In Dickens & the Workhouse which has been published to coincide with the 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens, eminent historian Ruth Richardson tells the story of how she came to discover that London’s most famous author lived twice in the same house just yards from a poor law workhouse.
In this lively and highly readable book she describes how she got involved with a campaign to get the former Georgian and Victorian workhouse in Cleveland Street protected as a listed building and save it from demolition. Richardson traces Dickens early life and gathers together many of the real life characters, streets and buildings that influenced the many novels he would go on to write.
Dr Ruth Richardson is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an affiliated scholar at Cambridge University. She had previously co-authored a paper on Joseph Rogers, a Poor Law medical officer who was employed inside the Strand Union Workhouse on Cleveland Street and it was because of this she was asked to join the campaign.
In December 2010 Richardson appeared on BBC Radio London where she told listeners why she was involved in the campaign to save the workhouse and that during her involvement she had made a fascinating discovery. She told broadcaster Robert Elms she had a “scoop”: Charles Dickens had actually lived just a few doors down from this very workhouse and that it was probably the inspiration for his most famous novel, Oliver Twist.
From there the story was picked up by national media and it went around the world. Charles Dickens’ first London home had been discovered and so had the workhouse that inspired Oliver Twist. Richardson recounts how she made the discovery by checking old maps of London and realising that when biographers of Dickens had referred to 10 Norfolk Street it was actually the same building as today’s 22 Cleveland Street. According to Richardson, because the building had no Blue Plaque and no other mark on it no-one knew that the building on the corner of Cleveland Street and Tottenham Street was Dickens former house. It was a fact obscured in the passage of time and changing London street names.
The result is this beautifully produced book published by Oxford University Press which is almost as good a read as a Dickens’ novel itself. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford and the jacket of the book proudly boasts: “The recent discovery that as a youth Charles Dickens lived only a few doors from a major London workhouse made headlines worldwide … This book by the historian who did the sleuthing behind these exciting new findings tells the story for the first time.”
There’s just one problem. It is common knowledge amongst local people and London tour guides that 10 Norfolk Street and 22 Cleveland Street are the same building, and that Charles Dickens lived here twice. And more importantly there are several books already published that connect Dickens, Cleveland Street and the Workhouse.
On my bookshelf I have four books that mention this fact: Characters of Fitzrovia by Mike Pentelow & Marsha Rowe (2002), Streets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, by Camden History Society (1997), Fitzrovia, by Nick Bailey (1981), and London’s Old Latin Quarter, by E Beresford Chancellor (1930).
None of the authors of these books claim to have discovered this fact, but all of them discuss the change of street names, Charles Dickens having lived in the house, and that there is a former workhouse in the street.
Ruth Richardson it seems had not read any of these books: “None of the local campaign group, including myself,” she writes, “knew of the association [of Dickens with Cleveland Street] at the outset, and nor did English Heritage.” Surely someone from the campaign group must have known about Dickens having lived just doors away but it appears that after Richardson got so overcome with excitement — “I nearly fell off my chair in the Library!” — no-one had the heart to tell her this was a well known fact and had been written about many times.
I’ll leave it to historians to argue why the peer reviewers at Oxford University did not challenge the claim of historical discovery that Ruth Richardson makes.
Today most of the workhouse buildings lie empty except for a few live-in guardians who have no tenants rights. The owners are obliged under a legal agreement to put at least 44 homes for a social rent on the site. But since the building has been listed, plans for these homes have been put aside. While the workhouse and Dickens have been recognised, the London poor will have to wait a little longer.
Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor,
Ruth Richardson, 408 pages | 25 black and white halftones | 216x135mm 978-0-19-964588-6 | Hardback | 02 February 2012 | £16.99
The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens falls on 7 February 2012.
Dr Ruth Richardson will give a talk on Dickens at City of Westminster Archives Centre on Saturday 25 February 2012.
Editorial note: this page was amended 11 February 2012 to correctly state E Beresford Chancellor´s name, and to include Marsha Rowe as co-author of Characters of Fitzrovia.