In Search of Dickens’ Workhouse

By Rohan McWilliam

Cover of Richardson's Dickens and the WorkhouseTo King’s College London on 23 February for the launch of Ruth Richardson’s new book, Dickens and the Workhouse, produced in an extremely handsome edition by Oxford University Press (don’t even think of reading it on a Kindle). The Anatomy Theatre at Kings is packed out for the party and Ruth delivers a wonderful speech making clear that the book is the product of her lifelong love of Dickens.

Dickens and the Workhouse (I’ve now read the book) is possibly the most remarkable contribution to the Dickens centenary. My own love of Dickens was sparked by the centenary of his death in 1970 when I was ten years old and so it’s fair to say that the centenary industry does pay off. Recently, we’ve seen major works on Dickens from Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Great Expectations has been reworked both for television and (shortly) for film. BFI Southbank is running a three-month season on Dickens on film (I’m just off to see a 1921 Danish version of Our Mutual Friend). Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes have both brought out books on Dickens, interpreting him from that most appropriate of perspectives—the actor. And there’s loads more.

There will always be more to be said about Dickens but Ruth Richardson has managed to uncover a treasure trove of information about his early life. All historians are detectives at some level but this is a great example of the pleasures of research generating astonishing new discoveries. Ruth became involved in the campaign to prevent the Cleveland Street Workhouse from demolition. I walked past this building (close to the Telecom Tower) many times without wondering about its history. As she looked into the building’s past, Ruth was astonished to discover that Dickens had spent part of his childhood close by on Norfolk Street. It became clear that the building threatened with destruction could well have been the workhouse that inspired the opening of Oliver Twist. The connection with Dickens helped preserve the building for posterity and the demolition order was lifted. Ruth has also used the book as an opportunity to reconstruct what the young Dickens would have seen in the streets of Marylebone and Fitzrovia at an impressionable age. She even finds an 1804 inventory of the Norfolk Street house Dickens would go on to live in (to my mind, the book’s most interesting find). We see what he might have seen as a boy. There was even a person living close by called Bill Sykes. The book is an original study in the self-fashioning of Charles Dickens. It was a great pleasure to see such an important volume being launched in the Anatomy Theatre at King’s.

You can see Ruth Richardson talking about researching the book here:

Rohan McWilliam teaches History at Anglia Ruskin University, UK, and is a member of the board of the Journal of Victorian Culture.

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