The Strand Union Workhouse, on Cleveland Street, W1, is under threat of demolition from Camden Borough Council. The workhouse is a fascinating historical artefact and is the last remaining poor law workhouse in London, thanks in part to its reinvention as the outpatients wing of Middlesex Hospital (now itself demolished).
The workhouse was established in 1778 as the workhouse of St Paul, Covent Garden. With the establishment of the Strand Poor Law Union in 1836, following the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834, the workhouse passed to the Union, and in 1856 Joseph Rogers was appointed Medical Officer. The New Poor Law imposed stringent conditions on the poor, believing that poverty should not be encouraged through welfare and making the workhouses as uncomfortable as possible, to force the poor into gainful employment. Richardson and Hurwitz, in a 1989 BMJ article on Rogers, quote the workhouse’s motto “Avoid idleness and intemperance”, and view the poor as “effectively imprisoned” in the confines of the Cleveland Street building.
During his time at the workhouse, Rogers campaigned against the practice of beating dust-filled carpets in the workhouse yard, the keeping of unmarried mothers on starvation diets after postnatal confinement, the overcrowding of wards (e.g. 556 people sharing 332 beds in 1866) and “excessively defective” ventilation within the workhouse, and for the establishment of new hospitals to provide relief for the ill and infirm within London.
In 1865, The Lancet carried an article on the design of the Strand Union building, illustrating its architectural interest as a remnant of the workhouse era. The layout attested to the ideology of the poor law; as the Lancet article puts it, it is an “illustration of the ideas according to which the accommodations for in-door paupers were originally planned.” A large central space with two wings was to house 288 “inmates”; a small two-storied building was to hold 64. Each bed had around 13 cubic metres of ventilation, compared to figures of 25 and 34 for prisons and barracks respectively (although the sick wards maintained around 18 cubic metres per bed). The Lancet is damning in its assessment that “the buildings are atrociously bad as a residence for sick persons;” the consequent introduction of 20 new hospitals in London during the 1870s showed that the public health needs of the sick and infirm had modified in the 40 or so years since the New Poor Law.
The Strand Union Workhouse survives as a reminder of the New Poor Law, the atrocious conditions of the workhouse, and the welfare provision in England which regarded the poor and ill as a nuisance or burden. The site is of interest architecturally and historically, and faces redevelopment as modern accommodation and office space.
There is more information about the workhouse, and a chance to sign a petition to save it from demolition, at the website www.workhouses.org. There is also another blog post on the workhouse at fugitive ink.