For decades, the question inspired a parlor 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, the answer suddenly seemed blazingly obvious.
That was the year a scholar, Ruth Richardson, connected two dots that had been eminently visible, and essentially ignored, for more than a century. The first was a home that Dickens and his family had lived in. The second was the Strand Union Workhouse, built in the 1770s, about 100 yards 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 on Cleveland Street, in a neighborhood called Fitzrovia, was that workhouse, especially when Dr. Richardson unearthed details about the place that were echoed in the novel.
Ruth Richardson, a scholar, made the connection between “Oliver Twist” and the workhouse on Cleveland Street, near the home of a young Charles Dickens.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times
The 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.
For Peter Burroughs, it was something very different.
Mr. Burroughs is director of development for the University College London Hospitals Charity, which pours money into health care. The organization owns the workhouse, and now that it can’t be torn down, he is in charge of turning it into 11 high-end apartments and two houses, all expected to go up for sale late next 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,” Mr. Burroughs said. “But nobody could have known the extent of the work required.”
The price tag of the project has ballooned to well over $130 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? Running with the building’s literary roots is one option. (“Yes, you can have more!”) Running from them is another.
Either way, the building is a real-world symbol as evocative as any in Dickens’s 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 ambivalent 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 in an interview, “we’d have been utterly bereft.”
An Unnamed Guardian
Today, the building is a noisy construction site. One recent afternoon, a dozen or so men were hammering and drilling as Mr. Burroughs offered a tour. It’s a lot of exposed brick at the moment, with the outlines of apartments just taking shape. 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 recognized it was the original 18th-century workhouse until 2004. That was when 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, Professor Black and a charity devoted to Georgian-era architecture tried to get it preserved. They initially failed, but the wrecking ball didn’t swing immediately, in part because the 2007-8 financial crisis left many developers in no mood to spend. It didn’t 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 — the official name of the organization that owned the building — 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 vandalized 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 Dominic Connelly, who lived in the Annexe until 2017, when everyone was finally asked to leave. He paid about $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. The setting also seems to have inspired “Crashing,” a 2016 television mini-series about young people who flirt and couple in a disused hospital, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the auteur of “Fleabag.”
Except that at the Annexe, people occasionally showed up to dig exploratory trenches.
“You’d see them from the windows, or you’d hear them digging,” Mr. Connelly said. “It was clear they were looking for bodies. Pretty grim stuff when you think about it, so I tried not to think about it.”
All the guardians in the Annexe knew they could be evicted any day, potentially signaling the workhouse’s imminent demise. The prospect was especially galling to a resident who, for unknown reasons, wanted anonymity and has never been identified. She contacted a scholar who had written an essay for The British Medical Journal about one of the medical heroes of the Victorian age, Joseph Rogers, a physician who served as the chief medical officer at the Strand Union Workhouse and crusaded for better conditions.
The scholar was Ruth Richardson.
A gulag for the poor
London is a city where era is piled upon era, like sedimentary rock. It has toggled over the centuries between a reverence for what has accreted here and an impulse to level it and start over. That impulse was unbridled in the first few decades after World War II, when a group of architects convinced the government and urban planners that London needed to tear down old brick buildings to make way for modernist high-rises and Brutalist slabs. Simon Jenkins, a historian, has published estimates that in the 1950s and 1960s, British bulldozers did at least three times as much damage to London buildings as Hitler’s bombs.
By the 1970s, the modernist mania had died down. So when the National Health Service trust plumped for the demolition of the workhouse, in the 2000s, the building was not necessarily doomed. But after she learned of the imminent threat, Dr. Richardson came to a quick conclusion: Neither the building’s age, nor the burials, nor the link to Joseph Rogers would guarantee its preservation. Only a thoroughly irresistible story could do that.
A few weeks ago, she walked with a reporter to the workhouse. She moved slowly and with a cane, one of the unpleasant effects of long Covid, which she has been struggling with since early in 2020.
“There used to be an engraving here that read, ‘Avoid idleness and intemperance,’” she said, approaching the front of the building. “The people who lived here were old and broken, having worked their entire bloody lives. It was a gulag for the poor!”
