St Leonard's Hospital, Kingsland Road

Photo:Block A in the French Second Empire style

Block A in the French Second Empire style

© Hannah Parham

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'St Leonard's Hospital, Kingsland Road' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'St Leonard's Hospital, Kingsland Road' page
Built 1863-66
By Hannah Parham

St Leonard's Hospital, Kingsland Road was built in 1863-6 as the workhouse of the parish of St Leonard, Shoreditch. It replaced an earlier building on the site dating to 1777, which was considered to be in poor condition and overcrowded. Indeed, circumstances were so squalid that the workhouse featured in an article in the medical journal The Lancet in 1865, causing a public outcry. Exposés such as this led to the Metropolitan Poor Act in 1867 and prompted the reconstruction of many urban workhouses. Plans for rebuilding St Leonard's were drawn up in 1862 by one William Lee of St Michael's House, Cornhill.

The first part of the new workhouse to open was that housing the Parish Relief Office facing Hoxton Street in 1863. The remaining workhouse buildings were completed by 1866, the foundation stone
to the main frontage block on Kingsland Road having been laid in March 1865. Some building materials (probably the London stock bricks) from the old workhouse were reused. A new infirmary and dispensary were built in 1872, followed by a laundry, nurses' home, and mens' and womens' receiving blocks in the 1890s. From the outset the workhouse and the workhouse infirmary were
housed in separate buildings, reflecting the practice of distinguishing between able-bodied and infirm paupers (the so-called deserving and undeserving poor). By the late 1920s the two were separate institutions known as St Leonard's House and St Leonard's Hospital respectively. The workhouse closed in 1930 and the whole site became a hospital, thought to be the first in London to admit air-raid victims in the Blitz. St Leonard's Hospital remains in NHS use.

Yet while the purpose of the infirmary outlasted that of the workhouse, the fate of the original buildings was the inverse. Almost no buildings survive relating to the infirmary: some were bombed in 1941; the rest were demolished in 1993. In contrast the main workhouse building on Kingsland Road (Block A) is relatively unaltered, as is the perpendicular range to the rear (Block B). Block
A originally housed the workhouse's administration offices, dayrooms, and female inmates; Block B contained the dining hall, which doubled up as a chapel, and accommodation for male inmates.

The majority of early 19th century workhouses were built in a restrained, classical style as prescribed by late Georgian taste and the limited budgets of the parish unions. By the 1860s, fashion had moved on, but the conservatism of the unions and the continued need for economy meant that austerity persisted in the design of workhouses well into the mid-century period. Where land was more plentiful, workhouse architecture could be ambitious, and many built
in the northern industrial towns were of an order of grandeur that surpasses that of St Leonard's. Nevertheless, for an inner-city workhouse, originally sandwiched between a public house and a terrace of houses, St Leonard's punches above its weight architecturallyBlock A is in the French Second Empire style, popularised by the opening of the pavilion-roofed Grosvenor Hotel at Victoria Station in 1860, and widely deployed in midcentury town halls, railway stations and commercial buildings. Characterised by plentiful use of carved stonework and tall mansards with patterned slate coverings and decorative iron cresting, this was an expensive style and thus was rarely used in buildings for the poor. Yet in Shoreditch, the compactness of Block A's street facing elevation permitted a concentration of architectural exuberance which would have been too costly on a larger building. Observe, for example, the clever use of stone dressings to give the impression of lavishness without the expense of facing the entire elevation in ashlar. Inside Block A are surviving original features, including a grand staircase and some fireplaces and panelling.

Block B is more austere and is characteristic of the bleakness long associated with Victorian workhouses. Inside is the hall/chapel, which was at the centre of institutional life. Here meals of bread and cheese or gruel were served, with meat thrice weekly, and daily prayers said. The dual use was not uncommon, again an indicator of the thriftiness of Boards of Guardians, but its good state of preservation at St Leonard's is notable. At meals and at prayers, the inmates sat on
long benches, all facing forwards; the men to one side and the women to the other. The absence of interconnection between the western and eastern sections of Block B, save via the hall/chapel, is
further evidence for the principle of segregation in the workhouse, separating husbands from wives, and parents from children.

Such privations were to ensure that the workhouse, funded by local ratepayers, only supported the truly destitute, and not the merely indolent. The rules, uniforms and regimented existence
designed to deter the work-shy principally served to compound the misery of the suffering, however. Charles Dickens was one of many writers whose undercover reports in the London newspapers revealed 'the little world of poverty enclosed within the workhouse walls'. The 1881 census recorded that of the 676 inmates of St Leonard's, around half were widows or widowers and around 70% were over 60 years old. The oldest resident was 91-year-old Margaret Kennedy, a laundress from Ireland; the youngest one-year-old Clara Ashton, who, like the majority of inmates, had been born locally.

Even the most cursory examination of the conditions in London's Victorian workhouses questions the desirability of preserving the surviving buildings of such miserable institutions. Yet Block A is one of the most distinguished edifices on Kingsland Road, alleviating the poverty of the streetscape to a far greater degree than it ever did that of its inmates. Its award of Grade II-listed status by English Heritage in June 2009, along with Block B and the façade to the former Offices for the Relief of the Poor facing Hoxton Street, was surely warranted. Forthcoming decisions about the future of the former workhouse buildings must now pay heed to their special historic and architectural interest. The former Poor Relief Offices were clumsily refurbished, with just the façade preserved to cloak the mediocre new build. Yet the usual conservation principle, that a building is best preserved in the use for which it was intended, can hardly be applied here. Instead, a new use is required for the rest of the former St Leonard's workhouse that begins a new and more uplifting chapter in the building's life.


Hannah Parham is a Heritage Protection Advisor for Listing at English Heritage.

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 30/01/2010.

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