by Bob Boyton
Arlington House, Camden Town
1982 – You’d have been hard put to it to see the place and think it could ever be golden although Madness got one of their best songs out of it – ‘One Better day.’
Built in 1905 Arlington was the last of Lord Rowton’s Rowton Houses, offering accommodation to homeless and travelling working men.
Good lodgings by the standards of the time Arlington was still well enough run in the 1930’s to be approved of by Orwell during his jaunt amongst the down and out.
Hardly modernised after the second world war by the 1980’s the place had become a disgrace.
With 1038 cell like rooms Arlington was the biggest hostel in Europe. Many of the rooms were no more than seven foot by five. Most men could put their arms out and touch both walls.
Staff were mainly drawn from amongst the guys living there. Wages and conditions of employment reflected how vulnerable they were working for an employer who was also the landlord. The main staff who didn’t live there were an alcoholic manager and some paid bullies who enforced Victorian conditions for the residents. Log books from the time show that men were fined £7 for bedwetting and evicted on to the street for repeat ‘offences’.
It was also well known but not recorded that the bouncers might want a backhander to allow residents who returned drunk at night back into the hostel. The residents weren’t allowed into the building during the day so perhaps not surprisingly some of them became street drinkers.
In winter 1982 I was secretary of Camden Trades Council, the body that coordinated the unions in the London Borough of Camden. We were approached by Arlington workers wanting some advice about how to join a union. We put them in touch with the Transport and General Workers Union
Rowton management didn’t welcome visitors let alone trades unionists intent on recruiting but around Easter time the lads who worked there smuggled me in for a meeting and to give me some idea of what the place was like. I was a railwayman at the time and used to eating my sandwiches in a cabin by the side of the track so I wasn’t fussy but I think this was the dirtiest place I’d ever been in. We met in the canteen known ironically as the Wimpy Bar. It felt more like the setting for a Victorian melodrama. It wasn’t gas lighting but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been.
Afterwards I was taken to a pub called The Good Mixer. The legend was when they’d put in the floor the builders had forgotten to get the cement mixer out of the basement and it had been stuck there ever since. The Mixer was managed at the time by a one legged man. He had one rule, you could do more or less anything you wanted, even have a fight and roll around on the floor but if you broke a glass that was an immediate ban. I think the lads took me in there to test my bottle, I must have passed the test or maybe it was a Thursday so they knew I’d just been paid and was holding money.
Not long after that meeting there was a brief successful strike to get two shop stewards reinstated who’d been sacked by Rowtons. The company should have learned the lesson but in September they sacked T.U. staff who’d walked out on strike after being lied to about negotiating rights.
The strike lasted thirteen months. I spent a lot of my spare time on their picket line. The trades council raised thousands of pounds from other trades unions and their members.
The Arlington House strikers weren’t typical trades unionists, a lot of them had been in prison, some had a serious drink problem and a few came with a history it was more comfortable not to know about. At first I felt superior but the truth was that politics aside it wasn’t a good time for me. I was only a couple of weeks’ wages away from being out on the street myself.
By the time the strike ended in victory I’d left the railway and fallen out with the community project I’d been working for. Hearing I was out of work, the senior union steward at Arlington returned what he saw as a favour and got me a start as a cleaner. I was promoted to night support worker not long after starting, just as the hostel was being transformed into a home the residents could be proud to live in. It was a hard way to earn a living but four nights a week for five years I was going to work in a building that embodied one of the few Trades Union victories during Thatcher’s dire decade.
A lot of the blokes who lived there were rehoused to their own flats and we ended up with a maximum of three hundred and ninety residents at any one time. A lot of the guys who stayed were injured or damaged in one way or another. The following two pieces are creative non fiction inspired by some of the Arlington men I was privileged to meet. For a writer they were hidden treasure.
‘I think of going home every year when June comes around but something always stops me. Ah, once yer
used to living in a big city and there’s nothing at home to look at but fields.’
Sylvester was in his late 60’s or maybe even early 70’s; a quiet, mild and always polite man I got to know
when I was working at the ‘Big House’. He was on the short side with a balding grey head and a gentle face,
as if none of the horrors of the world had touched him. At some point during the time I knew him best
he started a relationship with Susan who was a schizophrenic around 20 years his junior. Susan was either
pregnant when he met her or became pregnant by him. The child, David was taken into care a few days
after he was born.
Susan was a woman of middle height with untidy-ish curly black hair and usually wore a drab grey dress.
She seemed to have a low level of interest in the world – the two of them were often in the big house
having lunch in the canteen. Sylvester had no apparent mental health problem himself but appeared
to have little comprehension or insight into Susan’s condition.
I haven’t seen Sylvester walking around Camden for a long time now and he may have died and finally
made that trip home or perhaps he rests in St Pancras Cemetery along with so many barely remembered
Irishmen. There might be someone who knows what’s happened to Susan, her name must be in a file
somewhere but I haven’t seen or heard of her and it feels like the wind blew her somewhere else, let’s hope
without Sylvester to look out for her it’s a kindly place.
He was standing up in his room looking for something dry to put next to his skin. He’d only got out of bed
because his can was by the hand basin but now he wouldn’t go back, the bed was soaked right through,
he’d even pissed the pillow and the eiderdown.
His trousers were damp in the crotch and the pockets from the night before and he must have pissed over
the shirt during the night. He wondered was it the drink that made him piss so much? Sometimes it didn’t
happen and sometimes he remembered, he’d pissed the bed when he was just a kid, before he’d ever had
He was shaking but not as bad as usual. He opened the can and got a bit down himself. He sat on the chair,
as he drank a bit more he looked around and remembered that he didn’t have any pants. He’d had to
carefully take off the pair he’d been wearing when he’d been caught short yesterday, taking his trousers
down and taking them off before he took off the pants trying to make sure none of it spilt out on to his leg
or his sock. He was glad he’d been wearing a pair of socks; the toilet floor didn’t look too clean. The place
had gone to pot these days.
A few more mouthfuls and he wasn’t so worried about having wet clothes. He’d put them on when he
finished the can, go out and act the clown, ‘Michael the mad paddy, thank you very much sir, thank you indeed,
thanks be to you on behalf of the Irish Government, and thank you to you too sir, I mean this most sincerely from
the bottom of my heart, and god bless you and all who sail in you and you’d better be thanking me as well.’
As he walked along the corridor he imagined greeting the boys on the steps, ‘will ye sing Skibereen’ one of
them called out but he wasn’t in the mood for singing yet, he only did that when he couldn’t think straight
anymore. He could sing on auto pilot when he’d had so much to drink that he couldn’t remember anymore.
Couldn’t remember all the thin white cocks he’d seen and seen them as well when they weren’t so thin and
white standing upright like Sergeant Majors, waiting for him to do his duty and give them some release and
him wanting to, right up until when he found some release as well, and then he had to go and wash himself
but even that didn’t take away the smell of it, and he would have gone to confession only he didn’t think the
priest would want to give him absolution for that because you couldn’t get it not for that.
Bob Boyton is a writer and performer. You can find details of Bob’s novel here.