A Psychogeographical Christmas. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Cleveland St Workhouse Telecom Tower The Cleveland Street Workhouse and the BT Tower. Photo © David Secombe 2011.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse was built in 1775 as a workhouse infirmary and ended up as part of the Middlesex Hospital until that institution closed in 2005. According to  The Cleveland Street Workhouse it ‘has survived largely unchanged since the Georgian era. Its austere appearance is a rare testimony to the bleak and utilitarian institution it was designed to be. Its back yard was a graveyard for the poor, full of dead to a depth of at least 20 feet.  Recent research has revealed that the building was the likely inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, since the famous author lived a few doors away, on the same side of the road, for nearly five years of his young life, before he became famous as ‘Boz’’.

As it is Dickens’s bicentennial year, I offer here a glimpse of the grim edifice that loomed over the infant Dickens’s early years in the city. He was only two years old when his parents, fresh from Portsmouth, found lodgings in Norfolk Street – now Cleveland Street – in 1814. At that time the area still had a semi-rural character, with fields and farms lying just east of Tottenham Court Road – although the grand houses of Fitzroy Square were under construction and the churning awfulness of Oxford Street was only a few yards away. Dickens’s friend John Forster said that the novelist was able to recall vivid details of his early childhood, so it is an attractive proposition to believe that the workhouse in the picture above marked itself indelibly upon young Charles’s imagination during the three years (not five) in which he and his family lodged in the district. By 1817, Charles’s father had got a job in Chatham, and it was another five years before Dickens returned to the city, leaving his idyllic years in the Kent countryside for a more permanent engagement with ‘the great wilderness of London’.

The traditional Christmas is in many ways Dickens’s own creation, marked in particular by his characteristic juxtaposition of seasonal conviviality against the bleakness outside: ‘exaggerating the darkness beyond the small circle of light’ as Peter Ackroyd puts it. Dickens described composing A Christmas Carol whilst walking ‘the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed’ and, for all its fairy-tale sentiment, it succeeded in rousing the conscience of his contemporary audience. The following year he produced The Chimes, another seasonal polemic. According to Ackroyd, The Chimes was partially inspired by a complacent review of A Christmas Carol and also by a story in The Times concerning a young woman, terrified of the workhouse, who had thrown herself and her baby into the Thames – the baby drowned, but the mother was rescued and condemned to death for murder of her child. The Cleveland Street Workhouse was Grade II listed in 2011 and, given Dickens’s agitating for reform of the Poor Law and his disdain for old buildings in general, he would probably have been appalled that this symbol of misery had been preserved for the nation – but there’s no question that the building retains its cruel power, an emblem of the darkness and suffering against which Dickens created some of his most brilliant effects..

Further north on Cleveland Street is the BT Tower, built as The Post Office Tower in 1961, the tallest building in London for nearly 300 years (it was taller than St Paul’s), its construction flattening a block of Workhouse-era buildings on the corner of Howland Street, including the one where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived during their stay in the city. The cylindrical form of the Tower was intended to lend stability in high winds – especially, it was darkly muttered, those from a nuclear blast. The Tower is also Grade II listed, and it too is an emblem of its time, redolent of the Cold War and the avowed technological modernity of the MacMillian/Wilson ‘White Heat of Technology’ era. When it opened in 1965, it boasted a revolving restaurant at its top, a concession operated by Billy Butlin; but if a nuclear exchange had taken place, the Tower would have been essential in maintaining contact between whatever was left of Britain and whatever was left of everywhere else. Today, advances in communication technology and the end of the Cold War have left the Tower almost as obsolete as its neighbour the Workhouse. The revolving restaurant was closed after an IRA bomb incident in 1971, and plans to re-open the venue for the 2012 Olympics were quietly shelved – which is a pity, as it would have made a suitably elevated position for the ego of some superchef or other. But, as this is a Christmas post, it is pleasing to report that on Christmas Day 1984, Noel Edmonds’s Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show was broadcast from the top of the Tower, an event described by its coiffed and beaming host as ‘one of the greatest communications projects ever put forward’. Noel went on to present several such Christmas Day TV events from the Tower throughout the 1980s, thus associating an icon of post-war modernity with the traditional late-20th Century Christmas: bored, over-fed and in front of the telly.

(NB: My friend and colleague Chris Brand has just pointed out that I have overlooked the Post Office Tower’s finest moment, in The Goodies’s Kitten Kong episode. Was this a Christmas special? Who cares.)

And on that tenuous and tortuously established link, we would like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas.

… for The London Column.

See also: The London Nobody Knows – revisited, Christmas on Greek Street


A Winter Solstice offering.

Pig still lifePig’s head still life, south London, circa 1982. © David Secombe.

From the Hern’s Tribe website:  

Mid-Winter Solstice (Yule):  Outdoor Ritual in London

A special ritual to mark the end of one Mayan cycle and beginning of another. Join us for the Journey of the Fool, and quest through the 4 Elements to consecrate a magical Talisman. Anoint the Yule-log (yes a real one) with your wishes & hopes for 2013, and place it in the ritual fire. Then feast with home made bread, mulled Wine, some woodland tribal cooking. Don’t forget the Mistletoe!  There will be Wiccan elements to this ritual.

Date: Saturday 22nd December  2012. Venue: Coombe Lane  (From East Croydon station, take the `New Addington’ branch of the Tram, and get down at `Coombe Lane’ stop).

