About Arlington House

This famous hostel for the homeless in London’s Camden Town once housed writers George Orwell and Patrick Kavanagh and inspired both the Pogues and Madness

Arlington House, Camden Town

Arlington House, built by Lord Rowton in 1905, is the UK’s largest hostel for the homeless. The hostel has an illustrious history, having housed many thousands of homeless working men over the years, including the Down and Out in Paris and London era George Orwell, and the celebrated Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. There’s even a rumour that Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary leader stayed there.

From the outset, Arlington House has always provided accommodation for men irrespective of their creed, class, colour or nationality; it has, however, always had an especial importance for the Irish. The poet Patrick Kavanagh, from Co. Monaghan, stayed in the House in the 1930s, and later wrote in his autobiography, The Green Fool:

Many Irish boys made Rowton House, Camden Town, first stop from Mayo. The soft voices of Mayo and Galway sounding in that gaunt, impersonal place fell like warm rain on the arid patches of my imagination.

These boys were true peasants. They walked with an awkward gait and were shy. To me they looked up as to a learned man and asked me questions I couldn’t answer.

Kavanagh, P., The Green Fool, Penguin Books, London, 1984. p.254.

The importance of Arlington House to the Irish is linked to the past history of the hostel as a provider of low-cost housing for working men, particularly in the construction industry. Camden was an important centre for this industry, up until its contraction in the late seventies and eighties. In addition, Camden with its many pubs and dancehalls, was the focus of much social activity for the Irish; building workers from all over the South of England would travel to Camden for their weekends off, and use Arlington House for temporary lodgings. As the generation of Irishmen who migrated to work in the post-war reconstruction of London and the South-east, got older, and as work got harder to get, these men remained in the hostel, and grew to depend on the resident Irish community as they lost contact with friends and family in Ireland.

Arlington House and its inhabitants have held a firm place in North London popular culture for many years. Shane MacGowan of the Pogues wrote about Arlington House on ‘Transmetropolitan’, the opening track and ‘mission statement’ on the band’s rousing first album Red Roses for Me.

And on their top twenty hit One Better Day, Madness sang:

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Madness have remained supporters of the hostel and it is still an inspiration for their music, many years later.

Suggs stares across the street and you can almost see the memories revisiting. This place, this town, this city, has provided such inspiration down the decades. He talks about some of the amazing residents he has met from Arlington House, a local hostel for the homeless.

(Madness interviewed in the Guardian, 2016)

Today, Arlington House is still a hostel for the homeless. It is managed by One Housing.

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jim mccool

jim mccool

Human-Centred-Design consultant, critical thinker, writer, researcher, storyteller, believes we can work together to find a better way to live.