Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor
(Oxford University Press)
US: Feb 2012
Ruth Richardson, a historian and Fellow of the British Royal Historical Society, made an extraordinary discovery after she was asked in late 2010 to support a campaign to save one of the last remaining examples of a Georgian-era London workhouse for the poor. These workhouses were parish-based, a final refuge for the extremely poor to find employment, lodgings, and meager sustenance. Unsurprisingly, the buildings were not generally kept up well, as the social stigma of the time kept even those with Christian and charitable attitudes from really helping those far less fortunate.
Over time the remaining examples of workhouses have been demolished to make way for newer and more fashionable residences and commercial buildings in the great British metropolis. A dedicated researcher, Richardson set to work to unearth any interesting tidbits she could about the Cleveland Street Workhouse, in the hope of saving the site for its historical interest.
You might have thought the numerous biographies already available about Charles Dickens comprehensively covered everything there is to know about this famous writer. Sometimes it takes someone who is not looking for anything in particular to uncover the most fascinating strands of historical webs. Richardson pored over maps, trying to find out more about the changes in the Cleveland Street Workhouse neighborhood over time, and working out its relationship with the nearby Middlesex Hospital complex. Streets had been renamed, landmark buildings torn down, and Dickens’ connection with this neighborhood were glossed over in existing accounts of his life for lack of available information, but Richardson suddenly puzzled together the pieces and realized that Dickens family had stronger ties to this precise location than previously suspected.
Richardson notes that she “nearly fell out of my chair in the library” (see below) when she discovered that Dickens had lived on the same street, just nine doors down from the Workhouse, for four years during his childhood and adolescence. Dickens lived in the area with his family before writing Oliver Twist, a story famous for its depiction of period workhouses and the desperation of the poor, including orphans, the elderly, and young mothers unable to support their families. As an impressionable and curious boy, Dickens would have soaked up observations of the shops and workers around the building where his family rented a flat.
Dickens lived in the same upper storey flat with his family when he was but an impressionable toddler, and again as a teenager for two years, when he was starting to develop his career plans. Richardson points out historical details about the nature of the neighborhood near the Workhouse, and gives readers a birds-eye view of what Dickens would have been able to see from the flat’s windows. Many biographers have documented how real places and people found their way into Dickens’ fiction, and it’s no stretch at all to think that his proximity to this Workhouse would have influenced his writing as an adult.
Richardson quotes from many of Dickens’ works, pointing out descriptions of characters and places that have a concrete relationship with real historical persons and locations, documented by other contemporary writers and through additional research uncovered by other historians and biographers. Oliver Twist has the most direct link with the Cleveland Street Workhouse Dickens would have walked past frequently, as much of Oliver’s story is rooted in his childhood experience in the workhouse setting. Richardson adroitly identifies additional features of the neighborhood that show up in Dickens’ other works of fiction.
This book has loads of contemporary maps from historical archives, plus drawings from architects, builders, and artists of the time, which is incredibly helpful for visualizing the geography of the neighborhoods in the early 19th century. Richardson supplements maps with illustrations and artwork depicting parts of London Dickens is known to have frequented, plus works highlighting the plight of the poverty-stricken during those times. As a young journalist, Dickens made his opinions about government-sanctioned measures to criminalize poverty known. Richardson gives the reader useful context around this issues, to help further highlight the connection between Dickens’ writing and the Cleveland Street Workhouse.
Richardson provides incredibly detailed notes about the movements of the Dickens family, including where they lived while Charles was at specific ages and developmental stages. She’s adept at tying together the strands of the Dickens family’s journey as they moved about London. Debts and changes of fortune meant they relocated often, sometimes even several times in a single year.
Young Charles had plenty of opportunities to observe life in different parts of London, and his love of walking and wandering would have revealed additional chances to store up the thousands of tiny observations that later added depth to his fictional characters. With the connection to one of Britain’s most famous writers firmly established, Richardson was able to provide the evidence needed to designate the Cleveland Street Workhouse site of sufficient historical importance to preserve. Mission accomplished, and a great story documented along the way.
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