Heritage: 1984 author George Orwell wrote about Romford Workhouse

The original Romford Workhouse infirmary buildings of Oldchurch Hospital in the 1930s. Picture: Bria

The original Romford Workhouse infirmary buildings of Oldchurch Hospital in the 1930s. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Archant

Professor Ged Martin invites you to read two writers who took the lid off life in Havering institutions

During the lockdown, reading has helped us visit distant places that have been off limits.

But two authors, one of them a great figure in English literature, can take us back in time and behind the walls of two Havering institutions, one of them designed to be grim, the other with a murky past.

George Orwell is remembered for his novels Animal Farm and 1984. Animal Farm warns how revolutions can go wrong. A cruel farmer is driven out by his livestock, who proclaim that all animals are equal. But the pigs take control, and announce that some animals are more equal than other.

1984 is a nightmare vision of a society totally controlled by a dictator, Big Brother, modelled on Stalin.

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George Orwell also wrote Down and Out in London and Paris. In the 1930s, he became a tramp to find out what it was like to be homeless. In chapters 26 and 27, he visited Romford, thinly disguised as Romton.

Romford Workhouse, later Oldchurch Hospital, had a casual ward, a primitive overnight hostel or – as the tramps called it – a “spike”.

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Orwell calmly described the humiliations inflicted upon the destitute. The spike opened at 6pm. There’s an excruciating scene at a local church, where homeless men could get a cup of tea beforehand. The price was compulsory prayers and embarrassed hymn-singing.

At the spike, “a grim, smoky cube of yellow brick”, fifty homeless men were ordered to strip naked and queue for two grimy baths. Dinner was a chunk of bread and margarine, washed down by cocoa.

Men slept two to a cell. With no beds, they slept on the floor, rolling up their overcoats for pillows. His cellmate wanted gay sex, but Orwell had been at Eton and easily fended him off.

The next morning, the inmates emptied chamber pots and shared a single tub of water if they felt like washing – Orwell couldn’t face it. After peeling potatoes, they stripped again, this time for a token medical inspection. Orwell’s description of their “physical rottenness” is stomach-turning.

Finally released, even Orwell could hardly describe the sweet air of Rush Green.

The text is on the internet. Check out how a great writer can convey powerful meaning through simple, almost conversational English.

As a novelist, William Pett Ridge wasn’t in the same league as Orwell. But he was an attractive personality who wanted children to lead better lives.

His 1900 novel, A Son of the State, is the tale of little Bobbie Lancaster, who gets into trouble on the streets of London. Around page 40, Bobbie is sent to a detention centre in Essex. He’s ordered to address the couple in charge of his unit as “Father” and “Mother”. He has to do housework and learns to play the cornet in the institution’s band. Of course, the story ends happily.

Ridge based his story on the Shoreditch Cottage Homes, built in 1889 by an inner London authority in the Hornchurch fields, opposite the Harrow Inn.

It was later called St Leonard’s Cottage Homes and run by Tower Hamlets Council. Buildings were arranged around a village street. Most accommodated around thirty youngsters, cared for by house parents.

Ridge paints a benign picture of life in the Cottage Homes. Punishments were few and minor. Everybody was kind to Bobbie, even when he ran away. St Leonard’s closed in 1984, and was attractively converted into housing.

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Years later, sickening stories emerged. A paedophile ring had operated in the Cottage Homes throughout the 1970s, openly abusing girls and boys. Two perverts were sent to prison in 2001. A third was convicted in 2017, when the outcry over Jimmy Savile encouraged a new investigation.

Were the Shoreditch Homes a sink of cruelty when Ridge wrote A Son of the State? Was his charming tale part of a cover-up?

Decide for yourself. The text is on the internet, via archive.org.