By Angela Lovely

View of Cleveland Street in the 1930s. The workhouse is in the middle of the picture. Source: Wikimeda Commons
View of Cleveland Street in the 1930s. The workhouse which may have inspired Charles Dickens to write Oliver Twist is in the middle of the picture. Source: UCH Trust, Wikimeda Commons

A decision on whether to list the former Georgian and Victorian workhouse in Cleveland Street as a building of special architectural or historic interest could be taken in a matter of weeks. Listing decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is required by the Planning Act 1990 to approve a list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. English Heritage administers the listing system.

English Heritage told Fitzrovia News that it was in the process of preparing its advice to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. English Heritage considers that the Charles Dickens connection with the former Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street as put forward by the historian Dr Ruth Richardson as “fresh evidence” of historical importance. English Heritage are putting their advice to the government together as a matter of priority because a planning application to demolish the workhouse has been submitted to Camden Council. They hope to give their opinion to the government within a few weeks.

In 2007 English Heritage had recommended that the workhouse be given listed status. That listing request was turned down by the then minister Margaret Hodge.

If listing is approved the decision will scupper the plans by UCLH NHS Trust to get approval for its current planning application to demolish the building and build a high-rise block of flats with a basement car park, and retail units on the ground floor.

UCLH claims its plans to demolish and develop on the site of the workhouse have the support of the majority of local people. However, UCLH are kidding themselves as very few people support their plans for a high-density tower block on the site.

Opponents to UCLH’s plans fall roughly into two camps: those who want to see the workhouse listed because of its architectural and historical significance; and those who argue that the proposed social housing falls well short of what should be delivered under an outstanding section 106 agreement and normal planning policy. Both camps are also critical of Camden Council’s planning department for being too much of a soft touch with UCLH and failing to preserve a conservation area. It’s fair to say that south of the Euston Road Camden’s planners are either not welcome or are universally hated.

Back in 2007 local opinion on the former workhouse building was very much divided. The Fitzroy Square based Georgian Group led the campaign to have the building listed. English Heritage then recommended that the government give the building listed status. Others led by Holborn and St Pancras MP Frank Dobson and the Charlotte Street Association argued that the site should be used for much-needed social housing and that UCLH’s outstanding 106 agreement to provide 44 socially rented units should be discharged on this site. Listed status could have prevented these plans going ahead. The matter was settled by Margaret Hodge the then minister for culture who decided against listing the building.

However, when development plans were presented showing an ugly tower block and less social housing than originally proposed, local opinion hardened against UCLH’s plans and the campaign to oppose the plans and list the building gathered momentum.

While the campaign for more social housing accused UCLH of double-counting social housing units, a team of lawyers and planning consultants working for UCLH put forward an argument that double-counting of the social housing units was perfectly legal and didn’t breach either the 106 agreement or normal planning policy. Camden Council accidentally published a viability study containing this spurious argument on its planning website, before hastily removing it and refusing to let anyone else read it. (It’s here by the way.) The social housing campaigners feared that Camden’s Development Control committee would take one look at the mountain of papers provide by UCLH’s planning lawyers and cave in under the shear quantity of argument and wave the plans through.

Eventually historian Dr Ruth Richardson stepped in and linked the workhouse to Charles Dickens who twice lived in Cleveland Street less than 100m from the workhouse. In December 2010 on Robert Elms’ Radio show Dr Richardson suggested that Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist was inspired by this very workhouse. Dr Richardson had previously published a paper on the social reformer Dr Joseph Rogers who also served at the workhouse. Whilst Dickens’ living in Cleveland Street was quite well-known locally and several publications had noted it, Richardson argued that no-one had actually said that the workhouse in Cleveland Street was the model for Dickens’ most famous character, Oliver Twist.

However, Dr Richardson presented no evidence that it actually was this workhouse that inspired Dickens but she eloquently argued it was highly likely since he lived just along the road. So it must have been. Whether it would stand up to peer review was another matter. Nobody wanted to stand in the way of a good winter’s tale on a cold day. Besides, there’s good money in the American tourist market over here.

The local and the national press picked up on the story and there was a report on ITV’s London Tonight. There was even a feature in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and the Canadian Toronto Star.

So it’s back to the current incumbent of the Department of Media, Culture and Sport to decide what to do with it. Knowing the present government they’ll have it sold, taken down brick-by-brick and have it shipped off to somewhere like Lake Havasu City, Arizona to sit alongside London Bridge as a giant museum piece. We’ll just have to wait and see.

2 replies on “Decision on listing of workhouse could be taken within weeks”

  1. Though not a Fitzrovian myself, I take an interest in all aspects of London’s history. Fitzrovia, too, is but a step away from Islington and I recently blogged about a little walk we took there.

    While I accept that not all old building can (or ought to be) preserved, I think we should take a good hard look at each case before committing an act that once perpetrated, can never be undone, namely demolition.

    There are many reasons why we would want to keep this building. To start with, there is its sheer historical interest. I have visited other workhouses and I think that we, and succeeding generations, need to be taught about such things and reminded how recent are the reforms and social improvements that we now take for granted. Then there is the matter of aesthetics. It has been observed that the putative replacement for this building is ugly. Ugliness degrades the environment and lowers the quality of people’s lives. Listed buildings often provide an antidote to the plain ugliness and brutishness of much modern architecture.

    We are at present facing difficult times, financially and economically, and there is little cash available for even meritorious projects. It is therefore very easy for government, national and local, to be seduced by big funding from corporations greedy for profit even at a time when the rest of us have to tighten our belts. I hope Camden can be persuaded to take the long view and refrain from a thoughtless act of vandalism that everyone else – and perhaps eventually they themselves – will regret.

  2. Why does everything have to be torn down. Surely the building could be refurbished and converted into dwellings for rental to the hospital community, teachers and other key local workers. That way an historic building could be preserved and at the same time provide much needed housing stock?

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