Rowton Houses

Here the soul finds poppy-juice to ease and glad her,
And the radiant lotus-flower of royal slumber.
Surely this cemented stair’s a golden ladder
Angel-cohorts, bearing lilies, climb and cumber . . .

(Rowton House Rhymes.)

Dirty washing never flapped more disconsolately on a line than these men. They hang over the barrier at the Broadway’s edge watching the traffic pass, stamping their feet among muddy newspapers. The neon lights flick on and off, touching their flesh first red and then green. They stare at the bright shop windows and at the painted faces borne perilously past on stiletto heels. Spasmodically, they drift off home to bed. For them, and for a few thousand like them, that means to the local Rowton House.

To most people, the term “Rowton House” evokes an image of a verminous flop-house where dead-beats and desperadoes rub shoulders, paying a copper or two for a couple of feet of rope under the armpits (has anyone ever slept like that?) The Houses are the butt of many a music-hall joker and the subject of much prejudice; few employers would take on a cashier who gave the local Rowton House as his address and it has been known for a mother hearing that her son was living at a House, to storm hotfoot from the provinces to take her boy away from such supposedly evil surroundings. Yet it is a fact that if such impressions ever find their way into print, a sharp solicitor’s letter is enough to extract a public withdrawal; once the B.B.C. had to climb down and apologise after a comedian’s crack about Rowton Houses in the programme “Palace of Varieties.”

So it seems that Rowton Houses are not as bad as most people think them to be. What is the truth of the matter? What are they like, what type of person uses them and what goes on inside them? And how did they come about?

Light-hearted Aristocrat
The founding of Rowton Houses was the work of Montagu William Lowry-Corry, who was a light-hearted 19th Century aristocrat, a favourite of Disraeli, who caught the famous man’s attention by livening up a stodgy party at Raby Castle. Corry became Disraeli’s private secretary and served unflaggingly through all the years of his chief’s prominence as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later as Prime Minister. When in 1875 Disraeli persuaded the Cabinet to try for a loan from Rothschild to buy a substantial interest in the Suez Canal Company, it was Corry who ran the errand from Downing Street to get the banker’s approval. Later, when Disraeli had relinquished power and was a pitiful figure, it was usually Corry’s arm he was seen to be leaning on in public. Corry got his reward in 1880 when he became the first and last Baron Rowton. When Disraeli died (with Rowton; of course, at his bedside), he left all his papers and letters to his secretary’s discretion.

Rowton conceived the idea of his Houses in the early 1890’s after the investigations into common lodging houses which he undertook as a trustee of the Guinness Fund. At that time the lodging houses of London were little better than the sort of place which Dickens described in Bleak House. The Lodging House Bill of 1851 had been drafted to stamp out the kip-houses where, it was said, the bugs could be scraped up by the handful and the only sanitary arrangements were communal buckets placed one to a room; a room which could hold anything up to 60 people. But there were many convenient loopholes in the Bill and it is certain that 40 years on there were still some unsavoury establishments for Rowton’s investigations. The aristocrat also made it his business to approach the Embankment sleepers—one story tells of him leaving the House of Lords of an evening and spending the best part of the night talking with the Thames-side down and outs. It was then that Rowton decided on his scheme to build cheap working men’s hotels, where at prices they could afford, the homeless of London would find a clean bed, food and somewhere to sit of an evening. At the same time, the venture had to yield a return on the money invested in it; Rowton’s slogan was said to be “ Philanthropy—at five per cent.”

First Night
Brushing aside the warnings of his friends, Rowton put £30,000 of his own money into the building of the first House at Vauxhall. This was opened on the very last day of 1892, when only 77 men paid their sixpence for a night’s lodging. Over 400 beds were left empty and the first day’s takings in the catering department came to about 15s. 10½d. The building had been designed so that in the event of failure it could easily be converted and sold as a warehouse and it seemed that this would have to be, but business became brisker; in the first month over 200 beds were taken nightly and soon the 400 mark was passed. In 1894, a company, Rowton Houses Ltd., was formed with a capital of £75,000, of which £30,000 was given to Rowton in return for the money he had invested in the Vauxhall experiment. At the company’s first annual meeting it was reported that the House had been full to capacity on nearly every night and a comfortable dividend of four per cent. was declared. Other, ’Rowton Houses were subsequently built at King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle, Hammersmith, Whitechapel, and Camden Town, each in densely populated areas, within easy reach of the principal transport termini and centres of employment in the markets, docks and railway goods depots.

The Houses have always been an interesting barometer of the prevailing economic weather; for instance during the slump of the thirties, there was a decrease in the number of beds booked by the week and a striking increase in reservations on the days when the dole was paid at the local employment bureau. At that time at least five doctors and nine journalists were resident at Rowton Houses, touching elbows with men whose living depended on a charity ticket. When the 1931 dole was reduced to 15/3d., the Houses cut their prices so that a man could live there (just about) on the money. Their budget allowed for nothing apart from food and lodging; not surprisingly, many men took to a bench on the Embankment rather than face a tobacco-less existence. During the two World Wars the Houses were variously used as barracks, refugee centres and unofficial air-raid shelters.