Dr. Richardson moves gingerly and speaks in full paragraphs, all of which seem to end with exclamation points. She grew up in a family of seven crammed into two rooms in the Notting Hill section of London, long before its spiffy iteration gained overseas renown through a 1999 rom-com named for the area. She and friends played in empty lots that the Nazis had bombed, not far from a red-light district with plenty of brothels.
“Oliver Twist” was her first book, a special request she made when a schoolteacher asked what she wanted as an award for “outstanding ability.” The tale of an orphan’s early life — with its focus on the rigidity of class, the oppression of the poor and the cruelty of adults — resonated. She would later earn a Ph.D. with a thesis about how “Frankenstein” sprang from author Mary Shelley’s fear that grave robbers would dig up her mother’s body and sell it to a medical school, a very real possibility. “Death, Dissection and the Destitute” was published in 1987 and turned Dr. Richardson into a historian with a medical bent.
That led her to discover Joseph Rogers and the broader topic of workhouses. When he became prominent, the Industrial Revolution had doubled the population of London, though many who arrived from villages and farms were unable to find employment. At the time, parishes were legally allowed to whisk the penniless off the street and into institutions that were a cross between a prison and a very dangerous hospital.
Sick wards were poorly ventilated. Care was administered by other inmates, usually older, untrained women, and the medicine they offered was typically alcohol, like brandy, which was commonly consumed by the healthy before it reached the ill.
Meager rations were provided, and all but the sickest were expected to toil at menial jobs to generate revenue, either on the premises or at factories. On the Strand Union grounds, inmates were perpetually beating carpets for local residents. It brought in the equivalent of about $60,000 a year to the workhouse, but the noise was incessant and the carpet dust so toxic that patients in the infirmary had to keep their windows closed.
“It was a very dire place,” said Peter Higginbotham, who runs a website devoted to workhouses. “Overcrowded, a laundry in the basement, so there was steam rising all the time.”
The workhouse eventually acquired a kind of national infamy after Rogers conferred with editors of The Lancet, the medical journal, and inventoried the place’s deficiencies. The articles spurred Parliament to pass a new workhouse law, and Rogers would go on to create the Association for the Improvement of London Workhouse Infirmaries. It quickly gained the backing of 20 members of Parliament — and the country’s most celebrated novelist.
Dickens was unable to attend the organization’s first meeting in 1866 but sent a letter, which was read aloud at the event and interrupted by cheers.
“My Dear Sir,” it began. “My knowledge of the general condition of the Sick Poor in workhouses is not of yesterday, nor are my efforts in my vocation to call merciful attention to it.”
An orphan named Fagan
When Dr. Richardson started the campaign to save the workhouse, she tried, in vain, to enlist some heavy-hitting institutions. None chipped in. The Church of England, which had consecrated the grounds for burial centuries ago, was “useless,” Dr. Richardson said. The National Trust, a charity that preserves and manages historic buildings, didn’t help, either.
A representative from the National Trust noted that it purchased a workhouse in Nottinghamshire in 1997, “after it was identified as one of the top 10 best preserved workhouse buildings in the country.” The trust’s website says it owns 500 historic houses, castles, parks and gardens and nearly one million works of art.
Without support from living institutions, Dr. Richardson turned her attention to a long-dead author. There had been references in Dickens biographies to 10 Norfolk Street, and a teenage Dickens had once made business cards with that address, advertising himself as a shorthand writer. But nobody had underscored the proximity of young Dickens to the Strand Union Workhouse.
By 2010, London was a global financial center, and Fitzrovia was turning into a hub for art galleries and small-plate restaurants, part of a transformation that would price many locals out of the city. The Cleveland Street of the Dickensian age, Dr. Richardson learned, was decidedly down-market, blighted by the workhouse and offering affordable rents to people like Dickens’s father, who would serve time in a debtors’ prison; a row of a shopkeepers; and more than a few prostitutes.
