Tag Archives: London’s buildings

Kilroy was here

With the Blitz at its height in 1940 and the need to find safe accommodation for Londoners the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison at the time announced the decision to construct a series of Deep Level Shelters to be dug under the existing tube network. The idea being that after the war these tunnels could then be utilised as railway tunnels and linked up to form a new express underground system.

[T]en sites were chosen which were completed in 1942. Four sites were given over for civilian use while the remainder to house military and civil authorities, each could accommodate up to 8,000 individuals on two separate levels and were built at a cost of £40 per head. One at the Oval was abandoned for fear of flooding by the river Effra and another to be built at St. Paul’s never started with worries about the stability of the cathedral. Evidence of the other shelters can be found at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Chancery Lane, Clapham Common, Clapham North, Clapham South and Stockwell.

Another at Goodge Street was built for the Americans, reinforced above ground by a circular pill box, housing staircases and lift machinery with slits in the walls to enable  this heavily defended bunker protection from the most determined attack it even had an anti-aircraft emplacement on its roof.

Now named the Eisenhower Centre this unremarkable candy striped concrete structure (now painted a rather boring navy) was the headquarters of ‘Eik’ the United States President and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and during the latter years of World War II was used to plan the D-Day invasion of Europe. This seemingly little building was kitted out to support 8,000 support staff with bunk beds, self contained with ventilation systems, gas filtration units and a hydraulic sewerage system.

One in south London had a rather curious final use, in 1948 the Clapham Common Deep Level Shelter became briefly home to several hundred Commonwealth citizens who had arrived on the SS Empire  Windrush, laying the foundations for nearby Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community.

Needless to say the high speed rail link was abandoned – where have we heard that before – and after a fire in 1956 the Eisenhower Centre was closed for many years. It is now used for commercial storage, with its bunk beds making useful shelving it is rumoured that Sir Paul McCartney stashes his gold and platinum disks within its vaults.

The title of this post, Kilroy Was Here, comes from graffiti first drawn by Americans during the Second World War. Thanks to the contributor of this photo is Christopher Hilton.

Avoid idleness and intemperance

In 1837 a young woman found herself the monarch of her country, she was to remain Queen during an unprecedented time of burgeoning industry and wealth creation, giving her name to the 64 years she reigned and a time Britain was at its zenith of influence and power. That same year a novel was printed which would change a country’s attitude to the most poor and venerable, that novel was the second major work by Charles Dickens.

[C]harles Dickens was no stranger to poverty. In 1823 when his father lost his job and was sent to Marshalsea debtor’s prison 11-year-old Charles worked in a blacking factory pasting labels on shoe polish bottled for six shillings a week. At that time he also certainly worked alongside children from the workhouse, it was an experience that would remain with him all his life and be the subject of his novel Oliver Twist.

In 1834 a Poor Law was enacted, with the sole purpose of discouraging claiming relief in times of poverty and forcing individuals to take work offered to them however low the pay. Welfare assistance was only available inside the workhouse, once admitted the unfortunate inmates would be deloused and forced to wear uniforms, families were broken up and if individuals were capable of working they would be sent to labour for unscrupulous employers. The very young, ill or old who were unable to produce an income were in most cases refused admission to the workhouse and starved to death.

In a fascinating piece of research Dr. Ruth Richardson has established the source material for Oliver Twist which tells the story of the illegitimate orphan Oliver who endures a miserable time at the workhouse and during his parish apprenticeship with an undertaker, before running away and being taken in by a gang of juvenile pickpockets.

It was known that Charles Dickens lived in a certain Norfolk Street twice in his early life for a period of four years. Dr. Richardson has established that Norfolk Street once was the southern continuation of Cleveland Street which exists today and that Dickens lived only nine doors away from the Cleveland Street workhouse ending years of speculation by historians to the exact location of Dickens’s childhood home.

Cleveland Street Workhouse was constructed in about 1780 on what at that time was a burial ground. Starting life as the parish workhouse for St. Paul’s, Covent Garden in 1836 its functioned as an infirmary, maternity unit, insane asylum or a place to deposit those suffering from highly contagious diseases.

Even by workhouse standards 44 Cleveland Street was dreadful, a contemporary account by Dr. Joseph Rogers the chief medical officer at the workhouse from 1856-68, reported: a laundry in the basement filling the dining hall with foul-smelling steam; carpets regularly beaten directly outside the men’s infirmary; the nursery both damp and overcrowded; “nursing” provided only by elderly female inmates, many of whom were apparently habitually drunk; the brutal indifference of the Guardians of the workhouse; the “dead house” adjoins the main structure. This led him to campaign for better standards in the medical care available to workhouse inhabitants.

After the Poor Law was reformed the Cleveland Street Workhouse passed first into the control of the Central London Sick Asylums District, then to the Middlesex Hospital and thence to University College London Hospital complex. Closing in 2006 when UCLH have moved all their services onto a single unified site.

The building is believed to be London’s only existing purpose built Georgian workhouse, a rare example of social engineering from the 19th century; now after a five-year long campaign the most famous workhouse in the world has been saved thanks to its Grade II listing.

Without it would Charles Dickens have written so passionately his most successful novel and then spent a lifetime campaigning for better welfare to be given to the poor? Now 44 Cleveland Street has been given Heritage listing we have an opportunity to convert this rare Georgian building into flats whilst keeping its integrity, and use some of that income to provide a teaching and resource centre at the very heart of social and welfare reform that has benefitted us all today.

In an echo of Dachau with its sign “arbeit macht frei” (works brings freedom), above the gates of the Cleveland Street Workhouse was a statute of an old man pointing to the words: “Avoid idleness and intemperance”, as with Dachau, 22 Cleveland Street’s importance to our lives should not be forgotten.