'Oliver Twist' workhouse saved from demolition

AP News
Posted: Mar 14, 2011 2:27 PM
'Oliver Twist' workhouse saved from demolition

The British government announced Monday it has given protected status to a former workhouse thought to have inspired Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," a move that should save the building from demolition.

Heritage minister John Penrose said the austere Georgian edifice was "an eloquent reminder of one of the grimmer aspects of London's 18th-century social history."

He said the building had been given Grade II listed status, meaning it can't be demolished and any redevelopment must take account of its "special architectural and historic interest."

The run-down building in central London had been slated to be replaced by a new housing development, but local residents and academics fought a campaign to save it.

The young Dickens lived nine doors away and scholars say the sights and sounds of the building were probably the basis for the workhouse where orphan Oliver is incarcerated in his 1838 novel, and where he is punished after saying, "Please, sir, I want some more."

The book helped mobilize public opinion in Britain against harsh workhouse conditions.

Advisory group English Heritage said the building also was significant for its links to Victorian social reformer Joseph Rogers, the workhouse's medical officer.

He was so alarmed by conditions at the workhouse _ where hundreds of destitute people worked at menial jobs in return for basic shelter and a diet of gruel _ that he began a campaign for better care for London's poor which helped lay the foundations for Britain's modern health care system.

Nick Black, a medical historian who campaigned to save the building, said the government's decision was "fantastic news."

He said that if the building were demolished, "London would have lost the last well-preserved workhouse infirmary from the 18th century."

"And combined with the house nine doors away where Dickens lived it would have lost what is potentially a valuable heritage site which the city should be looking to exploit for tourist income."

Opponents have 28 days to ask for a review of the decision, but successful challenges are rare.

In 2007, the previous government rejected a bid to give the building protected status despite the backing of English Heritage.

Developers planned to tear it down for redevelopment, but plans stalled after the 2008 credit crunch, and Britain's new Conservative-led government agreed to take a second look after it was elected last May.