Dickens at Westminster, a ceremony in tweets

Dickens’ 200th birthday, the ceremony at Westminster Abbey. (Live tweeting taking place under cover of the Order of Service, so as to be as unobtrusive as possible: all spelling/typos sic.)

Dickens' most recent biographer arrives.

Archbishop of Canterbury arrives.

Cleveland Street Workhouse under threat again

Below is a leter from the group that fought to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the sole surviving 18th-century workhouse, and a probable model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. The building was indeed listed, but now it looks like the University College Hospital Trust is hoping that weather and squatters will damage the site so badly that it can then be sold off to developers for ‘luxury’ apartments (is there any other type?).

Please take the time to write and register your concerns (details below), and if you have any access to the press, use that to publicize this backward step. And please tweet and Facebook your support.

Dear Cleveland Street Workhouse supporter,

Thank you for continuing to support our campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. Your signature, together with nearly 6000 others, was vital in our effort of obtaining listed status for the workhouse. As you will hopefully be aware, the workhouse was granted Grade II listed status by the Secretary of State in March 2011, however it has come to our attention that the building may again be under threat. We are therefore asking for your help once again.

University College London NHS Foundation Trust recently decided to evict the current guardians of the site, leaving the building exposed to possible further decay, speeding up its demise. With the recent spate of squatting in the area, our group is also concerned that squatters may take over the building and damage it, further exacerbating the situation.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse has served as short term accommodation for young professionals for more than 3 years. The inhabitants have been placed within the building through a “Protection by Occupation” scheme, which forbids squatters from occupying the premises and helps prevent decay. Without constant monitoring and heating during the winter months, the elements will take their toll.

In light of these potentially disastrous developments, we would like to call upon UCLH NHS Foundation Trust to reconsider this decision.

If you could take a moment of your time to write to the University College London Hospital Trust expressing your concern about recent developments, you would once again provide invaluable help to preserve the building. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, please address your correspondence direct to UCLH NHS Foundation Trust’s CEO:

Sir Robert Naylor

Chief Executive

UCLH NHS Foundation Trust

235 Euston Road

London NW1 2BU

e-mail: robert.naylor@uclh.nhs.uk


For more information, please visit our website:

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org/ -OR- http://bit.ly/fZCI3V


Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group


Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

Sweeney Todd’s Ancestors

A long post today, so bear with me (or go and make a sandwich, whichever seems more sensible). The wonderful Lee Jackson, onlie begetter of Victorian London website, and author of splendid Victorian mysteries, has written on the early days of the theatrical Sweeney Todd. I thought I would add to that with a history of Sweeney’s precursors, some early sightings of the cannibal-enabling barber, and his joke afterlife.


He killed dozens, if not hundreds. He disposed of their corpses in an unimaginably disgusting way. He murdered his accomplice. The only bright spot in this otherwise entirely unredeemed life is that he never existed. No emotions need enter, because neither Sweeney Todd – ‘the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ – nor his victims, nor the luckless Mrs Lovett, ever walked this earth.

Not that we would know it from the acres of coverage given to his non-crimes. In this he was no different from any other murderers stalking the country. For criminals were of all-consuming interest to most of the population throughout the century. Soon after Punch magazine began publishing in 1841, it noted that

…upon the apprehension of a criminal, we notoriously spare no pains to furnish the nation with his complete biography; employing literary gentlemen, of elegant education and profound knowledge of human nature, to examine his birthplace and parish register, to visit his parents, brothers, uncles, and aunts to procure intelligence of his early school days, diseases which he has passed through, infantile (and more mature) traits of character, &c….we employ artists of eminence to sketch his likeness as he appears at the police court, of views of the farm-house or back kitchen where he has perpetrated the atrocious deed…

This was true of real criminals, and as for Sweeney Todd, no one was going to let a little thing like non-existence trouble them. For the one way the imaginary criminal resembled his corporeal fellow point for point was the public’s response to their histories. Throughout the nineteenth century, huge leisure industries catered to the people’s love of the criminous. Newspapers were founded upon a fascination for crime; theatres thrived on a love of blood; magazines were saturated in it; cheap literature – broadsides, penny-dreadfuls, boys’-own stories – found their success in crimson tides; while melodrama and sensation fiction merged to produce a new genre, the quintessence of sudden death: the detective novel. And, back in the real world, crime and attitudes to crime were being reshaped, as the old Bloody Code was dismantled, the police and detective forces established on the lines we know today, and the legal system developed to accommodate a newly industrial world.

