Summer, and the buds of spring will grow into the fruit of autumn. A harvest of capital is being planned, and the cash apple expected to drop from the tree is the old workhouse in Cleveland Street. A planning application is being submitted, to build a large housing development. And before building, they have to flatten.
Before we all accept as an unquestionable fact that we must bid farewell to the old brick building, which has been standing on the site since 1785, we may wish to consider if we really want this to happen. Let’s think about what we could lose. Not only our personal history, as patients, blood donors or nurses in the out-patient department in operation until 2005, but also a very important portion of British history.
The Strand Union Workhouse — this is how the building was once known — was a purpose-built workhouse which acted as such for over a 100 years. But its history started even earlier, as a Potter’s Field (the area where paupers were buried without much ceremony) and possibly as a plague pit before that.
The paupers’ cemetery, once on the site, even welcomed a celebrity of its time: the Italian Boy, the last victim of the London burkers. At a time when body snatching was common practice in order to sell corpses to anatomy schools, the notorious Burke and Hare cut a slice of the pie for themselves in Edinburgh by actually murdering people to produce corpses.
In London, the trend followed suit very quickly. In 1831 the anatomy students of the King’s College witness the corpses of prostitutes, destitute men and women, homeless persons get cut up on a daily basis. Until the Italian Boy appears on the table.
Many of the students recognize the youngster and tell the police. The case explodes in the press, the newspapers are showered with letters of grief over the vicious murder, the London burkers are found, trialled and their bodies ironically returned to medical science for dissection. And Parliament passed the Anatomy Act of 1832, expanding the legal supply of bodies for medical research in reaction to public fear and revulsion of the illegal trade in corpses.
The Italian Boy, of humble origins and with no family, was buried here, in Cleveland Street and has presumably remained undisturbed ever since.
But the workhouse period which followed was by far more exciting. More of a hospital than a workhouse, with over 90 percent of all inmates deemed unfit to work or “lunatic”, the place was hardly comfortable or at the forefront of humane treatment for the first 50 years of its existence, just like any other workhouse. But in mid 1800, things were about to be shaken up.
The workhouse appointed Joseph Rogers as the medical doctor: an apparently innocent decision the board of Guardians soon came to regret. Because Rogers immediately started fighting for innovation, improvements and better conditions. The struggle lasted for years but the outcome was very successful. Rogers single-handedly changed many people’s lives. He attracted to his cause high-rank personalities like the famous philanthropist Lady Louisa Twining and many others.
Just to mention one of the many events, in 1863 a young German girl was admitted to the workhouse after being seduced and abandoned in London – a city she was totally foreign to — pregnant and without the means to join her family which had emigrated to Cincinnati. The workhouse gave her and the baby shelter and food but sadly could not provide for the money necessary for the trip.
With the intention to raise the money necessary, the girl sought employment outside the workhouse as a wet nurse, but she just fell into another trap: the alleged employer, Mr. Wade, was in reality a seedy sexual predator who attempted to rape her. The girl, stricken with horror, fell ill and recovered only several weeks after thanks to the great efforts of Rogers and his nurses. Wade was found and brought in front of a court in what was going to be, together with the Italian Boy’s case, one of the most sensational trials of the 19th century.
The case was all over the press and thousands of Londoners followed it with disgust and were much relieved to hear the guilty verdict. Rogers, though, still had a problem at his hand. The young mother was still his charge and he decided to write a letter to the editor of The Times. Published on 16 July 1863, Rogers pleads her case and his appeal does not pass unheard. In his book of memoirs about the workhouse, “Reminiscences of a Workhouse Medical Doctor”, Rogers confess that it was Queen Victoria herself who discreetly donated the sum to safely send the girl home.
But even these victories were not enough for Rogers: his goal was to reform workhouses once and for all. He established an association and discusses at length the reforms needed to change the system. Having gained much support within the medical profession, he then harassed the Poor Law Board until, via visits often in disguise, official enquires and reports, they were also convinced that the workhouse system was dated, dysfunctional and just morally dubious. The momentum did not stop until the Reform Act was passed in 1867 and with it the introduction of welfare measures made available to all, and finally the abolition of the workhouse system.
Rogers was pivotal in coordinating the anti-workhouse movement and his contribution to such a important reform is still unrecognised. Yet, none of this would have been possible if he had not worked in Cleveland Street for several decades, tending to the sick and working towards improving the collective future.
He left the workhouse much better than how he found it, the building ready to take up a role shortly as a mental institution for those inmates considered lunatics, and finally as a fully fledged hospital as a part of the Middlesex, which by then had been built and started operating. The benefit to the community during these “recent” decades visible, undeniable and self explanatory to all.
Then why are we ready to accept that this Georgian building will be flattened? Probably because, like Rogers’ contemporaries, we don’t believe much in our own power to change things, and we bow our heads to those who are claiming to know better for the community, our community. They will even tell you that Rogers wanted the building demolished, although there is no mention to this in his autobiography: anything to convince you that the plan must go on.
Nobody is arguing that social housing is not important, but surely there are better sites to build, including Arthur Stanley House in Tottenham Street; a rather ugly 1960s development which nobody would miss and which is owned by the same trust and is abandoned.
Rogers wrote in his book: “There is no occupation that can be followed at which so much money can be made as by the system adopted by some speculators of taking house and letting them out to the humbler classes. To get there from all the benefit possible you must be absolutely heartless and unprincipled”.
It seems as if history is repeating itself: actually history is being sacrificed brutally to the altar of badly disguised profit to be obtained by yet another brutalist-style development arriving to destroy one of the local historical pivots and to spoil a charming central community, so far not vocal enough to reject detrimental proposals.
The time is ripe not only for planning applications, but for local voices to be raised in protest. Make sure yours is one of them.
See also: London’s last remaining Georgian workhouse infirmary under threat and Workhouses.org.uk page on the Strand Union Workhouse
Previous related articles