Rowton Houses To-day
Rowton Houses Ltd. is to-day a solidly flourishing £505,000 capital company, with assets of some £650,000 and a dividend steadily at about 8 per cent. It is not a charitable institution or a trust and has no connection with any religious organisation; business, pure and simple, is its line. “Although we are undoubtedly doing a good work,” said a one-time director of the company, “there is nothing of patronage or philanthropy about it.” The Houses never spend money on public advertisements, yet something like 98 per cent, of the 5,000-odd available beds are filled each night; how many hoteliers would like to be able to make a similar claim? The company has its own laundry and maintenance staff and supplies a barbering and cobbling service in the Houses. Charges have recently been increased from 2/6d. to 3/- a night (in 1910 it was 9d.). It is here that the profit is made— although the catering department pulled in nearly £130,000 during 1955, there is little profit in this side of the business. Post-war full employment has made its mark, in the Houses which now offer special private rooms, instead of cubicles, at 35/- a week. A dinner of soup, steak pudding with potatoes, followed by plum tart and custard, costs 2/8d. (in 1910 again, it would have set you back by 7d.)—and the House dining rooms are open to non-residents.

What are the Houses like? From the outside they are imposing, barrack-like buildings with their smooth red-brick and small windows. Their impressive size—for example at Hammersmith—is often blanketed by the buildings which have sprung up around them. Inside, overwhelming impressions are of the white and chocolate glazed bricks which are everywhere in all the Houses, the smell of cheap tobacco, the men who are openly down on their luck and looking for something cheap and quick, men who are existing on their wits (on one afternoon visit, nearly every other lodger seemed to be studying a greyhound race card). Men stand aimlessly in the entrance hall, despite stern notices asking them not to. The floors are stone or wood and there are no soft §eats— all the furniture is in wood, mostly with iron standards. The dining rooms and kitchens are unfailingly clean, with much up-to-date equipment. There is a billiards room (always well full of an evening), writing room and lecture room—now, of course, with television installed—in each House. For some reason, draughts is a passion of Rowton House residents; regular demonstrations take place, which give men the chance to show off their considerable skill at the game; the 1948 English champion was a Rowton House regular. All the Houses have their permanent lodgers—some of them have been booking the same cubicle, week after week, for over a quarter of a century.

Queer Types
Because Rowton Houses offer such cheap accommodation, we can expect them to attract some poor types. Sure enough, there are descriptions of wanted men in the reception desks, alongside the file of past residents who are now banned because they fought or stole or carried lice or made a mess in their rooms. No one is allowed to book in unless he produces some evidence of identification, which is checked against these files. Occasionally, gangs form and make a nuisance of themselves until the management can weed them out. The reception staff show all the signs of being case-hardened towards people who, after all, are their clients. And among the residents are the simply queer cases: the man who wore two jackets (and this on a stuffy evening).

Apart from these, the Houses are used a lot by young men who have left home to follow a job—the list of letters awaiting collection reveals the number of Irishmen and foreigners in residence. For these the Houses are not a bad proposition; they are usually earning a wage on which they can afford to get out in the evening, when the glazed bricks and old men’s pipes are by no means at their most attractive. It is a different matter for the old ones, who make up a good part of Rowton Houses’ customers. These are the men who have no family to care about them, whose life has been reduced to the tightrope act of living on a retirement pension. For them, apart from the cheapness, the Houses offer the attraction of living in the company of fellow human beings instead of eking out their last days in a lonely room. Here is one of the tragedies of post-war conditions; the lot of old people is to-day as precarious as it has ever been—indeed, some say that it is worse since the Welfare State boys took over the running of British Capitalism. Evidence of the tragedy can be seen in the Rowton Houses, in the old men sitting out the long evenings on the hard wooden seats, staring with patient eyes at the walls, waiting for the next meal, for bedtime, waiting in the end to die.

None is Secure
The Houses are fond of describing themselves as working men’s hotels—one of their officials actually went so far as to use the term “residential Club.” (A brochure says “Up to London? Stay at Rowton House ”). Of course, all this is to rather stretch the meaning of words; no Rowton House lodger is ever called “sir” by the staff and nobody gets a hand with his luggage when he arrives. We can say that the Houses are not dirty or verminous, nor are they the stamping grounds of footpads and cut-purses. The most respectable among us could spend a night in them without fear. Because of this, a first inspection can give a strongly favourable impression; but that is only because one goes there expecting something much worse. In cold fact, they are places where men put up when they are too poor to have an independent home. The problem of not being able to afford the good—and some of the not so good—things in life is the bugbear of the great majority of us in the Capitalist world, where everything has its price and the amount we can buy is restricted by the narrowness of our wage packet. Some of us may live in a semi-detached in Accacia Avenue: but if some day we should be unable to work because there is a slump or because we have suffered an accident or have grown old then we could easily become clients of Rowton Houses. It is poverty which has been filling the places for over 50 years and will go on filling them as long as Capitalism lasts. Nobody is secure. The next time we see someone shuffling through the doorway of a Rowton House we may all reflect that there, but for the grace of something-or-other, go we.


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