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The Spirit of Arlington House

The men of arlington house
The men of arlington house

Arlington House is situated in Camden Town, London. It opened its doors in 1905 as the last in a series of hostels built by the Victorian philanthropist Lord Rowton. The hostel was designed to provide clean and decent accommodation for 1,103 working men, who in that era were often forced to stay in filthy and disease ridden common lodging houses.

In 1911 a book of poetry written by W.A. McKenzie called 'Rowton House Rhymes' was published. It represents the first of many works showing the power of the hostel to generate creativity.

In the 1930's the novelist George Orwell recalls his experience of living in Arlington House in his famous work 'Down and Out in Paris and London', he described it "as one of the best lodging houses" of the Capital.

During this time refugees from the Stalinist regime in Russia started to settle down in the hostel.

From 1935-45 Polish, Belgian and British men left homeless during the blitz were housed at Arlington. Many hostel residents undertook active service during the Second World War.

From 1960 through to the late 70's Arlington House accommodated a large influx of Irish migrant workers employed as casual labourers.

By 1983 conditions at the hostel worsen and Rowton House Ltd is forced to sell Arlington house after pressure from Camden Council and local community activists. The management of Arlington House is transferred to the United Kingdom Housing Trust and the hostel is refurbished. Conditions improve and the number of residents is reduced to around 400 through a programme of resettlement.

In 1989 the Novas Group's founder Michael Wake takes on Directorship of Arlington House, leading to a change in strategies for older persons care, support and resettlement.

In 1993 the Arlington Housing Association is established and takes over the running of the hostel. Also in that year Channel Four airs a documentary about the hostel called 'what do you expect - Paradise?'

By 1998 Arlington House Association transforms into the Novas Group and sets in motion the future re development of the hostel.

In 2007 there are just under 100 men still living at the house, most of these men have lived there for many years. The refurbishment programme will begin in early 2008.

From 3rd May 2007 until 23rd November 2007 Gina Bold became an 'artist in residence' within the historical building. This is her brief account of her time there:

'This building weighs heavy' is how I described the feeling when I first walked into Arlington House.

I was shown into an empty room and was told that I could use the space as an art studio until planning permission had been passed and then they would need the room back to use as a site office.

Within a couple of weeks I managed to move my paints, easel and a few bits of furniture into the room and then I just sat in front of a blank canvas wondering what on earth I was supposed to paint. My mind kept wondering about the history locked into the walls that surrounded me.

I started walking around the ground floor of the building and slowly got to know my way around, the TV room, the laundry and the canteen were all situated in the middle wing of the building.

One day I walked into the games room where some of the men were playing a game of pool and I asked if I could play the winner, that seemed to break the ice and there was a lot of banter from them or 'crack' as the Irish would say.

The men would congregate down a corridor known affectionately as 'death row' which is lined both sides with seats, they would chat and drink from morning to late at night and I found myself drawn into their company listening to stories about Ireland and their families. They would talk openly about life at Arlington house and how it was that they came to be there.

One day I saw some photographs of the men and decided to paint them. I photographed the painting and gave a copy back to the men. When one of the men said that he was going to send the picture home to his family I felt an incredible sense of achievement, I was communicating through these portraits to a group of people who would generally have little or no interest in art.

I finished the project at 45 portraits and I thank every man for taking part.

I feel very privileged to have been a guest at Arlington house; it has been one of the most moving and worthwhile experiences of my life.

Gina x

View some photos from the 'Spirit of Arlington' show at Novas Gallery, July 2008