Dickens' London: Further Twists

Gillian Tindall reflects on a recent discovery by a Dickens scholar, which offers new insights into the great writer’s early years.

In all the Dickensiana delivered to us in this bicentenary year facts that we think we know jostle for space with new-found or little remembered ones. One of the lesser-known anecdotes, though it first found its way into print in 1939, is a vignette of Dickens, middle aged and famous, sitting incognito at the back of a junk shop in Seven Dials. A customer buying a watercolour that he guessed might be by Turner was startled to hear a request to look at the picture and to recognise it came from Dickens.

Today, after a further 70 years of assiduous Dickens’ scholarship, to come upon a hitherto unrecognised fact concerning his life must be a moment of comparable excitement. It was like that for Ruth Richardson, the author of Dickens and the Workhouse, published by Oxford University Press earlier this year. ‘I feel rather like that lucky stroller in Seven Dials,’ she writes. ‘Entering the street to seek the history of the [Strand Union] Workhouse, something caused me to turn and find … Charles Dickens … there all the while, nine doors from the Workhouse gates.’

The London street in question is Cleveland Street, which runs north from Goodge Street, through Fitzrovia, to the Euston Road. In the early 19th century the southernmost section was called Norfolk Street. Not till later was the whole street given one name, yet that commonplace adjustment seems to have been enough to expunge Norfolk Street from the Dickens-seeking world. It has been claimed that the house in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where Dickens and his wife lived early in their marriage and which is now a museum to the author, is the only one of his London habitations still standing.

Another location, Bayham Street, Camden Town, is the address usually given to exemplify the kind of place that sheltered the Dickens family when they were not actually lodged in Southwark’s Marshalsea prison on account of the debts of Dickens père, although that house has long since been pulled down. I think that Dickens-lovers have homed in on Bayham Street because John Forster, Dickens’ friend and contemporary, was particularly rude about it in the Life he published after Dickens’ death: ‘a mean, small tenement, with a wretched little back-garden abutting on a squalid court’. Yet in 1822, when the Dickens family briefly lived there, it was a new-built, salubrious spot, close to fields. They lived for a much longer period down the road in Somers Town, but the real surprise, unearthed by Ruth Richardson, is that their first address on coming from the Medway town of Chatham – and therefore Dickens’ earliest significant London home – was at 10 Norfolk Street. The Dickens family was there in 1815 and 1816, when Dickens was four and five, and at the same address again for much of the time from 1829 to 1831, when he was a very young man. They clearly maintained contact with the place, near to which several relatives lived from both sides of the family. What’s more, the house is still standing and intact within. Here are the rooms from which the writer-to-be opened his eyes on the great city for the first time.

Why, you may well ask, has this not been realised before? Even Claire Tomalin, in her excellent Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking, 2011), makes only the briefest reference to it as being ‘off Fitzroy Square’ and does not seem to realise the premises are still there. A few scholars in past decades have studied maps closely enough to signal 10 Norfolk Street’s existence, notably Michael Allen in Charles Dickens’ Childhood (St Martin’s Press, 1988), though somehow the fact has not become part of the corpus of Dickensian general knowledge. Not a single person before Richardson seems to have realised the significance of No 10 being just down the street from an ancient building that was erected there in what were still fields in the 1770s.

This was then the workhouse of Covent Garden parish, which became, after the Poor Law Act of 1834, the Strand Union Workhouse. In the more humane 1870s it became a workhouse-infirmary with new wards at the back; from the 1920s it was an annexe to the Middlesex Hospital, which was itself demolished in 2008 to make way for a grandiose developers’ scheme that failed to reach fruition.

The one-time workhouse was due to follow it into oblivion this year. In the nick of time, and due to the exertions of Richardson and a number of others, it was finally recognised that this was not just the only surviving example in London of a pre-1834 workhouse, it was also arguably the inspiration for the one in Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

English Heritage became involved; the building has now been listed, in the teeth of opposition from the University College Hospital Trust, which owns the place and had planned to put the site to other, more profitable uses. Yet individuals’ relationships with the past are idiosyncratic and go beyond the rational. Just as Richardson managed to energise a number of people, who became passionately determined to protect the Cleveland Street Workhouse from the demolition squad, so others appeared to hate the very idea of its being preserved. The local MP angrily told a Daily Telegraph journalist that the claim Dickens had lived in that street was ‘spurious’. Normally a man well-disposed toward conservation efforts, he seemed to have an emotional urge to see the old workhouse destroyed. In the past he was briefly minister for health: charitably one may suspect here the traditional left-wing confusion between abolishing the evils of the past (poverty, lack of hygiene, class barriers and so forth) and abolishing the physical sites associated with them. But as Richardson, herself a medical and architectural historian has pointed out, on the grounds of medical reform, too, the old building has a significant past, which is what led her to it in the first instance. It was the place from which Dr Joseph Rogers, a humane Poor Law Medical Officer of the 1860s, managed to persuade his masters to overhaul the whole brutal system.

