London, October, 2010. Local people trying to save an old building from demolition called upon me to help. I'm a historian, and years ago I'd written about a Victorian doctor who'd worked there. The Telecom Tower is on the next block, so the building stands right in the middle of London.
We knew there was something special about the place. It was originally a poorhouse for the parish of St Paul, Covent Garden. Solidly built in 1775, the year of the American Revolution, the Cleveland Street Workhouse had survived into the twenty-first century still in use, disguised as a hospital department.
In 2010, the Middlesex Hospital, with which it was associated, was already demolished, and the developers were poised to smash the workhouse down too, for another apartment block. The UK government had scorned an official recommendation to preserve it. We wrote to the newspapers, and started an online-petition, but things seemed hopeless: to appeal the government's decision, we needed 'substantive' new evidence.
I began digging in the archives. By luck, within a month I'd found something both unexpected and extraordinary: the information that Charles Dickens had lived only nine doors away! This was exactly what was needed! The press picked up the story that Oliver Twist's workhouse had been found. Stories buzzed round the world, and support and signatures flew back. Lucinda Dickens came along to deliver our petition to the new Minister, and he saved the workhouse.
Dickens's old home on the corner of Tottenham Street is one of only four original houses still standing on the old street, a block south of the workhouse. Inside, all sorts of period features that he would have known have survived: a long shelved 'dresser' downstairs, a partition of Georgian glass, and the original handrail up the stairs. Nobody knows why the house never had a blue plaque - but we are hoping to rectify the omission later this centenary year.
I've now written a book (Dickens & the Workhouse, Oxford University Press) about Dickens's life in the street, and the extraordinary discoveries relating to his novels that this work has begun to yield. It seems that stories and people from the street may have suggested plotlines and characters from Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers to Oliver Twist and Barnaby Rudge. For example, two tradesmen down the road were named Goodge and Marney, a famous miser lived round the corner, and the shoemender opposite was Dan Weller. The 'White Woman of Berners Street', who scholars believe was a model for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, would have walked past his door... and so would Mr Bumble, or someone very like him.
Here are nine new things I discovered in my research about Dickens & Oliver Twist:
The old address, 10 Norfolk Street has been changed: it's now 22 Cleveland Street. The Dickens family arrived there in 1815 from Portsea (where Dickens had been born in 1812) and stayed until 1817. Dickens probably learned to read in the house, as he was nearly 5 when he left. The workhouse stood only nine doors away, on the next block. Dickens would probably have been familiar with the sound of the workhouse bell, and possibly - when the wind was in the right direction - he'd have caught its odors, and dust.
The Dickens family lived in the same house twice, returning there again after Dickens's father had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison. In total they lived there for 4-5 years, all before he wrote <em>Oliver Twist.</em> During the second stay, Dickens was between 17 and 19 years old, and training himself as a shorthand court and Parliamentary reporter. The Norfolk Street address appears on his first known business card.
Between their two periods in Norfolk Street, Dickens's father was arrested and imprisoned for debt. Mrs. Dickens and the smaller children went to live inside the Marshalsea prison with their father, but young Dickens was sent to work in a blacking factory, packing shoe-polish into jars. The factory was inside the parish of St. Paul Covent Garden, so he might have been working alongside parish apprentices from the Cleveland St. Workhouse. We know that this traumatic time was in his mind when he was writing Oliver Twist, because Dickens used the name of one of the factory boys for his villain, Fagin.
Dickens describes Oliver's workhouse cap as being of brown cloth, and it is a fact that the male children at Cleveland Street Workhouse wore brown cloth uniforms. One of the most poignant finds to emerge during the research for the book, was a pewter button embossed "Strand Union" - the name of the workhouse. Discovered by Mr. Ian Smith on the muddy foreshore of the River Thames in the 1980s, nobody knows if the uniform it belonged to was thrown in the River, or if a runaway workhouse inmate had drowned themselves there.
The workhouse in <em>Oliver Twist</em> has always been supposed to be a long way out of London, because when young Oliver runs away he passes a milestone that says 70 miles to London. Because he enters London from the north, speculation has focused on the town of Kettering, or somewhere that far north of London. But Dickens also tells that after his mother's death, Oliver was reared in a 'branch' workhouse, and there was no other place in England that had branch workhouses than London itself. My researches show that the branch workhouse for Covent Garden parish was in Hendon, a village on the edge of London, at the centre of which still stands a landmark 'seven mile stone.' Dickens seems to have disguised the place very well by adding nothing but a zero!
In <em>Oliver Twist</em>, the child is born in the workhouse on page one and his unmarried mother dies there on page two. It's not until Chapter 51 that we get the whole story: a locket had been taken from Oliver's mother's body, and pawned by the pauper nurse who laid out the dead body. On her own deathbed, the old nurse later confessed to the workhouse Matron, Mrs. Bumble, who retrieved the locket from the local pawnbroker's shop. She in turn had sold it to Monks, Oliver's evil half-brother, who had disposed of it into a rushing millstream. Oliver's benefactor Mr. Brownlow reveals all this by confronting Monks and the Bumbles with the circumstantial evidence: two aged workhouse inmates, who had overheard the old nurse confess to Mrs Bumble, and had observed her subsequent visit to the pawnbroker's. From the women's ward of the workhouse, you can still see the site of what was a thriving pawnbroker's shop, which stood on a corner diagonally between Dickens's old home and the workhouse.
Under the Anatomy Act, an Act of Parliament dating to 1832, the 'unclaimed' dead poor in hospitals and workhouses could be taken for dissection in medical schools. Oliver's mother is unidentified at her death, and Oliver is given an invented name by Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle. Later, when Oliver has found his family at last, a church monument is erected to his mother, but there is no coffin or body available to be buried in it. Dickens requested his illustrator, George Cruikshank, to re-draw the last image for Oliver Twist, to picture the significant moment when Oliver visits his mother's monument. Cruikshank later complained that it showed no more than a blank wall. Many poor people from the Cleveland Street Workhouse probably made a similar journey: the workhouse was across the road from the Middlesex Hospital, where there were plenty of medical students seeking subjects to dissect.
When the parish beadle Mr. Bumble arrives to collect Oliver to return him to the main workhouse, he and the mistress of the branch workhouse banter about the parish use of open carts in rainy weather to transport sick paupers, 'to prevent them taking cold.' The conversation seems facetious, but Dickens appears to have known about a real case that never reached the newspapers. In August 1836, a sick woman, Margaret Wilkin, an inmate at Kingston Workhouse but originally a parishioner of St Clement Danes, had been sent to London in an open cart, and put down at the boundary despite being ill. 'If death should ensue,' the workhouse Guardians told their colleagues at Kingston, 'your office would be clearly liable to be indicted for the offence.'
Perhaps the clinching evidence that the workhouse in London's Cleveland Street may have been an inspiration for <em>Oliver Twist</em> is the fact that opposite the workhouse, at number 11 Cleveland Street, stood a shop whose owner was a wax candle and tallow-chandler named William Sykes. Dickens merely altered the spelling to Sikes. We do not know what the real Bill Sykes thought of his name being used for the vicious villain in <em>Oliver Twist</em> who flees London for the out-of-the-way village of Hendon, after he murders Nancy. It may have been one reason Dickens was later highly secretive about Norfolk Street.