Against the proposed demolition of the Cleveland Street workhouse

London's last surviving Georgian workhouse: 44 Cleveland Street, London W1

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.


Filed under architecture, history, London, Tory things

17 responses to “Against the proposed demolition of the Cleveland Street workhouse

  1. Time after time after time, we bitterly regret having torn down some precious historical architectural relic – in order to build a carpark 😦 Our generation should be the last one to have to fight to preserve important buildings. Or our children won’t have anything left to fight for.

    “Following the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), 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.” This was a critical turning point in 19th century social history, whether it worked out well or not. The people who want to pull the building down need to be locked up themselves!!

  2. Whilst I entirely support preservation of this fascinating and handsome building, personally, I’d draw the line at living there. I’m afraid my awareness of the many awful things that occurred within its walls would spoil my enjoyment of the place. I can’t defend this feeling – it’s pathetically superstitious – but it’s there anyway. One hopes that not everyone would have such irrational scruples.

  3. Agreed re the carparks, Hels. The Georgian Group’s excellent blog frequently makes the point that although many people assume that the big battle for heritage has long since been won and that it’s no longer possible to demolish an important old building, in fact important old buildings vanish all the time — whether through neglect, unsympathetic ‘renovation’ or purposeful destruction. Eternal vigilance is probably the only solution. Tearing down old buildings is irreversible — whereas it’s so often entirely possible to find some practical way round the apparent ‘necessity’ of demolition.

    Meanwhile, Gareth, as much as I share your ‘irrationality’ when it comes to living in obviously ill-starred places — actually, I’m not even sure I’d really want to live in anything that hadn’t always been a straight-forward private house, hence my similarly irrational phobia of barn conversions and so forth — it’s worth noting that in my many hours of waiting around for appointments at 44 Cleveland Street during its incarnation as an outpatients’ unit, I never picked up anything vaguely resembling ‘bad vibes’ — if anything, I rather preferred it to all those shiny new purpose-built facilities at UCL! (This, at least, may be a point for which you have some sympathy …)

  4. Good point. All that wholesome medical care probably exorcised the previous miseries. However, I’d still make sure all the flats were sold before opening the museum…

  5. At university I spent a year living in rooms which had previously been occupied — or so legend had it — by Aleister Crowley. No problem! So perhaps I am not sufficiently attuned to these things. But on the other hand, surely it would be possible to sell 44 Cleveland Street as a story with a happy ending?

    Oh dear — next of all you will have me implying that things ever actually get better — not really the general tone of this blog — time to listen to Dave’s speech, if only to recover my native pessimism. 😉

  6. I know who I’d back in a showdown between Fugitive Ink and the ghost of The Great Beast. He probably legged it, forked tail between legs.

  7. I am tempted to comment that Electric Review (RIP) got pretty close to that scenario, albeit as a collaboration rather than a showdown — but not everyone would see the humour in that, so perhaps I won’t!

  8. excumbrian

    Having lost the Middlesex Hospital building to corporate vandalism (and being left with a wasteland), I can only hope that this building is saved. It seems that the history of London’s buildings, rather than their so-called “architectural importance”, counts for nothing these days — although I hope to be proved wrong.

  9. Matilda Bevan

    Something imaginative could surely be done with the Cleveland Street workhouse building. Meanwhile being a blogging novice I think I am in the wrong place to leave a comment about your post on Thomas Hennell, which is what I really want to do. I’m an artist newly devoted to this man’s life and output, and I’m looking for ways of developing a body of my own work inspired by his. It was a really good moment to discover your piece about his letter.

  10. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Hennell piece, Matilda — as you’ll have seen, I do think he was an extraordinarily interesting figure, while his work just seems to gain more depth, strength and gravity the longer one looks at it.

    Have you seen much of his painting and drawing, I wonder? Obviously there’s quite a lot at the Imperial War Museum, Tate Britain and so forth, but there are some marvellous things that come up in selling exhibitions — a real education, whether or not you’re in buying mode — or even in the salerooms. Also, if you haven’t yet read it, I’d very much recommend Michael Macleod’s biography of Hennell — a notably sensitive, well-informed and revealing account of this completely distinctive artist, his working methods and his vision.

  11. I am lucky enough to work in the Thackray Museum, a medical museum which is housed inside an old Workhouse in Leeds. Personally I love the building I work in and although I am sure it has its fair share of ghosts and memories, I feel it is wonderful that such an historic monument to our social past is being used for something useful and – dare I say it – interesting!
    I find it disturbing that the echoes our not too distant past are disappearing under office space and car parking. Given the current political news regarding lack of pensions and few provisions for the poor we may indeed need these workhouses in the not too distant future to serve their original purpose!
    Perhaps it is a sense of paranoia in me that I feel we should keep buildings like this to remember the past was real and to see where we’ve moved from and where we are moving to. After all if all the evidence is removed, is it not too easy to forget?

