Workhouse that inspired Dickens to write Oliver Twist set to become luxury flats
UCLH Charity says refurbishment plan will help take iconic site off 'at risk' register
06 July, 2017 — By Richard Osley
AS the Georgian building that is said to have provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration to quill Oliver Twist, aficionados of the great writer have often called for the Strand Workhouse to be protected from development and possibly turned into a museum.
Few of them, then, have taken a delight in the irony that this icon of paupers’ London has two centuries later been lined up to become luxury flats. Camden’s planning department has been deluged with pleas to reject the conversion plans for the former workhouse in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, which are due to go before planners tonight (Thursday).
There are also a raft of objections to other parts of the proposals, which will see old hospital wings including the Nightingale Pavilion, named after renowned nurse Florence, demolished and the construction of a new eight-storey development behind the workhouse on the site of a burial ground.
Officials have recommended the plans – commissioned by the UCLH Charity – are approved but councillors hold the final say when they meet tonight. The charity says money from the development would go to the hospital, while 38 new affordable homes in the scheme could go to specialist health staff.
The former Strand workhouse in Cleveland Street
The Grade II-listed workhouse itself would be turned into private flats in one of London’s most sought-after neighbourhoods.
In a letter to the Town Hall, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley – a direct descendant of Dickens – said: “Our city is overrun with apartment blocks full of flats no Londoners can afford to buy… We absolutely do not need any more apartment blocks. We need to stop eroding our heritage and start caring about the people of London and their very important history.”
She added: “The workhouse absolutely should not be gutted to create impossibly expensive homes and the surrounding area should not be cleared for building as it were any ordinary brownfield site.”
Actress Miriam Margolyes – who has toured the world in her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women – added: “It would be a great waste to let this irreplaceable area slip away into anonymity. Charles Dickens brings tourists to London: he is a vital part of our literary pre-eminence. Appalling to think of removing a part of his imaginative development.”
Dickens, who published Oliver Twist, the story of an orphan boy who flees the punishing workhouse in search of better fortune in London, lived in the same street and is said to have been struck by the conditions faced by those facing poverty.
The link was most forcefully made in print by Dr Ruth Richardson’s 2012 book, Dickens and the Workhouse. A man named Bill Sikes is said to have lived opposite. Other letters have come from literature scholars from around the world and the Dickens House museum in Bloomsbury.
Several objections, meanwhile, said more respect should be shown to the thousands of poverty-stricken people whose bodies have been left undisturbed on consecrated ground for more than 200 years. Supporters of the changes – including several businesses in the area – have also written to the council, however, calling for the scheme to be approved.
How the new eight storey complex behind the workhouse would look
Backers say it should be credited for targeting an affordable housing percentage of more than 70 per cent, opening up Bedford Passage for the first time in decades and protecting the workhouse building through refurbishment.
In statements to the council, agents for the charity said it was aware of the link with Dickens but the conversion was a way of “securing the long-term future” of the building.
“This is to be achieved through the retention of the building and its sensitive refurbishment and adaption for residential use, which will ensure that the building is removed from the ‘Heritage at Risk Register’,” the paperwork said. “The demolition of the un-listed 19th Century pavilion wings to the rear of the listed Workhouse will facilitate the optimum development of the site as a whole, enabling the applicant to deliver the key policy objectives for the site and focusing the new build elements away from Cleveland Street.”
The charity added: “Rather than acting as a developer in the traditional sense, as a charitable trust, all of the income from the development proposal generates funds that are fed directly back into University College London Hospitals to improve services.”
Griff Rhys Jones warns development will harm character of Fitzrovia
COMEDIAN Griff Rhys Jones is among the dozens of objectors who have written to the Town Hall calling for the Cleveland Street development to be rejected, warning that Fitzrovia’s historic character is at risk.
“Although the Nightingale wards and the existing external wall are not part of the original scheme they are very much part of the current ‘look’ and appeal and balance of these historic buildings. To destroy them would alter the character,” he said. “The mass pauper graves in this area are of archaeological and historical interest, not to mention a sanctified site. I think it would be wise to consider whether it should be covered over or so cavalierly incorporated into any scheme.”
Mr Rhys Jones, who lives nearby, added: “It is part of a fascinating group of buildings. They have, by dint of other recent demolition, and massive local redevelopment, become a unique surviving remnant of the history of the area. The current proposals seem to go too far in isolating these buildings from their proper context and in attempting to pour a quart into a pint pot.”