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A guest post by LH Member Jane Young.

Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson.

dickens and the workhouseThis was first published to coincide with the Dickens bicentenary in 2012 and has now just been released in paperback format. Despite being written to a very tight deadline it pulls off that rare combination of a perfectly and thoroughly executed piece of academic research whilst remaining not only immensely readable but positively compelling.

At the heart of the story, which is a true story but nonetheless contains some genuine fairytale moments, is the campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. The resulting research grew from an entirely altruistic response to a request for help in preventing demolition of an old hospital building. The discovery this led to was the impetus for Dickens & the Workhouse

Not just for admirers of Charles Dickens, anyone who understands the lure of an archive or has even the merest shred of interest in historical research will find this difficult to put down. The narrative assembles a jigsaw puzzle as it unfolds a detective story bound up in a flawless piece of history writing.

Very much a part of why this is so captivating is the real enthusiasm with which the research was undertaken. This is present on every page and comes through in the narrative, leading you on a journey which begins with a paper written in 1989 and does not really end on the last page but culminates in a new fixture on a wall in Fitzrovia for all of London to see.

If there is any criticism at all, it is that modesty does not allow an explanation of the tireless effort and determination on the part of Dr. Richardson to obtain the essential piece of documented evidence needed to stop the planner’s bulldozers, which in a race against time was extraordinarily unearthed at the eleventh hour. Such time as Dickens & the Workhouse is reprinted in the future; it would be right and fitting with the inclusion of a foreword in acknowledgment of this. Notwithstanding that, this book is wonderful, buy it or borrow it, but do read it.
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Dickens and the Workhouse; Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson
Hardcover
Paperback

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A quote from the opening sentence of a Charles Dickens article of 1853. It refers to the entry form at the Foundling Hospital which carries the words The <Blank> Day of <Blank> Received a <Blank>Child. The near contemporary form, below, illustrates this perfectly. Note the Note: The sad truth is that fewer than one in a hundred children were ever reclaimed by their parent (almost invariably the mother).

Receipt for a child received into the Foundling Hospital

Receipt for a child received into the Foundling Hospital, 30 April 1855. © Coram

The signature is of John Brownlow (1800 – 1873), the Secretary of the hospital and himself a Foundling. He and Dickens were friends and collaborators. For a time the author lived just around the corner in Doughty Street, and he and Mrs Dickens rented pews in the Foundling chapel until they moved too far away for this to be practical. There is a letter from Dickens to this effect on display.

The Foundling Hospital for unwanted young children and babies was founded a century previous by Captain Coram with support from Hogarth, Handel and other London worthies. This new exhibition – Received, a Blank Child – fast forwards a century to show us what the institution was like in the Victorian period and it tells us about the people involved, primarily Brownlow and Dickens. Hence this is a most appropriate show to wrap up Dickens’s bicentenary.

Reproduction of ŒJohn Brownlow as an Old Man¹, c.1870 b

John Brownlow as an Old Man, 1870.

Dickens cited or used foundlings in his work on several occasions:

In the halls of the blank children, the Guards forever March to Finchley, under General HOGARTH.
–  from Received, a Blank Child

Dickens here, of course, referring to the Hogarth masterpiece still on display at the museum (and a favourite of mine). Elsewhere we see:

…the originator of the Institution for these poor foundlings having been a blessed creature of the name of Coram, we gave that name to Pet’s little maid.
– from Little Dorrit

We name our foundlings in alphabetical order. The last was an S, – Swubble… This was a T, – Twist. I named him.
– from Oliver Twist

The clock of the new St Pancras Church struck twelve, and the Foundling, with laudable politeness, did the same ten minutes afterwards…
– from Sketches by Boz

The little foundlings has such red noses this morning, that it made one colder to look at them.
– letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts

The exhibition comprises books, pamphlets, letters and artwork as they relate to the hospital, Brownlow and Dickens. We have an example of one of the Secretary’s daughter Emma Brownlow’s sentimental (though nicely executed) paintings. The museum owns many but this is one of four which are normally on permanent display. Note Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley painting referenced within it. Super.

The Foundling Restored to its Mother, 1858, by Emma Brownlow King (1832-1905) © Coram

The Foundling Restored to its Mother, 1858, by Emma Brownlow King (1832-1905) © Coram

jw gleadall

Plaster bust of Rev JW Gleadall (1815 – 91) whom Dickens praised for his ministry at the Foundling Hospital

This is a well-curated, thoughtful and moving exhibition. It has a relatively short run, so don’t miss it.

Received, a Blank Child: Dickens, Brownlow and the Foundling Hospital runs until 16 December 2012. Entry is free with museum admission which is £7.50.  Museum admission is free to Friends and Art Fund Members.