From Witchology, the history of Wicca and Witchcraft by Dr. Leo Ruickibie:

Yule celebrations in Wicca date back to the late 1950s.  Most Yule rituals will involve the casting of a circle, a ritual symbolising the rebirth of the solar deity, dancing round the circle and the feasting ceremony of ‘cakes and wine’. Other Wiccan covens might base their ritual on the passing of power from the Holly King to the Oak King – a concept derived from British folklore. The festival itself is entirely Pagan in origin. Echoes of old Druidic fertility rites survive in ‘kissing under the mistletoe’. Santa Claus has been Christianized as Saint Nicholas, but the tradition of a gift-bearing man arriving at mid-winter can be traced back to Wotan (Odin) in Germanic folklore.

Feasting is a large part of all Pagan traditions and at Christmas this is still a principle element. The focus of the meal around a specific animal is certainly a residue of animal sacrifice, although the popularity for turkey is a modern development. We should not be squeamish about animal sacrifice, it simply meant butchering an animal for the benefit of the community with a small and usually inedible portion being ‘given’ to the gods. Modern sensibilities are usually too cosseted to even contemplate killing a chicken, so we should not condemn the past on our own rather feeble standards.

David Secombe:

I would like to reassure my readers that the pig in the photo above was not the by-product of any crazed sacrifice, Wiccan or otherwise: it was prosaically acquired from a local butcher for the alleged purpose of making brawn, which was a fatuous attempt to disguise an equally fatuous artistic project. It was the early 1980s and I was an ambitious photographic student, my hunger for success exceeded only by the depth of my cluelessness. This porcine still life was shot on a cold December night in the back garden of my parents’ house in suburban south London, and was a study for – well, I wasn’t quite sure. It seemed like a good idea at the time … The transparency laid undisturbed for decades until it turned up in a cache of forgotten transparencies I found last month.  I offer it here as a seasonal offering in a more-than-averagely bleak midwinter; we’ve still got a week to go before the solstice on the 21st, and if the Hern’s Tribe lot are anything to go by, the south London suburbs are going to be where it’s at if paganism is your thing. As for me, I’ll be indoors, watching an old Ghost Story for Christmas on YouTube. Or perhaps this … (and I’m sure you’ll forgive the shameless plug).

… for The London Column.


Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum. Photo & text: David Secombe.

AsylumRoad(c)David Secombe

Victuallers’ almshouses, Caroline Gardens, Peckham. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.

From Georgian London, John Summerson, 1945/1969:

There were plenty of other institutions, some educational, some charitable, some newly-born, some perhaps half a century old, which housed themselves with some grandeur. Almost all were Greek, with good, simple fenestration, and a portico – Doric or Ionic – to mark the status of the institution. Some of these buildings still stand. There is the pleasant, spacious courtyard and porticoed chapel of the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Peckham, built about 1831. Others were damaged in the war and have disappeared since.

As Sir John pointed out, the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Caroline Gardens – almshouses built for retirees from the brewing trade – is a rare survival in the unsentimental city. The Asylum is pretty enough to make one wonder at how it has managed to avoid the wrecking ball, as its very elegance must have been a goad to generations of developers and civic engineers. It is an oasis of Grecian calm just a few steps away from the bleak, business end of the Old Kent Road, and in its present context its charm seems positively defiant, even heroic: an assertion of a charitable ideal in architecture that is both grand and humane – and a welcome corrective to the lurid, day-glo Toys ‘R’ Us shed across the road.

The Old Kent Road remains one of the strangest of all London roads, as well as one of the oldest; it incorporates part of Watling Street, the Romans’ highway from Dover to London and far beyond, to the wild Welsh Marches. A walk along The Old Kent Road today – between New Cross and the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout – is impressive by virtue of the vast contrasts in tone and scale. On the one hand you have the massive gas works, the acrid colours of the new retail sheds, the abandoned or decommissioned pubs, the unwelcoming wasteland of Burgess Park, the brutalist road scheme and the endless stream of traffic thereon … yet on the other you can see repurposed evangelical churches in former office units or light engineering premises, occasional glimpses of Georgiana subsumed into offices for tyre warehouses, and little runs of genteel villas and terraces which form tributaries off the churning thoroughfare. (The Victuallers’ Asylum is on Asylum Road, one of the most architecturally interesting streets in south London.)  On a summer evening, the Old Kent Road has a strangely foreign quality; one could be in a dodgy suburb of Miami or Los Angeles. This may have something to do with its untended nature; even the Holloway Road doesn’t look this abandoned by civic authority. Perhaps any road in any city, left to its own devices, ends up looking slightly American.

With the repurposing come the artists, and it is no surprise that the ragged districts which line the Old Kent Road are increasingly hip areas for ambitious young artists to set out their wares. I have heard both Peckham and New Cross being described, with varying degrees of conviction, as ‘The New Hoxton’ – a statement which ignores the fact that Goldsmiths’ College has been churning out YBAs for decades, so one might say that New Cross was the ‘old Hoxton’. The Victuallers’ chapel was disused for many years but it has recently been adopted as an arts space by a group that calls itself ‘Asylum‘. Tomorrow, Saturday 8th December, it will be hosting a performance of ‘Christmas Mysteries’, a ‘musical adaptation of the nativity from the traditional Medieval Mystery Plays’. An atmospheric venue for it… photos of the interior of the chapel may be found here.


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