Twist to story of Oliver Twist's poorhouse

Newman Passage, one of many nooks in London that are relatively unchanged since Victorian times. It is near Strand Union Workhouse, which was the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist and was “listed” in 2011, giving the workhouse historic preservation status. PHOTO: NYTIMES
The Strand Union Workhouse in London. A foundation connected to the National Health Service wants to turn it into 11 high-end apartments and two houses, all expected to go up for sale late this year. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Dr Ruth Richardson, a scholar who unearthed details about the place that were echoed in Oliver Twist, in front of the London home of Charles Dickens, on the same street as the workhouse that inspired his 1838 novel. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Fancy owning a new million- dollar apartment that is built on the site of the workhouse mentioned in Oliver Twist?

For decades, the question inspired a parlour game for literary sleuths with a Victorian bent: Which workhouse inspired the most famous one in the world - the dank hellhole in Oliver Twist, the 1838 Charles Dickens novel about the torments and triumphs of a London orphan?

In 2010, a scholar, Dr Ruth Richardson, connected two dots that had been eminently visible and essentially ignored for more than a century.

The first was a home Dickens and his family had lived in. The second was Strand Union Workhouse, built in the 1770s, a short distance down the same street.

Think of it. Young Dickens over here. A workhouse over there.

Dr Richardson's discovery came just in time. The workhouse, still stunningly intact, was then an unused part of a hospital owned by a foundation connected to the National Health Service, which wanted it razed to make way for luxury apartments.

It soon became clear that the structure in Cleveland Street, in a neighbourhood called Fitzrovia, was that workhouse, especially when Dr Richardson unearthed details about the place that were echoed in the novel.

Strand Union Workhouse had a rule, for instance, expressly prohibiting second helpings of food, which may have given rise to the most famous sentence in the book: "Please, sir, I want some more" - Oliver's spurned plea for another helping of gruel.

In 2011, the workhouse was "listed", giving it historic preservation status. For local activists, this was a victory. It is owned by the University College London Hospitals Charity.

Its director of development, Mr Peter Burroughs, is in charge of turning it into 11 high-end apartments and two houses, all expected to go up for sale late this year.

In a city beloved by wealthy real estate investors from around the world, the plan makes financial sense, but this may be the most benighted condo conversion in the history of condo conversions, with problems that go far beyond constraints placed on how the building can be altered. The property includes land that in the 18th and 19th centuries served as a pauper's graveyard. Last year, archaeologists started exhuming bodies, roughly 1,000 in all.

"We knew we had a burial ground and we knew we had a listed building. But nobody could have known the extent of the work required," said Mr Burroughs.

The price tag of the project has ballooned to well over US$130 million (S$176 million), which includes the cost of exhumations and a large new apartment complex that will soon break ground on the land that used to be the graveyard. Just as bad, this is a lousy moment to be selling deluxe apartments in London.

With the pandemic having accelerated the downturn in housing prices caused by Brexit, the only unknown is how much money the charity will ultimately lose.

The answer depends on another question: How do you market a former workhouse, anyway?

The building is a real-world symbol as evocative as any in Dickens' canon. It tells the history of London's treatment of the poor, which evolved fitfully from punitive to humane, as well as the city's ambi- valent approach to preserving its past. The revered and glittery elements of Britain's history - the monarchy, the castles and all those overstuffed museums - have plenty of popular support.

There is no natural constituency for the destitute of yore, although their stories far outnumber the aristocracy's and say just as much about this country as the fortunes of any duke. Ultimately, it took the star power of the man who created A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations and more than a dozen other classics to rescue the workhouse.

"Without Dickens," Dr Richardson said, "we'd have been utterly bereft."

Today, the building is a noisy construction site. Anyone hoping to see signs of the building's original purpose - an ancient mess hall filled with wooden bowls, perhaps - will be disappointed.

For years, this building was called the Middlesex Annexe and it served as the somewhat austere outpatient department of a nearby hospital.

Apparently, few recognised it was the original 18th-century workhouse until 2004. That was when Mr Nick Black, a professor of health services and author of Walking London's Medical History, noticed that a workhouse in an old lithograph had exactly the same footprint and architecture as the Annexe.

When the building was threatened with destruction in 2007, Prof Black and a charity devoted to Georgian-era architecture tried to get it preserved. They initially failed but the wrecking ball did not swing immediately, in part because the 2007-08 financial crisis left many developers in no mood to spend. It did not help that the land behind the Annexe was known to be filled with bodies, although how many was not yet clear.

By then, the Annexe had closed and the University College London Hospitals National Health Service Foundation Trust started renting a hodgepodge of rooms in it to about 40 Londoners looking for cheap, communal living. This is a common strategy among British landlords - populate vacant buildings to prevent them from being vandalised or turned into a squatters' paradise. Renters in such buildings are known as "guardians", a slightly misleading term.

"Nobody was walking around with a rifle," said Mr Dominic Connelly, who lived in the Annexe until 2017, when everyone was finally asked to leave. He paid about US$600 a month for a large former patient's room that included a working X-ray light box. Tenants were a mix of young people - yoga instructors, actors, a club bouncer - dwelling amid an assortment of medical equipment, security systems, a reception desk and hospital signs, including one for the child psychiatry department.

Mr Burroughs said: "We're absolutely delighted to preserve the workhouse."

Once completed, the workhouse will be sold as one-, two- and three-bedroom units, with prices that start at around US$1.3 million. He hopes that when the places are move-in ready, the real estate market in Central London will have begun a rebound.

The apartment building will be called Cleveland Court, a name that sounds both elegant and ahistoric. This irritates Dr Richardson, who wanted the place to once again serve as a hospital and said it could have been extremely useful during the pandemic.

She is irked, too, that new residents may be oblivious to the building's singular past. There are no plans to affix one of those round blue plaques that commemorate significant locales all over London.

So she made one online, a mock-up that represents her wish. "London workhouse + pauper graveyard", it says on the top. "Deep history on & in this site forever because Oliver Twist was born here."

Not quite perfect, she said. "I tried to add, 'The owners of this building don't want you to know this'," she added with a laugh. "But it didn't fit."

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