Georgian workhouse under threat

A campaign to preserve the only Georgian H-plan workhouse surviving in London north of the Thames is underway. There have been some successes - such as a lead letter in the Times, coverage in local London papers and in Private Eye - but the developers still want to treat the old workhouse and its burial ground as if it is any old brown field site. The plan is to erect a ten story modern block, with almost as many beds in it as the workhouse held in the mid-Victorian era.

A few local people want the workhouse to go - seeing it as a sad place, and a grim eyesore; but other local campaigners say it is an important local building, with a nationally important place in the history of healthcare.

The building started life in 1775 under the Old Poor Law, as the poor house for the Parish of St Paul Covent Garden, and on the passage of the New Poor Law became the workhouse for the Strand Union of parishes, all of which subsequently closed their own workhouses. It later went through a further incarnation as the Central London Sick Asylum,when two fine Nightingale ward wings were added to the rear.

With the end of the Poor Law, the building became an Annexe to the voluntary sector Middlesex Hospital. The facilities inside the building were upgraded in the 1920s, to allow the Middlesex to decant an entire wing at a time into the old workhouse building, while the main hospital was rebuilt. After the rebuilding was completed, the Hospital continued to utilise the old workhouse building as its Annexe, and later its Outpatients' Department. It was still serving in that caopacity in 2006 when the Middlesex Hospital was closed down and amalgamated with University College Hospital.

The building is an extraordinary survival, and the only Georgian workhouse in London to have remained in use for sick and infirm Londoners since its establishment in the late 18th century. The building has an important history in the reform of Poor Law healthcare in the later 19th century, being associated both with Dr Joseph Rogers, and with Louisa Twining and the development of professional nursing. All alterations to its fabric have been in line with contemporary notions of health care need.

Despite standing in a conservation area, the workhouse - in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, just below the Telecom Tower, is not listed. It was protected by Crown immunity while under the aegis of the NHS. It was recommended for listing by English Heritage in 2006, but the local MP Mr Frank Dobson urged the then Minister, Margaret Hodge, not to list it, and she complied.

The current government has sent the file back to English Heritage, asking for a fresh consideration of the building's historical merits. The new report is due out soon.

For further information, please see http://www.workhouses.org.uk and follow links to the Strand Union Workhouse. There is an e-petition for which signatures are still urgently sought.

4 Jan 2011