Tired out from pondering the rights and wrongs of George Osborne’s selective hacking away at child benefit, Iain Duncan Smith’s modest proposals for the wholesale reformulation of state welfare provision, the general conference-season ambience of broken electoral promises, simultaneous and self-contradictory accusations of ideological inflexibility and half-baked desperation, the whole unsatisfactory spectacle of a Conservative Party enjoying no shared coherent vision about where the line ought to fall between public provision and private responsibility and hence muddling through as best it can, encumbered all awhile with a coalition partner whose history, instincts and commitments with regards to state welfare provision could hardly be more different?
If so, well, then here’s an easy question for you, by way of light distraction. The question concerns an old building. Just to make it even easier, there’s a photo of it above.
The question? Here goes. Which is a better idea — demolishing an attractive, conveniently-sited, structurally sound Georgian building, replete with historical associations which we’ll discuss in a moment, in order to throw up in its place an unremarkable tower-block providing a mixture of residential accommodation and some office space — or in contrast, preserving the old building, which could easily be converted to suit present-day purposes, including, err, residential accommodation and perhaps even a bit of office space as well?
Not exactly difficult, is it?
The historical case for preserving 44 Cleveland Street is particularly strong, not least for the commentary it offers on the past few centuries of welfare provision in London — a story, as it turns out, with more than a degree of contemporary resonance.
In recent years — until 2006, I think — the existing building, located just southwest of Fitzroy Square, functioned as an outpatients’ centre for University College London Hospital. Indeed, when my son was a baby we had to go there every few months so that a rather forbidding consultant could put drops in my son’s eyes and then peer at him in order to determine that his vision was absolutely fine, as indeed turned out to be the case. Even at the time, I remember reflecting that the building, with those oddly elegant gates, satisfying fenestration and classically literate proportions, was strikingly better-looking than anything else in a part of Fitzrovia that has suffered badly from wartime bombing, insensitive development and generalised grunginess, although one which still, happily, possesses a reasonable number of mid to late Georgian residential buildings.
What I didn’t realise until yesterday, however, when someone kindly posted a leaflet through my door alerting me to this fact, is that 44 Cleveland Street was actually a purpose-built Georgian workhouse — apparently the only surviving one in London.
Constructed in 1778 — or possibly 1784, depending what source one believes — in what had previously been a burial ground, the building at 44 Cleveland Street started life as the parish workhouse for St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. Following the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), however, it was taken over in 1836 by the newly-established Strand Poor Law Union, for whom it seems to have functioned chiefly as an infirmary. In this capacity its remit included everything from childbirth to highly contagious diseases to insanity. Treatment, however, was virtually non-existent. There were few cures, many deaths amongst the 500-plus inmates crammed into the smallish, unsavoury site.
No, it’s clear that even by the proverbially dismal standards of workhouses, the conditions at Cleveland Street were dire. We know this, not simply from the relative wealth of documentation that survives in the Westminster Archives and elsewhere, but also from the vivid and powerful testimony of Dr Joseph Rogers, the chief medical officer at the workhouse from 1856-68. Dr Roger’s revulsion at what he saw around him in Cleveland Street — a laundry in the basement filling the dining hall with foul-smelling steam, carpets regularly beaten directly outside the men’s infirmary, the nursery both damp and overcrowded, ‘nursing’ provided only by elderly female inmates, many of whom were apparently habitually drunk, the brutal indifference of the Guardians of the workhouse, the ‘dead house’ adjoining the main structure, or indeed the fact the building itself was constructed on an overstocked and not entirely salubrious burial ground — led him to campaign for better standards in the medical care available to workhouse inhabitants. Similarly, Louisa Twining — a philanthropic member of the wealthy tea-importing family — returned from visiting an elderly acquaintance at the Cleveland Street workhouse deeply distressed by what she had seen there. She went on to set up the Workhouse Visiting Society, persuading numerous influential friends to take an interest in this distinctly unlovely topic, as well as campaigning more generally for the reform of the Poor Law.
