Pride of Poor London

Sarah Wise highlights a campaign to save a humble treasure.

A rare example of an English workhouse is under threat of demolition. Dating back to the 1770s, the overspill workhouse for St Paul’s Covent Garden is sited in Cleveland Street, London. The building, which after the passing of the 1834 New Poor Law became known as the Strand Union Workhouse, is scheduled for demolition in order to make way for an apartment block.

While the building could never be described as pretty, it has enormous historical significance. Its mid-century medical officer, Joseph Rogers, was a brilliant and vocal opponent of the more vicious aspects of Victorian Poor Law; its graveyard was the resting place of the Italian Boy – the child vagrant murdered by London’s copycat Burke and Hare-style killers; while literary scholars believe the building may even have inspired certain passages in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Few pre-1834 workhouses have survived and campaigners – backed by English Heritage – are seeking to have the Cleveland Street building listed and converted into much needed key-sector housing.

 

Sarah Wise is the author of The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (The Bodley Head, 2008).

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