|A Veritable Palace for the Hard-working Labourer? Space, Material Culture and Inmate Experience in Rowton Houses, Ltd., London, 1892-1914|
|This paper explores 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), Tory peer and philanthropist, who was formerly Disraeli’s private secretary. A large-scale lodging house for working men, the enterprise was not solely charitable but designed to be self-supporting, and was one of a range of semi-philanthropic initiatives to shelter hundreds of individuals that emerged in response 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 (1894), Newington Butts (near the Elephant & Castle, 1897), Hammersmith (1897), Whitechapel (1902) and Camden Town (1905). At each successive ‘working man’s hotel’ the number of beds increased, so that the final Rowton House housed over 1,000 men.
Rowton Houses’ layout and decoration reveal the tension between the intentions of institutional authorities, and the men who lived in and experienced the institution as home. 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 contemporary press and compared to clubs for upper-class men in the West End. Indeed, the carefully fitted interiors suggest that the houses were intended to create a shared domesticity that crossed class boundaries. But those who inhabited the buildings on a daily basis could couch their experience in very different terms.
The paper uses a range of written and visual sources including journalism by contemporary observers and lodgers themselves, company memoranda and promotional material, and inmate autobiographies, to explore how ‘home’ was constructed and contested in these new institutions, through duration of residence, decoration and material culture.|