Secrets Of 19th Century Workhouse Uncovered At St Pancras Dig

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 15 November 2023

Secrets Of 19th Century Workhouse Uncovered At St Pancras Dig

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Bird's-eye view of rooms probably used to store coal
Bird's-eye view of rooms probably used to store coal. © MOLA

Archeologists from the Museum of London Architecture (MOLA) have uncovered some surprising finds during digs around St Pancras in north London.

Excavations ahead of building Oriel — a new centre for eye care, research and education — have revealed the remains of the 200-year-old St Pancras Workhouse, where 'inmates' were tasked with hard labour and arduous chores, such as oakum picking.

Crockery stamped with 'Guardians of the Poor St Pancras Middlesex’
Close up of design on St Pancras Workhouse institutional crockery © MOLA

Among the finds are branded crockery, the remains of a bone toothbrush with horsehair bristles, and a fully intact ceramic hot water bottle. Most surprising though, is the discovery of vibrant blue walls standing up to a metre high, and fireplaces — thought to be part of the female wards. These finds, says MOLA conjure up a different picture to that of the dark, dingy workhouses of Dickensian literature, while the fireplaces suggest that more comfort may have been afforded to some inmates than previously realised. All the same, the workhouse would not have been a pleasant place to reside.

One of two rooms with painted plaster and a fireplace
One of two rooms with painted plaster and a fireplace © MOLA

Robert Blincoe — the person rumoured to have inspired Charles Dickens's character Oliver Twist — was an inmate at the St Pancras Workhouse as a child. The workhouse originally opened in 1731, in buildings close to the excavation site, before a new workhouse was built in 1809, and subsequently extended throughout the 19th century, until being turned into a hospital in 1929. The building was later damaged during the second world war, and subsequently demolished.

Ceramic hot water 'bottle'
Ceramic hot water 'bottle' © MOLA

Gwilym Williams, MOLA Project Manager, said: "Previously, little was known about this building other than its shape marked on parish maps. These discoveries allow us to get a vivid picture of life in early 19th century workhouses."

You can see 3D models of the walls and fireplaces here.