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: