A Veritable Palace for the Hard-Working Labourer’? Space, Material Culture and Inmate Experience in London’s Rowton Houses, 1892–1918

Jane Hamlett, Rebecca Preston

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This chapter examines the space and material culture of Rowton Houses - new large-scale institutional spaces built in London between 1892 and 1905 that housed thousands of working men up to (and after) 1914. The first Rowton House at Vauxhall was opened in 1892 by its founder, Lord Rowton (Montagu Lowry-Corry), the Tory peer and philanthropist who was formerly Disraeli’s private secretary. A large-scale lodging house for single men, the enterprise was not solely charitable but designed to be self-supporting, and was one of a range of semi-philanthropic initiatives that responded to the 1880s housing crisis in London. The success of the first House was followed by the foundation of an additional five larger Houses at King’s Cross (1896), Newington Butts (near the Elephant & Castle, 1897), Hammersmith (1899), Whitechapel (1902) and Camden Town (1905). This paper considers the influence of ideas of home life, circulated and celebrated in nineteenth-century culture, on Rowton Houses’ design and representation. But it also assesses how inmates responded to this. Rather than ‘resisting’ Rowton’s culture, residents had other, more pressing concerns, and constructed home in a different way.

While nineteenth-century institutions for the poor have been widely studied, capturing the voices and experiences of their inmates remains problematic. Tim Hitchcock, Peter King and Pamela Sharpe have recently argued that historical research should turn to the material strategies the poor adopted in order to survive in response to the networks of authority (and institutions) that governed their lives. One way of doing this is to consider the spaces that the poor inhabited, the material objects they kept or were provided with, and how they responded to these.

The first section of the chapter explores how Rowton Houses were represented in the press, through words and images. London and provincial newspapers with a range of political sympathies, the popular illustrated periodical press, and specialist medical and architectural publications, all reported on Rowton Houses’ design and management, presenting an idea of the Houses as ‘domestic’ in order to underplay their institutional associations. These accounts are compared in the second section with published inmate autobiographies and records of crime - from the press, police accounts and the criminal courts.

Rowton and his co-directors invested time and money in the Houses and paid close attention to minute details of their physical layout and equipment. When opened the buildings were almost universally praised in the press and compared to hotels and clubs for upper-class men in the West End. Indeed, the carefully fitted interiors and their representation in the press suggest that the Houses were intended to create a shared domesticity that crossed class boundaries. However, instead of marveling at the decoration, Rowton residents explained institutional life in terms of duration of residence and the proximity of fellow inhabitants. The buildings’ spatial arrangements fostered companionship, but left the vulnerable open to the predatory. Libraries, smoking rooms, lockers and cubicles were often used in ways unintended by the authorities. As such, Rowton residents did not exactly resist the regime - rather, they found ways of adapting themselves to its limitations and possibilities, adopting their own strategies to find comfort and security. This was produced, or removed, by the presence of other bodies in space – it was the other lodgers, and the staff, as well as the rules that governed them, that were important in this equation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResidential Institutions in Britain, 1725-1970: Inmates and Environments
EditorsJane Hamlett, Lesley Hoskins, Rebecca Preston
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPickering and Chatto
ISBN (Electronic)9781781440117
ISBN (Print)9781848933668
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013

Publication series

NamePerspectives in Economic and Social History

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