Nor was she alone in her concerns. Dickens was apparently aware of the Cleveland Street workhouse, and certainly supported Dr Rogers in his campaign for workhouse reform. Conditions in Cleveland Street were mentioned in letters to the Times, articles in the Lancet and elsewhere. The highly effective media campaign that eventually led public opinion to move against the Poor Law — a turning of the tide reflected in the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867 — owes it beginnings, at least in part, to the various indignities, sorrows and downright tragedies enacted within the handsome Georgian building still standing today in Cleveland Street. What had started out, perhaps, as a broadly well-intentioned means of deterring the unscrupulous from casual recourse to charitable support had somehow turned out, those good intentions notwithstanding, to entail a monstrous system that broke up families, denied the most basic shared humanity and blighted lives while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to diminish the problems posed to the rest of society by poverty per se. And if most people who take a view on the subject now feel that England’s first attempt to provide an up-to-date, nationwide, rational, collective and comprehensive way of dealing with the least fortunate amongst us was not perhaps the success it might have been — well then, we owe this perception to the Cleveland Street workhouse, too.
For those who wish to investigate these matters more seriously, there’s a fascinating article here (pdf) on Dr Rogers and his reforming activities, some information here on the Strand Office Poor Union, and material here on Poor Law infirmaries more generally. Meanwhile those to come to the subject armed with specifically conservative sensibilities — this is, let us remind ourselves in even conference week, a Tory blog — may wish to consult the account of the origins of modern British welfare provision given in James Bartholomew’s The Welfare State We’re In, or indeed to explore Robert Whelan’s work on the Charity Organisation Society and other voluntary alternatives to state welfare solutions (pdf versions available here). These are all complicated subjects, where anything that even resembles a simple answer almost certainly has something very wrong with it indeed.
The headline point, though, is simple enough. The Cleveland Street structure — London’s only extant purpose-built Georgian workhouse — is not simply a rare survival in architectural or even historical terms. Despite the internal alterations and renovations that have brought it into the 21st century, it nonetheless remains a living monument to an experiment in social theory that still, at some level — filtered through literature, popular history, folk memory — colours what we all believe to be the case about the medical treatment available to some of the least fortunate, most troubled and sometimes troublesome members of our society, and as such, still shapes our behaviour today.
Under the circumstances, then, it seems extraordinary that anyone could even consider tearing down this deeply resonant building. Yet 44 Cleveland Street is now facing the very real threat of demolition.
As a part of the eventual reform of the Poor Law, the Cleveland Street site passed first into the control of the Central London Sick Asylums District, then to the Middlesex Hospital and thence to University College London Hospital complex — hence its role as an outpatients’ unit within very recent memory. But now that UCLH have moved all their services onto a single unified site, the Cleveland Street building is no longer needed. Accordingly, the UCLH NHS Foundation Trust have applied to demolish the existing building and to replace it with a mixed-use structure, accommodating, as the planning application puts it, ‘142 residential units (Class C3) and 397 sq m of commercial floorspace’ — or, as most of us might say, a medium-sized tower-block. And given that they put in the proposal before the present property-slump, one can at least understand the logic, if not admire the sense of priorities.
The relevant planning application is here, in case anyone is interested.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proposal for demolition has encountered substantial opposition, both from national heritage bodies and from local residents. In 2006, English Heritage applied for listed building status for 44 Cleveland Street — an application scandalously rejected by the admittedly notably eccentric planning regime that existed under the last Labour government. The Georgian Group continues to campaign to preserve the structure — c.f. their excellent blog posting on the subject here — while no less an authority than Prof. David Watkin asserts not only that the building possesses some architectural merit, but also that it would be suitable for conversion into residential accommodation. Local councillor Glenys Roberts (Westminster), recent council candidate Aimery de Malet (Camden) and others have spoken out against the demolition. There is a Facebook group here, as well as a useful guide to suitable activism here. There are also various petitions. In summary, though, anyone who feels strongly about this subject really ought to make their views known to Development Control Planning Services — the contact details can be found here. Whatever happens, this physical link with the darker side of London’s recent past will not be allowed to vanish unacknowledged or, as far as that goes, unlamented.
