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Twist in fight to save ‘Dickens’ landmark - Strand Union Workhouse may have been inspiration for Oliver Twist

The Strand Union Workhouse. Inset Historian Peter Higginbotham with maps

Published: 07 January 2011
by JOSH LOEB

HISTORIANS fighting to save a former workhouse from demolition have produced a dossier of evidence which they say could prove once and for all that the building was the inspiration behind one of Charles Dickens’s best-loved novels.

Owners University College London Hospital (UCLH), want to pull down the Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, and replace it with a complex of shops, offices and new homes.

Campaigners’ hopes were raised last year when the government agreed to reopen the case to award it listed building status, and in November English Heritage said it had uncovered fresh evidence about its significance. Now historians say they have made “new connections” between the building’s past and the origin of Dickens’s breakthrough novel Oliver Twist, about an orphan escapee from a workhouse.

Using archive evidence, historian Dr Ruth Richardson has pinpointed the exact location of Dickens’s childhood home in Cleveland Street (then known as Norfolk Street) and has shown for the first time that it was “just a stone’s throw away” from the workhouse.

Dr Richardson said: “It was known, though not widely known, that Dickens lived at 10 Norfolk Street. What nobody seems to have done before was to look at number 10 on a map and to plot where that was in relation to the workhouse.

“Now we have done that and have shown that it was just nine doors away. The workhouse was almost on their doorstep. 

“An intelligent child looking out of the front window would have seen Mr Bumble pass by every day, poor people arriving and families about to be broken up in the workhouse.” 

Dr Richardson said Dickens biographers had previously been unaware of the proximity of the author’s childhood home to the workhouse as the two were in separate boroughs in Victorian times and do not appear on the same maps or census returns.

Dr Richardson said: “There are two major Dickens landmarks in that street and there is not even a plaque.”

Historian Peter Higginbotham, who has written books about workhouses, said Dickens had been involved in campaigns to improve conditions in the Strand Union Workhouse but had not revealed the building was his inspiration for Oliver Twist as he had wanted to “cover his tracks”. 

“A number of workhouses have claimed that they were the inspiration for Oliver Twist,” he said. “But Dickens was living just nine doors away from this one at two different stages of his life and it would have had a major influence on him.

“None of this is technically new, but nobody had really made the connection before.”

The dossier produced by Dr Richardson also details how Dickens tried to expunge details of his life in Cleveland Street – a difficult time for his family, when they faced financial woes – from ­later memoirs. 

UCLH say planning permission for their recently opened hospital in Euston Road required them to provide “much-needed social housing” in Fitzrovia. 

They say they have carried out consultations in the community and that the majority of people support their plans.

Pictured: Historian Peter Higginbotham with maps showing the proximity of Dickens’s family home to the Strand Workhouse (main shot)

 

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