Saturday, February 21, 2009
Red Brick Dreams
A google for Len Deighton's London Dossier - inspired by a recent post on Unmitigated England - turned up a page about Rowton Houses. These were hostels created in 1892 by philanthropist Lord Rowton. His idea was to create a cheap, clean place to stay for working men as an alternative to squalid cheap hotels and flophouses. George Orwell stayed in them during the period that later became Down And Out In Paris In London. He liked them a lot:
"The Rowton Houses are splendid buildings, and the only objection to them is the strict discipline, with rules against cooking, card-playing, etc. Perhaps the best advertisement for the Rowton Houses is the fact that they are always full to overflowing"
Things must have improved since Jack London stayed at the Whitechapel hostel in 1902, describing the place as full of "life that is degrading and unwholesome". Lord Rowton himself claimed his hostels were "fit for an archbishop".
There were six Rowton houses in London, built more or less to the same plan. There was a barber, dining room (with provision for self catering), a smoking room, library, cobbler, tailor and post room. The bedrooms were a private cubicle with a chair, bed, a chamber pot, good ventilation and "plenty of blankets" according to one account. Only one of the hostels is still in use, Arlington house in Camden (above, when newly built), which by the 80s was run by the local council. The other Rowton Houses have been demolished or converted into flats, like this one in Whitechapel - imposing doesn't even begin to describe the presence of the place, which in its heyday had 816 beds. Despite Rowton's best intentions, the hostels became associated with dossers, a reputation still prevalent in the 60s when Deighton wrote his London Dossier. In 1967 - five years after the Kings Cross Rowton House was converted into the Mount Pleasant hotel - the owners of the Mount Pleasant successfully sued Deighton for claiming in the Dossier that the hotel was "too expensive for a place that used to be a hostel for down-and-outs".
The first time I ever came to London was a school trip in 1980, to see England Under-16s play their Irish counterparts at Wembley. The things that remain with me from that trip are: The shock that our national stadium was less comfortable than Keighley's rugby ground, the unanimous disappointment at the size of Nelson's column and a trio of very camp men dressed as Adam And The Ants that shocked even the gobby hard lads of our group into terrified silence. The other thing that I vividly remember was where we stayed - the Mount Pleasant Hotel. Despite the refit our rooms were still effectively cubicles with a chair, bed, and a cupboard with a radio bolted into it. There was no longer a chamber pot, but there were still plenty of blankets. 26 years on I agree with the Deighton asessement, though I have stayed in very much worse places since.
(pictures from workhouses.org/)