Archaeologists uncover colourful walls and fireplaces of London workhouse

Over its 200-year history, its premises were cramped and overcrowded, bleak and bug-ridden. However, when the St Pancras workhouse opened in 1809, it was meant to bring comfort to those who had fallen on hard times, site excavations have revealed.

Archaeologists from Mola (Museum of London Archaeology) have been astonished to uncover “a significant portion of these original buildings” and “incredible new details about the lives of the residents and masters”.

Gwilym Williams, a project manager at Mola, said the evidence conjured up “a very different picture compared with the dark, dingy workhouses often depicted in popular culture”, most notably in the writings of Charles Dickens.

Little had been known about the building beyond its shape on parish maps, but archaeologists found walls up to a metre high, with brightly coloured plaster, and fireplaces that once warmed the rooms.

The discoveries offer insights into the early 19th century workhouses established to help the poor.

While inmates received lodging and basic food, they were also deterred from taking advantage of the state by having to do hard labour and repetitive tasks, such as oakum picking and stone breaking.

The new evidence suggests the St Pancras workhouse may have started out with a greater interest in support than deterrence. Williams said: “While the facilities are spartan, the inmates were not there to be punished … There were gardens, an infirmary and nursery. These acknowledge their needs as much as the heated rooms, or the pale blue paint on the walls.”

The finds include institutional crockery – with plates bearing an image of St Pancras and the words “Guardians of the Poor St Pancras Middlesex” – and the remains of a bone toothbrush with horsehair bristles, suggesting the importance of personal hygiene.

The 1809 building was meant to house 500 inmates. By the 1850s, numbers had soared to 1,900. In 1865, an investigation into London workhouse infirmaries by the medical journal the Lancet observed: “Overcrowding … must render the wards in which it occurs unhealthy.”

Williams suggested that the premises may be those featured in Oliver Twist, although Ruth Richardson’s research for her 2012 book, Dickens and the Workhouse, identified the Cleveland Street workhouse and people who lived nearby as sources of inspiration.

Peter Higginbotham, a workhouse historian, notes on his website: “Robert Blincoe, on whose story Dickens’s Oliver Twist may be based, was a child inmate of the workhouse, which was overcrowded and bug-ridden. As well as being given a rudimentary education, Blincoe and his fellow inmates were sometimes set to work for 12 hours a day or more at the unpleasant task of oakum picking.”

Dr Leon Litvack, principal editor of the Charles Dickens Letters Project, said: “The name of Dickens is immediately associated with those darker aspects of Victorian life, which fascinate us, but repel us at the same time. His association with workhouses is a perfect example of this. As is well known from novels like Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend, Dickens was passionate about exposing the conditions that persisted in many workhouses throughout the country. Yet in these works of fiction, he softens and sanitises the descriptions, so as not to offend his devoted readers. His journalism was, however, something else. There he was much more forthright, filling out his accounts with lurid details drawn from personal observation.”

He added: “While Dickens himself did not write about St Pancras Workhouse, his friend and contributor Henry Morley did, as part of an [1861] article entitled The Frozen Out Poor Law … Dickens sent him a description, which he had received from a friend, of a female pauper waiting in the intense cold at St Pancras Workhouse for her bread-dole. The conditions in which the poor were forced to wait were such that it discouraged many of them coming for bread in the first place.”

In 1929, the St Pancras workhouse became St Pancras hospital, part of which was bombed during the second world war and some of the workhouse buildings were demolished.

These are the areas archaeologists have excavated ahead of the construction of Oriel, a centre for eye care, research and education. It is a joint initiative between Moorfields eye hospital NHS foundation trust, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Charity.

Litvack said: “It’s ironic, but heartening nevertheless, that a location where such abuses took place is being transformed into a modern new eye care centre, which will, we trust, look after those it treats better than was the case over 160 years ago.”