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alan turing plaque maida valeLast year, the Authorised Version of the Bible almost had the field to itself and was rightly and fulsomely celebrated on its 400th anniversary. 2012 is somewhat more crowded. Already we have seen an explosion of Dickens, and we are barely a few weeks in; the other centenary which will kick off large, no doubt, is that of Titanic, etched deeply as it is in the public consciousness; despite a certain arm’s length treatment from the Palace (methinks they protesteth too little), we have Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. All of this and then we collide, whether we like it or not, into London 2012.

One is trying hard not to be too bah humbug about all of this. But if the Dickens Museum itself, incredibly, is closing for its Big Year with admirable – if bonkers – sangfroid, one can be forgiven for looking out for interesting anniversaries elsewhere. Here are some of them.

A man who wrote no less charmingly and poignantly than Dickens about London’s working-class poor. A “proper” journalist, the co-founder of Punch magazine and the author of London Labour and the London Poor: Henry Mayhew, born on 25 November 1812.

Alan Turing Year. Alan Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, a true Londoner of Note. He was one of the leading code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII and a pioneering computer scientist (the “Turing Test” criteria for genuine artificial intelligence have not yet been met). Treated abominably by the government when his homosexuality was discovered, he was forced to be chemically castrated. Committed suicide in 1954 by eating a poisoned apple. There is an urban legend that this was the inspiration for Apple Computers bitten apple logo, something the corporation denies.  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make a long-overdue first visit to Bletchley Park. Fancy joining me?

1812. The assassination of Spencer Percival on 11 May, the only British prime minister to meet this fate. Percival’s tenure was dominated by the Regency crisis. Despite the Prince of Wales’ political and personal dislike for Percival, the prince nonetheless wisely supported his position. On the fateful evening of 11 May, in the lobby of the Commons, a disaffected merchant shot the PM, who died within minutes. The assassin, John Bellingham, was found guilty of murder and hanged on 18 May, no messing. Percival, despite reaching the pinnacle of political life, left an estate worth barely more than £100. His widow and 12 children were awarded an extraordinarily generous £50,000 plus annuities by Parliament.

The Royal Flying Corps was founded on 13 May 1912. In 1918 it merged into the newly-formed Royal Air Force. 9,378 airmen lost their lives in Word War I. Twelve RFC members were awarded the Victoria Cross.

One of the greatest hoaxes in history occurred in 1912: The Piltdown Man affair. On 12 December, Charles Dawson presented a skull fragment that he claimed to belong to a hitherto undiscovered species of pre-historic man. The find was accepted by the scientific establishment until exposed in 1953, causing an almighty hoo-ha and red faces all around. A terrific story.

And, of course, there is Scott of the Antarctic. Little known, I expect, by anyone under 30, we of a certain age well remember the tragedy of Robert Falcon Scott, drummed into us at school. In 1912, Scott and his team narrowly missed becoming the first to the South Pole on behalf of Blighty, and then on 29 March perished on their journey home, thereby giving us the perfect pub smokers’ lament, courtesy of Captain Oates. And why did they come a plucky second? Because those sneaky Norwegians used dogs! Oh yes, that was the clear implication in classrooms all around the British Empire, including mine.

Other 100th birthdays to look out for:
Kim Philby 1 January, India.  Cold War traitor and Soviet hero. Fled to Moscow 1963, never to return.
David Astor, 5 March, London. Legendary editor of the Observer, close friend of George Orwell.
J Enoch Powell  16 June, Birmingham. I shook his paw once in the early 1990s after he had delivered highly learned sermon at Oakapple Day service in Northampton.
Brian “Johnners” Johnston, 24 June, Berkhamstead. Broadcaster. Doyen of Test Match Special, inventor of the “champagne moment” – missed by all.
Ted Drake, 16 August, Southampton. Arsenal and England legend, prolific goal scorer. Also played cricket for Hampshire. Career curtailed by WWII.

Now set the time machine to 1812, and celebrate the birthdays of:
Augustus Pugin, 1 March, Bloomsbury. Gothic revivalist decorator of the Palace of Westminster.
Robert Browning, 7 May, Camberwell. Polymath. Multi-lingual, peripatetic romantic Victorian poet. Husband of Elizabeth Barratt Browning. Also subject of extremely early voice recording, 1889, on an Edison wax cylinder.

So there you have it. Let me know if I’ve missed anything.

Update 22-01-2012. Reader Julian Walker (see comments) reminds us that 12 May is the bicentenary of Edward Lear, born that day in Holloway, London. There are many celebratory events – in London, elsewhere in the UK, and indeed in the USA too. Details are listed on a Blog of Bosh, here. London Historians looks forward to joining in!

Update 24-01-2012. I’ve discovered some more centenaries, reducing in significance, it must be said. 1812: Theatre Royal Drury Lane opened, 10 October; famous Swan and Edgar department store founded in Piccadilly. 1912: 10 week London Dock strike; London Museum opened in Kensington Palace, 8 April.

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