Charles Dickens, Cleveland Street and the Workhouse

Cover of book with scene where Oliver Twist asks for more.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.

9 Comments on Charles Dickens, Cleveland Street and the Workhouse

  1. Excellent stuff, Angela, good to read a well informed local trashing seriously flawed research. I would be interested to see the book’s bibliography!

  2. I’m in the middle of this book by Ruth Richardson, & what
    a great read it is too! I can thoroughly recommend it!
    Nowhere else have I seen the direct connection between Dickens
    house & the nearby workhouse made before, or the fact that dozens
    of Dickens characters were modelled on real people that lived
    or worked in or near Cleveland Street (then Norfolk Street)
    The importance of these facts strengthens the case for the saving
    of the workhouse ugly as it is, as a crucial part of our local social
    history.

  3. Angela [surely a pseudonym!] Lovely correctly quotes me as saying that at the outset none of the campaign group, or English Heritage, knew of any association between Dickens and Cleveland Street, so that when I found the connection – by the route described in the book – it was indeed a great surprise. Angela Lovely is also quite correct to say that each of the authors she has listed mention that Dickens lived in the street. But she gives the impression in her piece that all these authors also associate their coverage of Dickens with the existence of the workhouse, whereas in fact none of them makes that association.
    The wonderful Camden Local Studies Library in Theobald’s Road was carefully checked for any book on the area containing any reference to Dickens, and the same was done at Westminster Archives, because Dickens’s old home lies on the Marylebone side of the parish boundary. Not a single author was found who had put together the fact that Dickens had lived in Norfolk Street with the fact that his home was only doors from the workhouse, and none had suggested that the Cleveland Street Workhouse might have been an inspiration for Oliver Twist. None of Dickens’s many biographers seems to have made the association either.
    If Angela Lovely, or any reader of Fitzrovia News, knows of any published source pre-dating the workhouse campaign in which the fact that Dickens lived nine doors from the workhouse is mentioned I would be very happy to hear of it, as it would serve to reinforce the findings reported in my book.
    My researches (particularly the discovery of Mr William Sykes of Cleveland Street) suggest that the Cleveland Street Workhouse almost certainly served as an inspiration for Oliver Twist. I hope others will actually read the book, rather than judge it unfairly.

    Ruth Richardson, author of Dickens and the Workhouse, Oxford University Press, 2012.

  4. Ruth

    Thanks for your comment. “Surely a pseudonym!” you say. Why not? Who was Boz?

    You say: “I hope others will actually read the book, rather than judge it unfairly”.

    I can assure you I read your book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope others read it, too. And critically.

    In June 2010 I took part in a guided walk around Fitzrovia. This was months before you became involved in the campaign. On this walk we stopped outside 22 Cleveland Street and were told that it was Dickens first London home and that he had lived here twice. I was already aware of this fact because the four books I mentioned in the review had all said that Dickens had lived twice at 22 Cleveland Street. All four books were about the local history of the area we now call Fitzrovia.

    Nowhere in your book is there any mention or reference to any author who had previously made the connection between 10 Norfolk Street and 22 Cleveland Street. As far as any reader could tell from reading chapter 1 of your book, you had made a discovery that no-one had made before. Oxford University Press stated: “The recent discovery that as a youth Charles Dickens lived only a few doors from a major London workhouse.”

    You say in your comment: “Not a single author was found who had put together the fact that Dickens had lived in Norfolk Street with the fact that his home was only doors from the workhouse”.

    Yet Beresford in his book published in 1930 says Dickens lived at 22 Cleveland Street and within a few pages of this he mentions the workhouse in the same street. This was repeated in the books I mentioned by Bailey (1981) Camden History Society (1997) and Pentelow and Rowe (2002).

    I do not think it is unfair of me to point this out. Do you?

    You are of course correct that none of these authors made a connection with the workhouse and Oliver Twist. But I never said they had.

    I look forward to your talk at City of Westminster Archives.

    Angela

  5. Angela wrote “… after Richardson got so overcome with excitement ….. no-one had the heart to tell her this was a well known fact and had been written about many times. “ I’m no expert but it looks as if Angela and Ruth are talking about 2 different things. The addresses (Dickens and the workhouse) were “well-known”. What Ruth found exciting was the thought, which seems to have occurred to no one before, the thought that Dickens knew the workhouse and may have used it in his novels. An analogy: the first person to see a possible connection between smoking and lung cancer deserves credit for a discovery. I would also say that the tone of Angela’s article was unhelpful – not ‘flaming’ exactly but not far off.

  6. Reblogged this on french knots and commented:
    I would love to read this book. I know Charles Dickens worked hard as a reformer. I guess he remembered his hard life as a little one.

  7. “Smoking and lung cancer” – I’m sorry but London Remembers’ bizarre medical analogy is totally irrelevant to this discussion, and he/she does not seem to grasp that what is going on here is a rigorous academic debate. It is not about being “unhelpful”, it is about putting forward research and documentation that may contradict that of someone else. I have not yet read Ms Richardson’s book – do the four sources mentioned by Ms Lovely appear in the bilbiography?

    I have been a Fitzrovia resident for over 17 years, and thought the Dickens/workhouse connection was common knowledge.

  8. No,Monsieur Flaneur, not common knowledge
    but will now be thanks to Ruth …. & Angela!
    My ex (a publisher) once said to me about book
    reviews : its column inches that sells, Fiona, &
    the more contentious, the more sold” Good book
    good read,Clive!

  9. I have just seen the article regarding Dickens and Cleveland street, and would like to add that I worked as a nurse in the Middlesex Hospital (now demolished) in the 1970’s. The ward I worked on was the Woolavington Wing situated in Cleveland St. which was round the corner from the main entrance in Mortimer St. I worked there until 1980, and on the building directly opposite the ground floor of this wing on the corner of Tottenham St. and Cleveland St. was a blue plaque stating that Charles Dickens lived there, I don’t remember the dates on it, but it most definitely was there in the 1970’s. I have just looked on Google maps and it isn’t there now.

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