very origins of the local physical identity and its influence upon subsequent developments, an example of on-site evolutionary adaption, aesthetic application for utilitarian purpose, an ongoing research resource, age and rarity which will likely appreciate with time, a testament to the lives of those brought within it, a site nationally known for its part in the mid-nineteenth century outcry for workhouse reform though largely forgotten, and in connection to personages, including Dickens – for this last, the connection is good. He not only lived 9 doors away as a youth but corresponded later in life with Dr Rogers. It is the connection with its influence on Dickens’s work which requires more study in that while academic investigation is being conducted under the cloud of the site’s possible destruction, naturally this is effecting totally objective evaluation but even here it should be wiser to err on the side of caution because the potential is that through this literary connection that this is a world significant historical site, hard as that may be to grasp.

    All of these criteria are valid. The question is one of degree. None of these objective factors diminish if you are not happy with the use that the buildings are put to. The evaluations are not dependent on the buildings meeting your particular “self-evident” and peculiarly, for a historian, non-historical requirement, which I shall return to later.

    Additional reasons for saving these buildings are the rooted democratic will, a retort to current live issues of development which profits developers ahead of local need, a growing awareness that bureaucratic language is denying policy enactment where multiple site developments means that excuses will no-longer wash (which is the true radical agenda here), a repeal of Conservation Area protection designation under the 2008 Appraisal and the meaning of this precedent, and the potential of a visitor attraction which gives its own justification, as well as the fact that there is nothing wrong with these buildings.

    In looking at the wider context, social or affordable, housing is not the only provision that this, or any other area, requires. In addition to the policy shortfalls identified which I stated in my last post of amenity space and school places (a new secondary school, no less) jobs are required too! In looking at the area as a whole a combination of approaches is possible from making the most of implementing policy with the developments coming up which is why there is scope to look at the workhouse site on its own merits as to what would work best for the historical interest as an asset for the area in conjunction with the needs of the area where other sites take on affordable housing quota. Of these, any variety of options would work. Understanding this means meeting set constraints is not required specifically for the workhouse site, especially when the proscriptive utilisation for this site is not justified by those advancing the assertion left hanging there.

    History as obfuscation, ossified radicalism, recidivist mis-representation and uninformed local knowledge is something I, openly, amicably, and profoundly disagree with.

    If you look at the site in isolation, take on board Dobson’s contrived presentation without question or deeper investigation including the part that he himself played in selecting this site, and take his words as “self-evident” therefore not requiring of justification, and have no regard for the historical worth of the site but repeat the singular purpose given to you at face value then the stated position is entirely understandable.

    Felix, it is unclear what the “key issues about heritage and history” are which you hoped to raise.

  20. Joshua asks a good question – has this discussion changed my opinion? Well, my initial post was prompted simply by my interest in the extensive media coverage of the story – Oliver Twist’s Workhouse to be saved for the Nation! To someone who has spent a lot of time researching workhouses, how could this not be of interest? On further investigation, it became clear there were some fairly murky local politics behind the issue – as this thread has demonstrated, especially to anyone not closely familiar with the goings-on in Fitzrovia – but also that there were also some really interesting questions about what defines “heritage”: is it the site, the building, its local associations (reformers like Joseph Rogers who we might want to remember) or its national significance (the Poor Law history some might want to forget)?

    I was not initially convinced by special claims for the aesthetic or architectural significance of the building, and I am afraid I am still to be persuaded: for obvious reasons, workhouses (in the eighteenth or the nineteenth centuries) were not built for either comfort or aesthetic pleasure. However, putting this aside (along with some of the wilder claims above) I have become more convinced that there may be a case for retaining some part of the fabric on the grounds of its social history (beyond its alleged connections with Dickens). Heritage is, after all, more than buildings. William’s earlier comments about the adaptation of infamous historical buildings and Peter’s reference to other examples of workhouse re-use (usually of smaller buildings) are particularly interesting in this respect. If we go down this route, however, I think we need more ideas on how to re-use historic sites like this so that they serve local needs, whether housing or other; a more realistic sense of the need to balance local priorities for conservation and development; and a more discriminating view of the possibilities of modern architecture.

