Government may step in to save former workhouse building with new Poor Law

The former Strand Union Workhouse in Fitzrovia, central London, could be saved from demolition as the Government plan to re-introduce a new “Poor Law” in order to cut social security spending.

By Sunil Seer

The former Strand Union Workhouse building in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia.

The former Strand Union Workhouse building in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia.

The former Georgian and Victorian workhouse building in Cleveland Street, central London could be saved from demolition if government plans to introduce a new Poor Law go ahead, sources have told Fitzrovia News.

The workhouse building which was last used as a hospital out-patients department was closed as a workhouse in the late nineteenth century. Currently the building is occupied by residential tenants using shared facilities and who also act as private security guards.

The government said last night that leaked plans to slash £2.5bn from sickness benefit payments would include a package of work to welfare and that all recipients of welfare payments remained up for review.

Charities attacked the proposals saying that parts of London would return to Dickens’ time. However, government ministers held their nerve.

The chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, stated: “I am not going to comment on a leaked letter, but what I will say is that with welfare spending making up nearly £200bn, of course it is something we have to look at in the context of the spending review.We are looking for significant savings in the welfare system. Savings that are fair; savings that encourage people to get out to work. If that means a new Poor Law, then so be it. We face tough economic times and we have to make tough decisions. It may not be popular, but it is necessary.”

Terence Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Slope, said: “The government’s promise to ensure fairness in the budget cuts is undermined by the revelation of its plans to introduce Poor Law style arrangements for sick and disabled people.”

The difficulty of reducing the welfare bill is illustrated in a report by the Public Accounts Committee that documents how Labour’s £760m Pathways to Work programme struggled to help significant numbers of people back into work. There is no evidence that any of the 125,000 people who came off incapacity benefits in the same period did so as a result of the programme, it says.

The report will cause worry over coalition plans to introduce a new work programme with a similar scheme of structured support delivered through the private sector on a payment-by-results model and would include the setting up of work for welfare institutions where sick and disabled people would live in dormitory hostels and take in menial work.

Chris Grayling, minister for employment said the report showed that Labour “never got to grips with the challenges of getting people back to work. We are grasping the nettle and doing what Labour never had the guts to do.”

However, Mr Grayling declined to comment on the suggestion that the former workhouse in Fitzrovia would be brought back into use, and would only say that “all options are on the table.”

A campaign was set up to try to save the workhouse from being demolished because of the building’s historical significance. UCLH NHS Hospital Trust who own the building would like to develop on the site and build Costa Blanca style luxury flats in a scheme that local people have called crass, opportunistic and an over-development in a conservation area.

Despite an ongoing campaign by English Heritage and campaigners, in 2008 the building was denied listed status. Yet the building has always attracted controversy and the local community around the building were split between those who wanted to preserve it and those who wanted a social housing scheme on the site. UCLH’s plans were never popular and many people felt the hospital were happy to sit on the site and play the waiting game while property prices were depressed.

The current proposals are unlikely to be popular with anybody.

8 Comments on Government may step in to save former workhouse building with new Poor Law

  1. It would be nice if they could build something in keeping with the local area on the former Middlesex hospital site – so not council housing and not “costa blanca style” flats either. Something in the middle please!

    Having said that, it’s a shame anything has to be built at all – we don’t have any sizeable parks in the area and it would make a wonderful park! It’s so nice to have all that light flooding onto Cleveland and Goodge Streets.

  2. FN, not really sure how the two stories you have intertwined really relate in reality, but the good news is that the local campaign to try to save the building is in full force at the moment with quite a bit of interesting history having been discovered very recently.

    Personally I feel that the building should be saved as it is very much in keeping with the local area and it could very easily be returned to working condition. In fact it is presently used for accommodation so it is not in half as bad condition as the developer claims.

    Hopefully we will have more news (positive) to give the local community over the course of the next few weeks.

  3. Dr Ruth Richardson, historian // 10:30 am, Friday, 1 October 2010 at 10:30 am //

    The old Outpatients’ Dept of the Middlesex Hospital was previously the Strand Union Workhouse, and before that (since the 1780s) the workhouse for the parish of St Paul Covent Garden.
    It was built upon a much older graveyard for the parish poor of St Paul’s Parish, Covent Garden.
    It was a bleak and unhappy place since its inception.
    Historically the building is highly important, as it is perhaps the only Georgian purpose-built workhouse building surviving in London. I know of no other of this date to have survived in central London. It’s development is pretty well documented on maps, and we know what went on inside from records and memoirs. It would be a sad thing for it to be demolished. It was transformed by the National Health Service, probably the only happy period of its occupation. It used to have a statue over the front gate, of an old man carrying a scroll which read “AVOID IDLENESS AND INTEMPERANCE”… but did not mention that sickness and bodily infirmity were always the greatest causes of poverty. In the mid 19th century the building (except for the sheds outside) was effectively an infirmary for the sick poor, so it is unusual in having been a healthcare facility for the London poor for at least 150 years, perhaps over 200. Conditions inside were not good, due to the sheer volume of need and the “pinching parsimony” of Poor Law funding in the days before the NHS.

  4. Dr Ruth Richardson, historian // 10:37 am, Friday, 1 October 2010 at 10:37 am //

    PS: if you want to know more, an article I published some years ago about the workhouse and its Victorian Medical Officer can be accessed on:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1838385/pdf/bmj00263-0039.pdf

  5. Funny – it says that is not listed despite an ongoing campaign by English Heritage et al. I thought English Heritage were responsible for listing buildings – they certainly are the only ones preventing the listing of a building near me. Who can stop them from listing a building?

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