Sunday, January 30, 2022

"Selling Luxury Apartments Where Oliver Twist Once Asked for Gruel"

Things change.*

From the New York Times, December 23, 2021:

Want to understand London’s economic transformation? Take a look at the condo conversion of a workhouse near where a young Charles Dickens lived

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.

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....


Speaking of the BMJ, they published their take on the health and well-being of the urchins in 2008 and not to be outdone the Royal Society of Chemistry put together the historic gruel recipe and served the slop to the public the following year.

And if wary yet curious reader wants to know why these factoids come readily to mind, it was something about shorting Oatly.
*Although the workhouse is on the north side of the river in Fitzrovia, a look at Charles Booth's maps of London poverty, 1889 - 1899 show that the same potential in Southwark and environs:

Charles Booth’s map of the inner southern district of London, with darker colours demarcating the poorest areas.

Via the LRB