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

The Haunted House. Photo: David Secombe, text: Andrew Martin.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields, west side. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

The Haunted House

If ghost stories arise from the Gothic tradition, which was as much architectural as literary, it is also the case that persistent ghosts need a persistent location in which to manifest. So no wonder houses are haunted.

Haunted houses tend to be old and big. Such properties appeal to the romantic idea of faded grandeur, and also a baser snobbery. Every account of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’, describes it as hideous, but when I look at the pictures I wonder how much it would cost today if it were still standing, and whether the seller would take a low offer in view of its poltergeist infestation. Reading ghost stories we are torn: yes, a malevolent spirit stalks the east wing, but at least there’s am east wing for it to stalk. Ghost stories, both real and fictional, sometimes come with floor plans of the haunted area – literally, property particulars – and very mouth-watering they usually are.

Haunted houses also come with libraries, and with servants. The protagonist in a ghost story is quite alone in his huge house … except for his fifteen servants. The reader might not know about the servants until one of them hesitantly knocks and enters the master’s study on the final page and finds him slumped in his chair ‘With a look on his face, the like of which I’ve never seen …’

The author denigrates the house, but also slyly boosts it to engage our snobbery. In Walter de la Mare’s story, Out of the Deep (1923) the protagonist, Jimmie, inherits his uncle’s ‘horrible old London mansion’. But how horrible and old can a London mansion be? In Moonlight Sonata (1931) by Alexander Woolcott, one of the two principals inhabits ‘the collapsing family manor house to which he had indignantly fallen heir.’ The owner is down to his last gardener, who tends the ‘once sumptuous’ grounds, but the place doesn’t sound too bad to me.  The Mystery of the Semi-Detached by Edith Nesbitt (1893) seems, from its title, to be bucking the trend, but the house is ‘commodious’, with several sitting rooms.

I myself grew up in a semi-detached of a more modest sort. We were its first occupants, and I was proud of inhabiting a new house. Those of my contemporaries who lived in old houses seemed to me to be taking a considerable risk. They were living in houses in which people had died, and people they didn’t know at that – people that nobody currently alive knew. It must be like living in a tomb. There would have to be certain echoes. In grappling with the subject, in his collection of sightings, Apparitions and Haunted Houses, Sir Ernest Bennett plaintively wonders, ‘Can it conceivably be the case that in some inscrutable fashion the woodwork and masonry of a house may exert some physical or mental influences which cause certain individuals to see the phantasmal figure of a former resident?’

… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.

 David Secombe:

Elsewhere in his fine book (an overview of the British ghost story tradition), Andrew examines Charles Dickens’s fascination with ghosts and how they impacted on his fiction. The above photograph shows the Inigo Jones mansion – on the right – believed to have been the model for the chambers of Tulkinghorn, the sinister lawyer in Bleak House. Although Bleak House is not ostensibly a novel about ghosts, it deals with the dead hand of the past weighing upon the present; and Dickens’s treatment of Lincoln’s Inn is appropriately atmospheric, menacing and grotesque. Here is the opening of chapter 32:

‘It is night in Lincoln’s Inn — perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day — and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o’clock, has ceased its doleful clangour about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge. [. . . ] It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business’.

See also: The Avoided House, Halloween

The discreet charm of the A102M. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Blackwall Tunnel southern approach, SE10. Photo © David Secombe 1988.

From Night Walks by Charles Dickens, from The Uncommercial Traveller, 1861:

Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise. In the course of those nights, I finished my education in a fair amateur experience of houselessness. My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.

David Secombe writes:

The above photo was taken in just such a mood as Dickens described: unable to sleep, and with guests sleeping in the living room of my one-bedroom flat, I drove around south-east London looking for images. The sheer emptiness of the industrial hinterland of the Greenwich Peninsula was eerie and unsettling, although I took the photo above; a lambent nocturnal scene, seen from the vantage point of the ‘Tunnel Palladium‘. The stillness was unnerving and it wasn’t long before I moved on to Blackheath Village. There, whilst looking at the exhibits in a taxidermist’s window, I was interrogated by two officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group. The conversation went as follows:

DS and two PLAIN CLOTHES OFFICERS in front of a taxidermist’s window. About 3 a.m.

PLAIN CLOTHES 1: Who are you then?

DS: (produces card) That’s me.

PLAIN CLOTHES 1: So what are you doing? We saw you walking out of that alley.

DS: I can’t sleep. I have people in my front room, so I thought I’d go for a drive and maybe take some pictures.

PLAIN CLOTHES 1: Bit dark isn’t it?

DS: Well …

PLAIN CLOTHES 1: You ever been arrested?

DS: No …


PLAIN CLOTHES 1: Oh all right. (turns to face taxidermist’s window) What do you think of that kestrel? Clever isn’t it? Wouldn’t want it in my house though.

PLAIN CLOTHES 2: That’s not a kestrel. It’s a falcon.

PLAIN CLOTHES 1: What’s the difference?

PLAIN CLOTHES 2: Plumage. A falcon’s got different plumage. And a flatter head.

DS: I’m not very good with birds …

PLAIN CLOTHES 1: Don’t you start.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe.