"Christmas in the workhouse!" That was one of my mother’s favourite expressions, with which she expressed irritation or exasperation, or disbelief when people could not see the obvious that was staring them in the face.
I grew up thinking that the workhouse was a semi-mythical institution to which, in fairy stories, adults and sometimes children were sent to suffer hunger and privation until their story reached its inevitable happy ending. Of course I knew of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, though only through popular adaptations, and this, if anything, further encouraged the idea of the workhouse as a farcical if outrageous establishment, now happily relegated to the realm of giants, seven-league boots and fairy-tale princesses.
In later life, I came to understand that workhouses, with their harsh regime, were real, and that thousands of real people, children and adults, had passed through their doors, some leaving and going on to better lives, others remaining always hapless, helpless and destitute in the workhouse, finding a final resting place in its cemetery.
A few workhouses still exist, some as museums, others adapted to more modern use, while the many have been destroyed as cities eat up building land in their insatiable hunger for homes and office blocks. Should those that remain be preserved? This is never an easy question to answer. Much as we lovers of history might wish it, we simply cannot – and ought not – preserve every building ever made, no matter how old or how interesting it is. Others should be preserved, however, because of their importance and value, both socially and historically, and these we should fight to save.
This is the dilemma facing those who would like to preserve the Cleveland Street Workhouse in Fitzrovia (London W1). As I write, its future is uncertain: Camden Council want to demolish it; English Heritage has already proposed listing it and seems poised to do so again, despite the government of the day rejecting this the first time; and while some people are persuaded that this may be the actual workhouse that served Charles Dickens as a model for the one in Oliver Twist, all are concerned for its historic worth and its cultural importance both to the community and generally.
We are apt to think of past ages as stories in an old book, remote from our own lives. Why should we be concerned about a past to which we can never return and which we now know only through the exacting arts of the historian? There are no workhouses today and we live in a welfare state, cocooned from the worst horrors of ill health and destitution. Why rake up the past?
The reality is that the past in which the workhouse played so prominent a part is not so remote, after all. The Victorian era which laid the foundations of our modern technological and industrialized society, has only recently slipped out of living memory. The best values of that age are still with us even if we now wince at the jingoism of empire. We think we invented charity and social care but in fact the seeds of the modern welfare society were planted by the great philanthropists of the Victorian era who founded hospitals, hospices for foundlings, "ragged schools" for the children of impoverished families, and so on, often against opposition and criticism from the self-defined respectable sections of society.
The danger is that we will take what we now have for granted, as though it is normal and natural, when it was fought for and achieved after a long, hard struggle. We are also in danger of losing it, especially in a time of economic stringency when governments national and local are anxious to reduce spending wherever possible in the face of soaring costs.
The regime of the workhouse may seem harsh to us but for those who had recourse to it, it was the last resort, standing between them and a life – or death – on the streets. In the best cases, the inmates were fed and received medical attention; the children received schooling and training for jobs in service. There were no doubt good ones and bad ones, and room for corruption and abuse, but such things are not unknown in our own age.
The workhouse is an important symbol of what we have achieved and a warning of what we could lose. Everyone should visit a restored workhouse and learn about it: who went there and why; what happened to them there; whether they managed eventually to turn their lives around or remained stuck within those grim walls.
These days we are more and more accustomed to studying history through "virtual reality": diagrams and animated models that stand in place of real objects. Such virtual models, interesting and useful though they may be, are composed only of what we already know or think we know. The answers they give to our questions, therefore, are the answers that we have already formulated. They cannot formulate or answer new questions: for this, the only hope is to go back to the original object and see whether the evidence is still within it.
Historians are in the habit of revisiting sites and artifacts of interest in order to look at them again in the light of new ideas and theories. Models and diagrams are of no use for this. Imagine having an new theory about Magna Carta but having only a computer-generated picture of it to study: it would be pointless. We need the real object and when the real object is destroyed, we not only lose a cultural treasure but we also lose potential knowledge. We should never lightly dispose of an object, throw away a document or demolish building because we do not know what knowledge and understanding we are destroying with it.
That is why I vote to preserve the Cleveland Street Workhouse and if you do too, then you might wish to sign the petition to this effect that you will find here: http://www.gopetition.com/petition/39594/sign.html
Is the Cleveland Street Workhouse the workhouse of Oliver Twist? If it is, then that is an added incentive to save it but, even without this, it is worth saving in its own right for many reasons, some of which I have given above.