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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

The Strand Poor Law Union

Engraving of the interior of the pawnbroker's shopThe scene backstage in a pawnbroker's shopQuite apart from his training as a legal clerk or his knowledge of the sponging houses of Cursitor Street, there's another reason Dickens might have been familiar with the Liberty of the Rolls: he knew its workhouse well. The Liberty of the Rolls, along with the Precinct of the Savoy, St Paul's Covent Garden, St Clement Danes, St Mary-le-Strand (where Dickens's parents had been married), St Martin-in-the-Fields, and St Anne Soho - joined together under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (the 'New Poor Law') to become the Strand Poor Law Union of Parishes.

Their collective workhouse, it was decided, should be the poorhouse belonging to the parish of St Paul Covent Garden, which had been built in the 1770s about a mile north of the parent parish, in fields to the west of the turnpike road to Tottenham Court. By 1834, the building and its graveyard had become surrounded by streets and houses, and it was now renamed the Strand Union Workhouse. It stood on Cleveland Street.

Under the Old Poor Law, since Elizabethan times, individual parishes had shouldered the responsibility for their own poor. It was not a perfect system by any means, but those who administered the system which gave food, shelter, money or medical treatment to the hungry and homeless, the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the mentally ill, usually lived locally, and knew those who sought assistance, or could quickly find out about them by making local enquiries.

Wood engraving of the central courtyard at Somerset HouseThe central courtyard at Somerset HouseCharles Dickens was twenty-two when the new system was introduced by Parliament. The New Poor Law was deliberately designed to be much less personal, to allow no room for sentiment, or kindness. As a strictly administered system, it was intended to deter poor people from applying for help unless they were in extremis. The Act of 1834 established deterrent workhouses nationwide, and was administered centrally by the Poor Law Commission, whose offices were in Somerset House, like the Navy Pay Office where Dickens's own father had worked. Day-to-day running of the system was overseen by the Commission's Secretary, Mr Edwin Chadwick.

The point of the new law was to curb public spending on poverty, and the mechanism by which this was achieved was the repudiation of any financial help for the poor whatever their circumstances, unless they submitted to the "Workhouse Test". To receive any assistance, they had to live inside workhouse itself, which involved the breaking up of households and the loss of personal possessions. Once inside, husbands and wives, parents and children, were separated: men were sent to one part of the workhouse, women to another. Children were often sent elsewhere. Elderly couples might never see one other again. The Anatomy Act, already in force, of course helped towards the same deterrent outcome, making the workhouse a dreadful and fearsome place for the poor, especially the sick and elderly, who were faced not only with dying there, but with physical annihilation.

Photograph of the workhouse looking south down Cleveland Street, 2012View of workhouse looking south down Cleveland Street (2012) The administrative relationship between the Liberty of the Rolls at Chancery Lane and its workhouse in Cleveland Street finds a close echo in Dickens's intimate knowledge of both localities. When Dickens was a child, his father John Dickens had been recalled from Portsmouth to work in the Navy Pay Office at Somerset House, and his parents had taken lodgings a few doors from the Cleveland Street Workhouse. The growing Dickens family had lived for two years in Cleveland Street (then known as Norfolk Street) before his father was again posted out of London once more, to Chatham. The workhouse stood on the adjacent block to the Dickens family home: so between the ages of three and five, Dickens would probably have been aware of events passing in the street outside his home related to the existence of a workhouse only a few doors away.

Wood engraving depicting newspaper boys marching along a cobbled street'Glorious news! - Horn Boys'Detail from Dickens's calling card stating 'short hand writer' and his address, 10 Norfolk Street, Fitzroy SquareDickens's first calling cardAfter various vicissitudes - a happy period in Chatham, and poorer times in Camden Town and Gower Street, (including incarceration in the Marshalsea and the blacking factory) followed by Somers Town - the Dickens family returned again to the same lodgings in Norfolk Street for another two years or so. His grand-parents had roots in that part of London, and indeed, his father had been christened in Marylebone Old Church as an infant, and both parents had relatives nearby when Dickens lived there. This familial association is probably why they had settled there in 1815, and returned back again later on.

Dickens was then in his late teens, had work-experience as a legal clerk, and had trained himself in shorthand to become a court and news reporter, and soon would start his writing career as 'Boz'. He was on the look-out for stories. During his lifetime, Dickens lived in at least seven addresses within a five minute walk of the Cleveland Street Workhouse, so it would not be surprising if some of his tales had emerged from that part of London.

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