- Books, Literature, and Writing
Found! The workhouse that inspired "Oliver Twist"
Charles Dickens’s second novel, “Oliver Twist”, is well known for the scenes in which young Oliver is born and brought up in a workhouse. Anyone who has seen the stage or screen version of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver” will recall the moment when Oliver is ejected after he is goaded by the other boys to “ask for more”. We see the boys spending hours “picking oakum” under the oversight of Mr Bumble, the pompous and corrupt beadle, and the cruel and degrading treatment meted out to children whose only crime was to have been born poor.
Dickens was not yet 25 when he started to write Oliver Twist in 1837. He already had a reputation, as “Boz”, for writing sketches of London life, many of them with a satirical or amusing slant, and for his rambling comic novel “The Pickwick Papers”. However, the first parts of Oliver Twist to hit the news-stands (like all his novels, it was published as a part-work) were of a somewhat different nature. The reader was presented with dark scenes of death in childbirth, squalor, poverty and child cruelty. What could have prompted this change in the young novelist? What memories was he perhaps bringing to the fore?
A discovery in 2011 by a British historian, Dr Ruth Richardson, linked the existence of a workhouse on a London street with one of Charles Dickens’s early homes, only nine doors down the same street. It seems inconceivable that the presence of this building so close to his own home could not have had a profound influence on young Charles, especially as lived in the same house on two separate occasions and for a total of five years.
What was a workhouse?
The reader might not be aware of the nature of a workhouse. These were institutions that go back several centuries, the original ones being built at least as early as the 17th century. They were a means of providing support to the very poorest members of society, so that parish funds for relief of the poor would be compensated by the provision of something tangible in the form of products made by recipients of the relief.
The workhouse provided somewhere to sleep at night and food to eat, but it was also a “house of correction”, in that extreme poverty was regarded as being, to a greater or lesser extent, the fault of the impoverished person. Workhouses were run with the deliberate intention of not being pleasant places, so that people would do everything they could to avoid being sent to one.
In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act changed things by preventing parishes from giving relief except via the workhouse. If you fell on hard times you either went to the workhouse or you starved, whereas under the previous system there was the option for some form of “outdoor relief”. The Act ended a number of abuses and cruelties, but it reinforced others and introduced some new ones.
It was these abuses that Dickens sought to expose in the “workhouse” chapters of Oliver Twist. It is however of interest that some of the practices castigated by Dickens, writing after the 1834 Act came into force, belonged to the period before the Act, which was when he was living only a stone’s throw from a very prominent workhouse.
The existence of the Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street has long been known about. It was originally built in 1778 as the workhouse for the parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, and took on the function of a union workhouse (i.e. to serve several neighbouring parishes) in 1836. In later years the building was used as the Outpatients’ Department of the Middlesex Hospital, but is now empty.
Charles Dickens and Cleveland Street
It has also long been known that Charles Dickens spent two periods of his early life at a house in Cleveland Street, firstly as a young child when his family first moved to London from Portsmouth, and later when he was aged between 18 and 20 and was starting his career as a Parliamentary reporter. In all, he spent some five years living in the street. The house is 22 Cleveland Street, although the address in Dickens’s time was 10 Norfolk Street. Cleveland Street runs nearly parallel to, and to the west of, Tottenham Court Road, emerging on to Euston Road close to Regent’s Park.
As is often the case with historical discoveries, it is a matter of putting two and two together. The two facts were known, but not set alongside each other until Dr Richardson did so and appreciated their significance.
The nature of Dickens’s awareness of what went on inside the workhouse is a matter of surmise, but it would be incredible to imagine that he was oblivious to the presence of such a prominent institution so close to his home, or that he did not know what it was for. His own family lived very close to the breadline, and indeed his father was at one time consigned to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison when the family fortunes reached a particularly low ebb. The threat of the workhouse must surely have been at the back of his parents’ minds.
It does not therefore call for too great a leap of imagination to see Dickens’s interest in workhouse life as stemming from his early experience of living so close to a striking example of one. Although the workhouse in Oliver Twist is clearly not in London, the conditions in any one workhouse could be assumed to be similar to those in any other. A workhouse was a fairly generic institution.
The Threat to the Workhouse
The workhouse is, however, under threat of demolition as part of the redevelopment of the area. The Dickens house is not under immediate threat, but neither has it been recognised as having a Dickens connection. Charles Dickens lived in 17 houses during the first 21 years of his life, and very few of these are still standing. It would be fitting to give one of the few that still exist the distinction of a blue plaque, as is accorded to most buildings in London that are associated with a person of historical or artistic significance.
The campaign to save the workhouse, on the grounds not only of the Dickens connection but the fact that it is an important and historical building in its own right, is gathering pace. Support has come from many sources, both at home and abroad, and it is hoped that there will be a successful outcome. Were the workhouse to be lost, a piece of London’s history would be gone forever.