Above: The workhouse, as it appeared in the 1930s. It is the building with the high wall in front of it. The building and front wall look just the same today.
Until about 2006, the existing building, located just southwest of Fitzroy Square, functioned as an outpatients’ centre for University College London Hospital.
Following the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), it was taken over in 1836 by the newly-established Strand Poor Law Union, for whom it seems to have functioned chiefly as an infirmary. In this capacity its remit included everything from childbirth to highly contagious diseases to insanity. Treatment, however, was virtually non-existent. There were few cures, resulting in many deaths amongst the 500-plus inmates crammed into the smallish, unsavoury site.
As a part of the eventual reform of the Poor Law, the Cleveland Street site passed first into the control of the Central London Sick Asylums District, then to the Middlesex Hospital and thence to University College London Hospital complex, serving a role as an outpatients’ unit within very recent memory. Now that UCLH have moved all their services onto a single unified site, the Cleveland Street building is no longer needed.
Above: The empty building, on the east side of Cleveland Street, photographed on 16 April 2011.
Cleveland Street Workhouse
The Cleveland Street Workhouse is a Georgian property in Cleveland Street, originally built between 1775-78 for the care of the London sick and poor under the Old Poor Law. The building remained in operation until 2005, witnessing the complex evolution of the healthcare system in England. After functioning as a workhouse, the building became a workhouse infirmary before being acquired by the Middlesex Hospital and finally falling under the NHS. In the last century it was known as the Middlesex Hospital Annexe and the Out Patient Department. It closed to the public in 2005 and it has since been vacated.
The Cleveland Street Workhouse was built on an H plan on the eastern side of Cleveland Street between 1775-8, by the parish of St Paul Covent Garden, on land leased from the Bedford Estate. The construction of the building resulted from the intercession of the Duke of Bedford’s steward Robert Palmer, the same man who, together with Duchess Gertrude, planned and realized the construction of Bedford Square and Gower Street. The original Act of Parliament was obtained in May 1775. The building was initially designed to accommodate 200 paupers, but the plan was modified prior to construction to accommodate a greater number.
Construction began that same year and by 1778 the building was already completed and fully occupied. Shortly afterwards, permission was sought from the landowner the Duke of Bedford, to use part of the site as a burial ground for the parish, as authorized by the Parliamentary Act. The ground was consecrated in 1790.
In the same decade the church of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, which was built by Inigo Jones in 1631-33, was renovated (following a fire) by the eminent architect Thomas Hardwick. Hardwick was a famous church architect. He restored Wren’s St James, Piccadilly, and rebuilt George Dance the Younger’s St Bartholomew the Less in West Smithfield (1823–1825). He is also famous for designing St John’s Church in St John’s Wood High Street (1813–1814) and the church of St Mary in Marylebone Road (1813–1817). In 1796, the trustees in charge of the restoration work of the church at Covent Garden employed Thomas Hardwick to design a new infectious ward and a new infirmary, built in 1802 and 1819.
In 1829 the workhouse became independently managed and in 1836 it was entrusted to the Board of Guardians of the Strand Poor Law Union. This was the first in a long series of name changes: over the course of its history the building has been known as:
St Paul Covent Garden Workhouse or simply Covent Garden Workhouse
Strand Union Workhouse
Central London Sick Asylum
Cleveland Street Infirmary
Middlesex Hospital Annexe
Middlesex Hospital Outpatient Department
Despite its many names, the core function of the building has remained unaltered over more than two centuries: the vast majority of the paupers admitted while it was a workhouse were infirm (less than 8% were able-bodied). When the workhouse facility was relocated to Edmonton (1876), the building served as an asylum for the mentally ill, before becoming an infirmary. It was finally incorporated into the Middlesex Hospital in 1926, which came under the management of the NHS in 1948. Even during the workhouse era the core function was to tend and care for the sick and infirm, since ill-health and infirmity was the main cause of pauperism. The building represents a unique example of a purpose-built Georgian workhouse which has remained in service to the sick and poor of London for over 200 years.
Connections with Charles Dickens
The Cleveland Street Workhouse is of particular importance due the fact that Charles Dickens is known to have lived nearby in what is now 22 Cleveland Street. Dickens lived there as a young child between 1815-1816, and then again as a teenager in 1828-1831. His residence in the street has led to the suggestion that the nearby workhouse was probably the inspiration for Oliver Twist. The Georgian building called Cleveland Street Workhouse is currently not listed.
Cleveland Street marks the border between the City of Westminster to its west and the London Borough of Camden to the east. This border is ancient, largely following the old divide between the western parish of St Marylebone and the parish of St Pancras to the east and can be traced back as far as 1792. The street was also a boundary between large estates, such as the Bedford Estate and the Berners Estate. Maps show that the southern end of modern Cleveland Street, beyond Riding House Street, was known as Upper Newman Street and then Norfolk Street. The northern section was once known as Upper Cleveland Street and Buckingham Place.
The name comes from the Duke of Cleveland whose estate was connected in the 19th century with the Southampton (Wriothesley) property via Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton. The Southampton property later became the Bedford Estate. Cleveland Street is renowned for several historical events and buildings, the most notable in recent times being the BT Tower.