  21. Since its foundation in 1975 SAVE Britain’s Heritage has consistently challenged assumptions about particular building types and shown how they can be successfully reinvented and reused. In 1979 we staged an exhibition entitled ‘Satanic Mills’ which looked at the Victorian textile mills around Bradford (which were disappearing at an alarming rate) and suggested ways in which they could be converted to residential and business use. We were worried that the reaction of local people would be negative but actually there was overwhelming support for our calls to preserve these mills. The general response was that, although they may have been fairly grim places to work, they were part of the history and landscape and that the communities around them had grown to love them – and were proud of them. Now of course they are some of the most sought after places to live and work in the area. Looking in the SAVE files Felix Drivers words echo many short-sighted responses from councillors, planning officers and others regarding asylums, warehouses, power stations (look at Battersea), factories, barracks, chapels etc. I.e. these ugly, functional buildings have come to end of their useful lives. This attitude led to the many losses that we all now deeply regret – think of London Docks, the Great Quadrangular Store, Sheerness, Columbian Road Market etc etc. Whilst those preserved and converted have become huge success stories – Friern Barnet Mental Hospital and Peninsula Barracks Winchester to name but two.

    The fact is that these types of building are usually carefully designed, robustly engineered and solidly constructed (in the case of 19th-century mills and warehouses built to last 1000 years) and perceptions change from the moment a conversion is successfully implemented. With some imagination the Cleveland Street workhouse could be adapted, extended and similarly rejuvenated. There is still scope for a conservation-led scheme which produces ‘much needed housing’ on the site. And I am sure that there are other places within the borough where new housing can go without destroying something which is historically, culturally and architecturally important. If we are to hang on to local identity, it is of paramount importance that we cherish local buildings like this.

    1. Thanks William, that’s really interesting. I note that you compare my views to those of shortsighted local councillors – given the previous comments, I’d got quite used to being Frank Dobson’s stooge, so it makes a change to be cast as a local politician! More seriously, your remarks draw attention to an intriguing historical process by which distinctly anonymous, ‘unlocal’ buildings may in time come to be defined as local – so institutional buildings (like workhouses or prisons) which were not designed to reflect local tastes eventually become claimed for ‘local heritage’. I am not saying this is necessarily wrong, it is just a rather fascinating example of the way heritage politics plays with history. I’d suggest that under the old Poor Law much Georgian workhouse architecture in the larger cities was in some key respects generic. In the post-1834 period, when for example the architect George Gilbert Scott designed a large number of workhouses under the new Poor Law, this was even more the case. Gilbert Scott wasn’t much concerned with local distinctiveness or aesthetic quality; he was making money building large institutions under a government-directed programme, mostly funded by the local taxpayer incidentally. In fact, in the context of his time and at this stage of his career, this was not so unlike those modern architects who come in for so much criticism for their anonymous buildings today. That’s ironic, isn’t it?

      Incidentally, it would be interesting to know how many people were or are ‘proud’ of their local workhouse qua workhouse (rather than simply as generic heritage architecture) – anyone know of any evidence for this beyond this preservation campaign? There is presumably a difference between pride in the history of the building itself and pride in its restoration and conversion. It also seems to me that industrial heritage is a very different case – there are indeed lots and lots of excellent examples of creative re-use of large-scale industrial buildings, from Tate Modern to the New Lanark mills complex. (And here it’s surely awe and empathy respectively, rather than pride, which are the dominant emotions at play?). So I’m asking here about the local reputation of workhouses specifically. Asylums might be a near case, so your example of Friern Barnet is useful. (Formerly the vast Colney Hatch asylum, the building has been converted into luxury flats: but I can’t help noticing that the words ‘asylum’ or even ‘hospital’ don’t actually appear in the section on the building’s history on the developers’ website which you refer to. Instead, it describes the project as creating a ‘luxurious living link with the glory of Victorian England’. This is pride of a sort, I suppose, but it is hardly pride in the historical reputation or reality of the asylum/hospital, and there is not much local history on show either). Anyone know more about this, or got other examples?

  22. As with all good stories, this one seems to have moved to some form of resolution.

    According to this morning’s (15 March) Guardian, ‘the “Oliver Twist” workhouse is to be preserved’:

    … by which it means the Cleveland Street building has been given listed status by the DCMS.

    Having read all the comments above, and found the argument at least as gripping as Nancy’s death, I’m pleased the building will survive.

    It doesn’t matter that it’s not ‘local’ in the sense of being identikit public architecture of the time – nor that the building was the setting of great misery and humiliation – our cities need to keep a sense of their past, and the best way is by conserving architectural landmarks.

  23. Full credit to the campaigners: Dickens himself would have been impressed by their ability to stir the pot of public opinion. What’s been resolved here is the listing issue, of course, not the future of the building. This will no doubt be the start of a new phase of discussion, debate and decisionmaking, probably less high-profile: listing means additional hurdles for developers, and more resources required – money, as well as imagination.