Read more of this post

Is Wallander really ‘Goodnight Moon’?

Wallander is leaving us, says Henning Mankell. I’ve written a (fairly frivolous) piece on detectives abandoning their readers in the Telegraph this morning (here). But while I was writing it, I was actually thinking about the instalment, and how attuned we are to it.

Dickens, of course, was the king of the serial. A chunk of Oliver Twist arrived monthly (and with later novels, sometimes weekly). The family sat down and someone read it aloud, or it got passed from family member to family member to friend. Then you waited another month, thinking about the characters and the plot, wondering what was going to happen next.

Magazines didn’t replicate that formula entirely, but the connection was still forged with characters like Sherlock Holmes, who showed up every month in the Strand Magazine, with a recurring cast of characters (OK, with Watson’s revolving cast of wives: either he married a lot, or Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to check what he had called his wife, and just made a stab at it; I know which theory I prefer), with a familiar household setup and plot formula. Readers loved it: it was comforting to know that somewhere life goes on in a routine fashion, even as you’re dealing with the unwelcome and unexpected.

And television, of course, follows exactly the same formula. The soaps and the telenovelas are the extreme version: a standard set of characters, in a complicated plot but with familiar emotions and recurring themes. Tune in any time, and you can bathe in the warm familiarity.

And detective fiction does the same too. The conversation I recorded in the Telegraph about one of the subsidiary characters in a Donna Leon / Brunetti novel was real. (You can usually tell which conversations I’ve made up, because I always sound so much smarter in them.) But this time I was truly discussing with a friend how long a fictional character had been dating another fictional character, and where she lived. (‘In the pages of a book, you fule,’ went unspoken.)

Descendants of the golden age of detective-fiction are known as ‘cosies’. I had always thought it was for their fairy-tale formula of restoring order to chaos, to the happily-ever-after ending where the ‘bad’ character is corralled, separated from all the other characters who are therefore, by definition, ‘good’, and harmony prevails. But writing this piece, I wonder if the ‘cosy’ element refers as much to the nursery love of the familiar. Just as we needed, as children, to hear Goodnight Moon over and over, in exactly the same setting, in exactly the same tone of voice, no page-skipping allowed, maybe as adults in a messy, uncertain life, we love the formula, the genre-ness of detective-fiction.

I wonder if Wallander ever thought of himself as a comfort-blanket?

Workhouse saved

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

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


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

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

Dickens' home in 1830, now numbered 22 Cleveland Street

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

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

Did Twemlow live in the London Library?

In Our Mutual Friend, Twemlow (who is, it is my firm contention, the real hero of the book) lives in Duke Street, St James’s, over a livery-stable.

The London Library now backs into Mason’s Yard, which is indeed in Duke Street, St James’s. I’ve looked at maps of the period (mostly from Lee Jackson’s wonderful Victorian London site), and can’t find a specific yard marked, but Mason’s Yard is a good size, and might easily have contained a livery stable (the two exits to the yard were surely helpful, and the pub on the corner seems to indicate thirsty stable-men).

So, was Mason’s Yard the home of Twemlow? It is pleasant to think of him lurking in the stacks…

Calcutta Expectations

Love the idea of a Great Expectations set in India. Tanika Gupta has set it in Calcutta in 1861, and what could be more appropriate than post-Mutiny Imperial India? Extremes of wealth and poverty, hierarchical, imporous (is that a word?) social structure.

And, quite frankly, if it helps stop people writing ‘Haversham’ instead of ‘Havisham’, it will all be worthwhile. (I already emailed the National Portrait Gallery to correct the misspelling of Harold Nicolson’s name in the Hoppe show — they had ‘Nicholson’, of course. Once a pedant, always a pedant.)

Off to book tickets

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