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Friday, March 25, 2011

London Workhouse Saved from Demolotion





The earliest medieval Poor Law was issued by King Edward III of England on 18 June 1349, and revised in 1350. In 1348-1350 the outbreak of the Black Death killed almost 40% of the British population and labourers for agriculture were in high demand. To combat inflation, a law called the Statute of Labourers of 1351 said that every able-bodied person must work, wages were kept at pre-plague levels and food was not overpriced. During the reign of Henry VII in 1495, the poor and unemployed were put in stocks for three days and nights on a diet of bread and water, let out and told to get out of town. There was no solution to the problem, the needy were simply moved on.


In 1530, King Henry VIII said that idleness was the “mother and root of all vices” and ordered that whipping replace the stocks for beggars and the unemployed. But the following year a change was made giving the old, the sick and the disabled licence to beg. So able-bodied men who could not find work were in trouble, they either starved or turned to crime.






There was a story circulating in London of a destitute pregnant girl begging at the gates of the workhouse on Norfolk Street and it was picked up by a newspaper. Clutching her belly, she pleaded with the keeper to let her in because she was about to give birth and had nowhere else to go. But the gatekeeper had his orders - babies were expensive and required feeding, clothing and couldn't work to earn their keep until they were six years old, so he shut the gate. It was bitterly cold and windy that day and a crowd gathered as the young woman went into labour on the pavement. It was no surprise when the newborn died. The newspaper said 'The infant perished during this inhuman scene' and the incident was repeated throughout London and the seed of pity was sown into the minds of the wealthy.


A few years later a five year old boy and his family moved into a house a few doors away from the workhouse. From his window a young Charles Dickens watched the pathetic scenes of destitute people begging to get in. He saw boys and girls only six years old herded into carts and taken to work in the factories, mills and coal mines, working 16 hours a day for a spoonful of gruel. He never forgot those terrible scenes and when he grew up, he wrote a book about it - Oliver Twist – his first major novel. It was published in 1837, the same year Queen Victoria came to the throne.


Norfolk Street is now the southern end of Cleveland Street. The workhouse was built in 1775 and was scheduled for demolition but now the government has given the building listed status and it will stand forever to remind us of those dark, wretched days. In 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, the modern welfare state was established and no one ever went hungry again.