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



For more information, please visit our website: -OR-


Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group

Staging death, Victorian style

When Palmerston, Prime Minister from 1855-8, and 1859-65, died, in 1865, White’s, Boodle’s and Brookes’s clubs in St James’s all covered the front of their buildings in black drapery.

The Reform club, however, topped that: it covered its street frontage with ‘a sable curtain, bearing a viscount’s coronet and the letter ‘P’, with yellow wreaths of immortelles tastefully festooned…and the pillars and balustrades dressed in black and white’.

Can we see any London clubs even contemplating, say, lowering a flag or drawing their blinds for Mrs Thatcher, much less Tony Blair — or John Major? Street-theatre is not what it was…


Stealing in motion, 19th-century style

Not that long ago, my neighbour’s car was stolen. Not a very unusual, or even a interesting story. He parked, he went into his house, went to bed, woke up, car was gone. Happens all the time. But until this morning, short of a dramatic, gangland-style car-jacking, I thought you could probably only have your car (or parts thereof) stolen while it was parked.


In 1828, The Traveller’s Oracle; or, Maxims for Locomotion: Containing Precepts for Promoting the Pleasures…of Travellers (which is one of the world’s great titles: I’ve always longed for a ‘Maxim for Locomotion’, I just never knew it) warned those who owned their own carriages that they needed to have them fitted with spikes at the rear if the household did not keep a footman: ‘Do not permit Strangers to place themselves behind your Carriage at any time, or under any pretence whatever’, it sternly warned. They are either climbing up behind to rob you , or they will steal bits off your carriage while you are on the road, taking the ‘Check Braces, and Footmen’s Holders’ (the lead-strings by which passengers notified the driver they wanted to stop, and the leather straps that the footmen who would normally stand on small steps at the rear held onto). These items could be removed by street-thieves while you were in motion  ‘in half the time that your Coachman can put them on’. Therefore, ‘unless you think that two or three outside passengers are ornamental or convenient, or you like to have your Carriage continually surrounded by Crowds of Children, incessantly screaming, “Cut! Cut behind!”’, the ‘Spikes are indispensable’.

It really makes our streets seem astonishingly tame, doesn’t it? No windshield-wipers stolen as you drive down Fleet Street, no children (sorry, Children) shrieking out as you pass them on Madison Avenue, ‘Tear off the chrome strips!’

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

A Victorian Puzzle: Westminster Abbey for whom?

A puzzle for untangling, suggestions extremely welcome.

On 2 January 1858, the Illustrated London News reported that ‘Great exertions have been made’ at Westminster Abbey, ‘to adapt the nave…to the purpose of popular worship’.

As the Abbey had been a place of worship for 1,000 years, this at first (and second and third) seems startling.

I wondered if it meant simply improving access, but the article continued:  ‘Within the gates a kind of lobby has been constructed, with double doors, in order to exclude draughts. Gas pipes are laid on both sides of the nave — the burners being supported on standards of iron and brass…The stone floor is covered with cocoanut matting…’ So the suggestion is that standards have changed, and without lighting, and attempts to warm the interior, it was no longer considered suitable.

But then, the following week, it continued, ‘In accordance with previous announcement, Westminster Abbey was opened on Sunday evening last for evening service’; half an hour before the service began, nearly 2,000 people were waiting, and the congregation ultimately numbered 3,000.  The following week these arrangements are specifically described as ‘special services for the working classes’.

I am left with questions. 1) Does this mean that previously all seating in the Abbey was by subscription, or paid for on the day? or 2) were the working-classes just tacitly banned from the services beforehand? And, whatever the answers to 1) and 2) I find it difficult to believe that 3) without draught-excluders, matting and gas-lighting, the middle- and upper-classes attended, but the working classes wouldn’t come.

So what is going on here (she cries, throwing up her hands)?

Dangerous cars, or dangerous drivers? 19th-century style

In 1867, says the Illustrated London News, 170 people in London were killed by  vans, omnibuses, cabs and carts. Well, actually what it says is, 170 people were killed by ‘van-drivers, and omnibus-men, and cabmen, and carters’.

I find that striking. Today we say someone was killed in an ‘accident’, ‘killed by a car’. It is impersonal, passive. An ‘accident’ could happen to anyone, and it’s no one’s fault; the car, presumably, just suddenly took it into its little internal-combustioned head to leap out and attack someone.

The Victorians had it right: people are killed by other people, by the drivers of buses and carts and cabs, not by the inanimate objects they control, or fail to control.

I wonder if our attitudes to the inevitability of road accidents would alter if we stopped using inanimate objects as proxies for our own mad, bad or careless behaviour.

*Gets down off soapbox*

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.

Kids, don’t try this at home!

As more and more smokers congregate outside, should we worry about the hazards of smoking? In 1843 it wasn’t lung-cancer, it was exploding houses that smokers trailed in their wake.

A man in Clerkenwell lit his cigar at a gas light on the outside of a shop, using a paper spill, a curl of paper. And as all debonair gents do, once the cigar was lit, he tossed the paper away. It blew down the pavement grating, into the gas-filled sewer, and ‘an instantaneous explosion of gas took place’. ‘Ten houses only have sustained injury, and these not to any great extent.’

Surely the interesting part of this today is the ‘only’? Man lights cigar, causes explosion that damages ten houses, and the reporter thinks that it wasn’t a big deal?

Elf ‘n’ safety, Victorian-style.

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…

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