By Linus Rees
The former Georgian and Victorian workhouse on Cleveland Street has been given Grade II listed status by the heritage minister John Penrose. The decision is likely to prevent the proposed demolition and redevelopment plans currently pending.
The owner of the site University College London Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) had submitted a planning application to build a mixed-use development which included 140 flats. Local people had criticised the proposal for being too big and ugly, destroying a heritage site, and not providing enough social housing from planning gain.
John Penrose MP, the heritage minister, in allowing the listing application by English Heritage said: “This austere and imposing building is an eloquent reminder of one of the grimmer aspects of London’s 18th century social history. Some claim that it was the inspiration for the workhouse in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but whether it was or it wasn’t, we know that it is the sole survivor of the workhouses that were operating in the capital when Dickens wrote his famous novel, and that as a young man he had lived just nine doors along from it.
“It is undoubtedly an important and interesting part of our history and heritage, and deserves the extra protection that listing provides.”
The decision to list the building comes at the end of a campaign to highlight the historical significance of the building. Dr Ruth Richardson an historian specialising in the Poor Laws had first brought the building to attention in 1989 because of the work of Dr Joseph Rogers a physician who worked there. In an article for the British Medical Journal she described the importance of Joseph Rogers’ work at the Cleveland Street workhouse in the reform of the Poor Laws.
Then in December 2010 Dr Richardson argued that it was very likely that it was this same workhouse that inspired Charles Dickens to write Oliver Twist. Dickens had twice lived mere doors away in the same street and would likely have passed the workhouse each day.
That is certainly good news for those who have campaigned to save the workhouse. I hope that listing and the minister’s backing will be sufficient protection for this venerable and historically valuable building.
The next thing, of course, is to work out exactly what is to be done with it. I would like it to become a museum along the lines of the Foundlings’ Hospital and similar examples, but I realize that that may not satisfy an owner looking for the sort of profits that redevelopment can bring.
Perhaps we should be cautious and see this as a step in the right direction but with a long journey lying ahead.
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