Ruth Richardson's 'Dickens and the Workhouse' Helped Save the Georgian-Era Workhouse

Sometimes it takes someone who is not looking for anything in particular to uncover the most fascinating strands of historical webs.

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 400 pages
Author: Ruth Richardson
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-02

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.