Bhoys of the Big House

Introduction — Interviews with Irish homeless in Arlington House, Camden Town, London, 1998

Images of Irish resident of Arlington House hostel by Steve Pyke
Arlington House resident by Steve Pyke

More than twenty years ago, I was involved in a research project with the disadvantaged Irish tenants of Arlington House, a hostel for the homeless in North London’s famous Camden Town district.

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.

Arlington House and its inhabitants have held a firm place in North London popular culture for many years. In 1984, Shane MacGowan of the Pogues wrote about “going transmetropolitan from Arlington House with a 2 bob bit” on the band’s rousing first album Red Roses for Me.

In the same year 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

In the post-WWII era, Arlington House was a particularly important resource for the many Irish construction workers who flocked to London to help rebuild the capital after the devastation of the blitz. That generation of Irish migrants formed their own strong community in the hostel, and eventually formed their own Irish Tenants Association. Alex McDonnell, a professional care worker who worked closely with the Irish Tenants Association asked me, a researcher with the University of North London, if I could come in and record some of the stories of these men, men from a generation who were rapidly dying off and leaving their stories untold.

M1 motorway construction
M1 motorway construction.

These are those stories from the Camden Town of 1998. They include the story of Dominic*, a former cop with the Los Angeles Police Dept, who recalled his traumatic experiences in that city. There is the story of Jimmy, who traveled the high seas with the merchant marine and then submerged into the tunnels of the Victoria Line. There is the story of Workcamps, Whiskey Paddy and the Elephant John. There are stories of Showbands and Dancehalls.

And there is the story of Danny, a story of redemption, of escape from the hostel and from homelessness.

Interior, Arlington House, 1998.
Interior, Arlington House hostel. Photo: Deirde O’Callaghan

The isolation and the disconnection from family and home described in many of these stories was an inspiration for the Aisling Return to Ireland Project. Aisling is a further story of redemption, in the wonderful work carried out by the project support team, who set out to try and reunite the homeless and disadvantaged with their communities and families. The Aisling Project’s work continues today and deserves your support. Donations can be made through their website.

*Note: to preserve anonymity, the men’s real names have not been used for these interviews.

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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.