It wasn’t all bleak. The Dickenses’ apartment was a block from the Regency Theater, which presented plays and advertised spectacles like “an infant prodigy, only eight years of age,” who recited Shakespeare. The building was torn down, then was resurrected and memorably served as the concert venue for the Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Dickens and his family left the street when he was 19, and as if to highlight its impact on his psyche, he harvested names and places from it for “Oliver Twist,” his second novel, which he started writing at the age of 24.
Dr. Richardson found a seller of lamp oil and tallow named William Sykes, yielding the name of one of the novel’s more indelible villains, Bill Sikes. She found a pub owner named Sowerby, who most likely provides the name of the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, to whom Oliver is apprenticed. A pawnshop stood on Cleveland Street exactly where it sits in the novel, to the south and across the street from the women’s ward of the workhouse.
Beyond such details, there is Dr. Richardson’s hunch that Dickens met boys who lived at the workhouse, during an abysmal stint at a boot polish factory when he was 12.
“There was an orphan he met at the factory named Fagan, which is an Irish name,” she said. He becomes Fagin, “a receiver of stolen goods,” as Dickens describes him in the novel’s preface.
Among Dickens scholars, there was some initial skepticism about the workhouse link. The novel sets it miles outside London, and a few scholars took that literally. Others said it was most likely a composite. That was the position of David Paroissien, a founding member of the Dickens Society. Until Dr. Richardson took him to the improbably quaint button store on the ground floor of 22 Cleveland Street.
“He asked the owner there if it was true that Dickens had lived in the building, and she said, ‘Oh, yes,’” Dr. Richardson recalled. “Then he turned to me and said, ‘It’s in the folk memory.’”
That day, Dr. Paroissien signed a petition to save the workhouse.
In 2011, the workhouse was listed, ending the threat to destroy it. The National Health Service trust eventually walked away from the problem of converting the building into condominiums. It has been Peter Burroughs’s headache ever since.
No Scrooge here
In the Dickens version of this tale, Mr. Burroughs is the callous head of a greedy corporation and regards old buildings and dead bodies as a nuisance. This isn’t a Dickens story.
“We’re absolutely delighted to preserve the workhouse,” he said, sitting in the underground construction office across the street from the building. “You have to appreciate what was left of the place. It was four walls, and those walls were in terrible shape.”
Mr. Burroughs, a 77-year-old chartered accountant, speaks carefully and barely above a whisper, as if he were narrating a golf tournament. You get the sense he’d like some empathy for managing one unforeseeable disaster after another. This includes fallout from the Grenfell high-rise fire of 2017, which killed 72 people, and caused a rewrite of building codes, necessitating changes to the construction plans. Then there were the grave pits, stacked with as many as eight coffins.
The remains have been transported to a warehouse outside Greater London, where they will be studied, cataloged and eventually reburied, said Stephen McLeod, senior archaeologist at Iceni Projects, the company hired to handle the exhumations. Many of the deceased, his team concluded, were workhouse inmates.
Once completed, the workhouse will be sold as one-, two- and three-bedroom units, with prices that start at around $1.3 million. Mr. Burroughs hopes that when the places are move-in ready, the real estate market in Central London will have begun a rebound.
That is hardly a sure bet. The London luxury condo market rose steadily for about five years, starting in 2011, as foreign buyers snapped up apartments, often for investment purposes, said Adrian Philpott, a real estate agent at Winkworth. Prices peaked around 2016. Then the Brexit referendum passed, but no one knew precisely when, and on what terms, Britain would leave the European Union, turning what people hoped would be a quick post-Brexit “correction” into a sustained downturn.
The pandemic further hurt demand as thousands of Londoners fled the city for suburbs and country homes. Mr. Philpott said the market was down between 10 and 15 percent from five years ago, when investors thought that wave after wave of overseas buyers would keep coming.
“A lot of developers around here won’t achieve the return that bankers and backers imagined they’d achieve when they started,” he said.
The apartment building will be called Cleveland Court, a name that sounds both elegant and ahistoric. This irritates Dr. Richardson, who always wanted the place to once again serve as a hospital and said it could have been extremely useful during the pandemic. She’s 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 on Tuesday, she made one online, a mock-up that represents her fondest 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 later 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.”