Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor

John Pemble writes:

The last year of the workhouse was 1929. The old-age pension, introduced twenty years earlier, was still only ten shillings a week. George Orwell hadn’t imagined that anyone could live on it, but when he went slumming he discovered that people did, thanks to a diet of bread, margarine and tea, dirt-cheap lodgings and clothes from charities. By now, the unemployed could draw insurance benefit, and the destitute Public Assistance; so the workhouses were either demolished or adapted to other purposes. But they bequeathed a vivid legend. Recent redevelopment of the Middlesex Hospital site in London revealed that its outpatients’ department used to be the Strand Union Workhouse. It’s also been discovered that Dickens once lived in the same street, and the Georgian workhouse has been saved from demolition because it’s reckoned, on evidence detailed by Ruth Richardson in Dickens and the Workhouse, that it must be the most famous workhouse of all – the one in Oliver Twist. The claim isn’t convincing. Oliver Twist’s workhouse is 75 miles north of London and if it ever existed outside Dickens’s imagination it’s more likely to have been in Aldeburgh. Although Dickens never went there, he knew and admired George Crabbe’s The Borough, which describes Aldeburgh’s workhouse as archetypically grim and penitential: ‘That giant building, that high-bounding wall/Those bare-worn walks, that lofty thund’ring hall …/… a prison, with a milder name’. Still, this game of identification shows how strong the legend of the workhouse is, and how obsessive the need to commemorate an iniquity long since ended, but never completely atoned for or sufficiently deplored. We admire the Victorians for the Crystal Palace, but can’t forgive them the workhouse.

(LRB 25 October 2012)

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