  12. Very much agreed, Lauren.

    Whatever one thinks of the present-day arrangements for social welfare provision, it’s useful for all of us to know something about how these issues were addressed in previous centuries — not just as political dogma or literary cliches, either, but in a way that allows both for the full complexity of historical experience and for some recognition of the impact of these things on actual human lives.

    Not least, otherwise, one ends up producing the sort of patronising agit-prop my fellow Cambridge historian Tristram Hunt MP thought fit to serve up to the hapless readers of today’s Daily Mirror — ‘The Victorians disliked the poor,’ he writes.

    But does Tristram truly believe that Dr Joseph Rogers dislike ‘the poor’ — that Louisa Twining and Octavia Hill disliked ‘the poor’? As far as that goes, does he think that ‘the poor’ disliked ‘the poor’ — or has it in fact not occurred to him that they might, as individuals rather than someone else’s sloppy generalisation, take a point of view on these things?

    More plausibly, though, I suspect that Tristan regards accuracy on these fairly basic points as entirely optional. What, after all, do the life-experiences of actual people matter compared with the imperatives of churning out another 800 words or so of rabble-rousing fiction, useful at least in disguising the fact that the Coalition is now doing more or less what Labour would, had it won the last election, surely have been forced to do itself? This is, after all, only a comment piece in a national newspaper — no need to be responsible or accurate, then — whether as a journalist, a public intellectual or indeed a member of parliament.

    On a more positive note, though, the Thackray Museum sounds like a fascinating place. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  13. Dr Ruth Richardson

    Dear fugitive ink,

    I am writing to thank you for your beautiful website ( I love the name) and particularly for your splendid championship of the Strand Union Workhouse.

    Delighted to see my article on Dr Rogers can be accessed here, and have been publicising fugitive ink in my own campaign literature!

    You write BEAUTIFULLY: I really admire the other subjects you have chosen to cover, and I absolutely adored the rainbow over Soho!

    It was I that helped obtain the blue plaque for Dr Rogers on 33 Dean Street [and also one for Dr Polidori in Geat Pulteney Street].

    The workhouse in Cleveland Street was definitely not a scene of misery for all of its existence. It was probably a fairly benign Old Poor Law poorhouse when it was first erected – the real harshness only came in after 1834, when Edwin Chadwick was the Secretary of the Poor Law Board: he was an absolute totalitarian skinflint, and thought nothing of separating husbands & wives however many years they had been married, and sending London children north to work in the cotton factories.

    Rogers did his best to mitigate the awfulness of that regime, and succeeded, as we know, to radically change matters. That’s when the two fine Nightingale wards were added at the rear. After that, it was a modernised maternity hospital and a surgical hospital – with state of the art anaesthesia – a first aid post during WW2, and then an outpatient dept, with a specialist ENT unit.

    So it was only under the worst era of the New Poor Law that it was really miserable – for much of its existence – especially in the era since Dr Rogers, the place has been a benign institution.

    The biography of the building is so rich, I was wondering if anyone else can think of a place that has served the sick and elderly of London under so many guises?

    Thankyou for keeping comment box open!

    Anyone who wants to sign an e-petition – please look at homepage & follow the links to Strand Union Workhouse. [Here’s the link — Ed.]

  14. Bill Latchford

    I agree with the many comments made regarding the loss of buildings and the history to which they are connected. I have just spent a few days in London and came across a leaflet on the Cleveland Street Workhouse. I visited the site on Thursday morning before my return home and I am dissappointed that certain authorities can even consider destroying the social history of this country. My support to Fugitive Link.

  15. Elizabeth

    As someone who has just returned from a visit to the UK – preserve the remaining old buildings especially with such a known history – there can’t be too many left after the destruction of the war time bombings and redevelopments in times when conserving the past was not valued. Tis building was build when Captain Cook arrived in Ausralia!

  16. Aimery de Malet

    Those of you interested in joining in our campaign online should sign our petition using the following link:

  17. Thanks to all who have contributed here recently.

    Thanks particularly to Dr Ruth Richardson. Your kind comments about Fugitive Ink are very much appreciated. Again, I’d recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about the history of the Cleveland Street Workshouse Dr Richardson’s excellent British Medical Journal article (pdf) on the subject. You are right, of course, about the more benevolent recent history of the building — other than the mild tedium of waiting for appointments, my own experiences at the eye hospital were nothing but positive, revealing much kindness and good sense amongst the medical staff there. So, perhaps we should consider any sad or sinister spectres already firmly dispelled!

    Finally, Dr Richardson, I’m also grateful for the way you’ve approached my post on the subject in such a positive spirit. I am sure my article isn’t perfect, but enthusiasm like yours is contagious — drawing people into this extremely worthwhile cause — in the way that some other approaches are not. Anyway, I am sure we all, in our various ways, await with interest the next steps in the planning decisions ….