Once Richardson had established her case (with the timely discovery of one of Dickens’ earliest business cards, giving Norfolk Street as his address) she set to work on censuses, directories and newspapers to unearth a mass of local tradesmen and others whose names or stories seem to have been knitted into Dickens books. A Sowerby turns up, a Weller, a Rudderforth (Steerforth?), a Sikes, a Googe and Marby and a white-clad female figure who was said locally to have been deserted (like Miss Haversham) by a lover and to have lost her wits. The fact that, in the famous blacking factory just off the Strand, Dickens worked with a parish boy called Fagin has become well known, but Richardson points out that, given the location of the factory, it was almost certainly from the Cleveland Street establishment that Fagin and other apprentices came. She even came across a portly and unpopular beadle who lived in Cleveland Street – surely the original of Mr Bumble.

Oliver Twist was written shortly after the new, harsher Poor Law came into force in 1834. The novel is, like many of Dickens’, set a few years earlier, but in depicting in it a workhouse that would be widely recognised as archetypal, he managed to conflate the evils of both the old law and the new. He was one of the people to light a fuse of criticism that was to blow the calculated neglect and casual cruelty of the workhouse system away. He continued to target the Poor Laws both in his fiction and in life. There was the occasion when he, as a young vestryman, rescued a pathetic workhouse inmate from the charge of infanticide and his part in establishing a home for such girls is well known. His brilliance, his energy and his vibrant personality made him, as Walter Bagehot said, a ‘correspondent for posterity’ and he unwittingly created a doloristic mythology which is with us to this day.

Not all workhouse arrangements were terrible. For instance, the Overseers of the Poor of St Saviours, Southwark, were required by the parish Vestry to visit their branch home ‘at least eight times in the year … We would appeal to their feelings as parents, whether they would think this too often to visit their own children under similar circumstances’. The children there played on the common and were being taught to read and write by their nurses: one was commended for having her charges ‘looking more like tradesmen’s children than paupers’. It is true that after 1834 the revised system was deliberately less flexible and more punitive, but one or two of its most notorious features were soon modified in the face of public outcry. Thus, when George Simms produced his acclaimed poem Twas Christmas Day in the Workhouse in 1879, the practice of separating married couples, which is at the poem’s angry heart, had long since been abandoned. By then the workhouse itself was on the way to becoming the sheltering infirmary, eventually metamorphosing into the local hospital. But the poem has been cited again and again as if it were evidence; even today ‘ending in the workhouse’ is spoken of with resentful emphasis as if it were within living memory.

In the popular imagination the frontiers of the past are constantly shifted forward. Jane Austen-land and Downton Abbey seem, to many television viewers, much the same country, though a hundred years of social and political change separate them. The London that Dickens made his own and has given to the world was, by his death in 1870, disappearing, as Model Dwelling blocks replaced ancient rookeries, charities for the lame and the blind proliferated and London School Boards swept up the child beggars.

In the early 20th century ‘Dickensian’, when used as a term of condemnation, came to be applied to an era well before 1900, consigned with all things despised by then as ‘Victorian’. Yet today, with another century gone by, people solemnly recount that ‘Dickensian’ conditions reigned in their area into the 1930s and one is now hearing from those born long after the 1950s that that time, too, was part of a dark age of privation and exploitation. We are attached to the concept of change for the better, but what we mean by ‘poor’ relates to a shifting concept of what is normal, or at any rate tolerable.

Whether the assumption of perpetual progress will survive the increasing social and ecological pressures of the present century is an open question. How Dickens’ perceptions will be viewed at his tricentenary and what further transformations his London will by then have undergone is another. I like to think that I might return in spirit to find the workhouse building in Cleveland Street still standing, clean, landscaped, cared for, used, a monument to past endeavours and to faith in a future. But the risk of cavalier destruction on the pretexts of necessity and profit will, I suspect, still be with us a hundred years hence. So, no doubt, will the poor.

Gillian Tindall’s latest book is Three Houses, Many Lives (Chatton and Windus, 2012)