Of course I should probably add that it is possible to oppose the destruction of 44 Cleveland Street while still taking very seriously the needs and priorities of those who would like to see the demolition take place, if only in order to secure more affordable housing for the actual inhabitants of the area. As someone who lives nearby in Soho, I am well aware that Fitzrovia relishes — and indeed is right to relish — a certain down-to-earth, unreconstructed, tourist-resistent and resident-friendly ambience to some degree already lost from Soho, Covent Garden and so forth, wherein local shops are increasingly washed away in a deluge of Starbucks and Subway concessions, genuine local people edged out by cosmopolitan professionals keen on a spot of middle-class gentrification yet unaware they risk killing the very locales they profess to love. The politics of urban regeneration are notably double-edged. A few yuppie flats in a nice building, or lots of local homes for local people in a nasty building? It’s not a choice anyone should have to make, but these are the terms in which those closest to the problem often frame it. The best reply, I think, is to insist that as some of the existing nasty buildings in the area are all too clearly reaching the end of their rather short natural lives, the best candidates for demolition probably lie elsewhere. At the same time, preserving 44 Cleveland Street equates to preserving something genuine and significant, as much for the local community as for the metropolis or indeed the nation as a whole.
Meanwhile, is it too much to ask that any developer of the Georgian structure at 44 Cleveland Street — assuming it survives to be redeveloped, which at this point may be an assumption too far — should consider turning at least a few of the downstairs rooms into a mini-museum of local Poor Law history? The story of the Cleveland Street poorhouse is, as I have noted above, extremely well documented. We know a lot about the men and women who lived and worked within those walls — as administrators, employees or inmates — as well as the children who began and all to often concluded their lives here. And while it is often painful enough to read those stories in the abstract — the tales of young single mothers basically left to die, babies neglected solely because they had the bad luck to be born to the wrong sort of parents, debility or misfortune all too often conflated with culpable idleness, moral infirmity or wickedness — as someone who has spent hours in the Georgian building at 44 Cleveland Street, seeking medical attention for my own young son, I can promise you that these stories take on a different sort of resonance, a different timbre of reality when one is standing within the walls of the actual building, looking out across those handsome railings to the world beyond, contemplating the apparent terrifying randomness with which some life-stories are awarded happy endings while others are not — or indeed, the way in which even smallish changes in public policy or private attitudes have the power to shape these endings, whether for good or for ill.
Not, I hasten to reiterate, that there’s any single easy lesson one ought to take away from the Cleveland Street workhouse. Indeed, that’s almost the most important point about it. Outrage is one thing — detailed, nuanced, judicious understanding another thing entirely. For some, I imagine, the lessons learned will be all about the infinite superiority of the post-war, Beveridge-inspired welfare state over any previous series of arrangements for dealing with the poor, sick, elderly, mad or merely terminally hapless. For others, the message will be one about the ongoing deficiencies of centralised, dehumanised, one-size-fits-all, state-run welfare provision, as painfully evident in the present as in the past, the only difference lying in the extent to which we’re habituated to them. It’s in the nature of history, after all, to echo back whatever is being shouted at it most loudly by its interrogator. But if preserving 44 Cleveland Street accomplishes nothing else, something that remains in its shadows may at least prompt in those who know its story a degree of that basic human sympathy — a sort of bemused, tolerant fell0w-feeling — that is, or at any rate ought to be, the surest of solvents for callousness, indifference and wilful obliviousness to the troubles facing our fellow creatures. And that, in turn — although in many ways inconvenient, not least when the party conference season is still upon us — may still be worth having.