    A cursory read of today’s DCMS press release, alongside that of English Heritage, shows some interesting differences of emphasis. John Penrose (the Heritage Minister) highlights the eighteenth-century origins of the workhouse. It is described as ‘the best preserved of the three surviving eighteenth-century workhouses in London’, and ‘an eloquent reminder of the grimmer aspects of London’s eighteenth-century social history’.

    However, while noting the eighteenth-century origins of the workhouse, Simon Thurley (Chief Executive of English Heritage) puts the emphasis on the Victorian social history embodied in the building, referring ‘above all’ to Joseph Rogers, ‘whose direct experience, as Chief Medical Officer, of the appalling conditions there, launched him into the vanguard of reform of healthcare provision for the poor, a significant step towards the socialisation of medical care in Britain’.

    It’s interesting to see these same words about the ‘socialisation of medical care’ quoted on the DCMS website at a time of major public debate over the government’s NHS reforms. One wonders too how comfortable Conservative-Lib Dem ministers will be with headlines announcing the ‘saving of the workhouse’: they know from experience that going for Georgian is much safer than paying tribute to Victorian values…..

    1. Felix,

      Please don’t trot out the usual talk of “Conservative-Lib Dem ministers”. It’s not a fair comment, especially when you have already referred to yourself as a Dobson stooge. Most importantly it does not reflect the current reality, contrary to what the Labour party are trying to suggest.

      The two parties whilst in coalition are very separate to each other and come from two completely different sides of politics – a new party has not just been conjured up, contrary to your assertion. I should also point out that DCMS is completely manned by members of Conservative administration. That said I don’t believe any of the statements by any groups putting out press releases on the issue to be either right nor left, and therefore I think you are reading far too much into the statements. In fact, if you want to go down that path, I suggest you read the press release our group has issued which can be found via the following link:


      I trust you will see the statements for what they are.

      I am just glad we have managed to save at least the Georgian era fascade.

      1. Aimery, apologies for any offence caused by the phrase ‘Conservative-Lib Dem Ministers’. What alternative expression would you suggest?

        Your interesting account of the coalition is really a different subject, and entertaining though it might be to discuss with you (especially in the context of funding public and academic history) I think that’s for a different thread (which others may want to start!).

        Back to the workhouse. The listing decision, as I understand it, has given priority to the social historical associations of the building over claims for its architectural qualities: this is one of the points I was making above, and it does raise interesting questions about the way we define ‘heritage’. These issues are of great interest to historians working in the tradition of history workshop whatever their views on this particular case.

        Any response to William’s link to a fantastic archival photo? (This shows the demolition of a workhouse in Bermondsey in 1925 under the headline ‘Down with the workhouse’, prompting questions about Poor Law politics in the period). It would be great to see more postings of archival material on this site.

  24. “We hate and love this torpor of museums.”

    “History? It’s the writing on the walls
    Of pubs, a fish-bar called The Codfather;
    The inn we don’t go in, The Artful Dodger;
    The DLR train tracks it, and it falls
    With shit and feathers from the clattering bridge;
    It’s seven white skull caps crossing at the zebra

    Towards [we notice now] a mosque’s small tower,
    So easy in its nook,
    It might have jostled longer than St. Paul’s
    Among the old brass necks of palaces, power-
    Mills and ships. Will someone list our malls
    One day, finding some pleasure in a look

    That thinks itself sheer function, and improve
    The grade 2 concrete with new polymers?
    What’s the true art of architects? To make it
    New, to stitch the shoe we ought to fit?
    Let them re-invent the shadow-book………….[Carol Rumens]

    1. IClio: thanks! These beautiful lines evoke something of the unsigned heritage all around us in our cities if only we care to look, stories of the past haunting the built environment yet so different from blue plaque history. They reminded me a little of Raphael Samuel’s vision of urban history (in Theatres of Memory) too. And what kinds of architecture might such a vision call forth? Let them re-invent the shadow-book, indeed….

  25. Only Ruth Richardson has mentioned the most traumatic ‘development’ event in Cleveland Street to date – the demolition of the Middlesex Hospital. The wonderful wall paintings went to the Wellcome and no doubt other artefacts and fittings were preserved, but nothing will replace that imposing entrance, with its elaborate dark-red architecture. This was a much bigger slice of ‘heritage’, but I do not remember a big national campaign (perhaps Fitzrovia residents will put me right). The point is that the demolition suddenly exposed the rest of the site, including the original workhouse building which was scarcely noticeable before. Letting the NHS demolish that as well must have been the last straw locally. Once Ruth was called in, the rest as they say was history… If FD wants a debate on ‘heritage’ let him analyse preservation and demolition history in full spatial and temporal context.

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