Earlier this year in August, I participated in a design course at the London College of Communication in Elephant and Castle, south-east London. I had rarely spent any time in that area previously, so I saw the opportunity to explore the neighbourhood during my lunch break. I recalled, from a couple years back, that a friend of mine had been interested in a new residential development near the Elephant and Castle roundabout. I couldn’t remember the name of the development, but remembered some hint of it being planned on the site of a former hotel. A quick walk in the vicinity, heading south away from the roundabout yielded a development site, hidden from the public eye by the usual construction hoardings. Ground had not yet been broken and there was no sign of any new housing other than posters for the developer, First Base. Further research on the internet revealed an immense amount of history of what pre-dated the empty lot.
Notable development began on the site in the late 1890s. A Rowton House, the fifth of six large working men’s hostels in London, was built by philanthropist Lord Rowton on Newington Butts in 1897. Standing at six storeys tall and overlooking St. Mary’s churchyard, it opened with 805 beds available for the cost of 6d (six pence, before decimalisation of British money, 240 pence made a pound) per night. Its design and layout followed roughly the same basic structure as previously constructed Rowton Houses. The ground floor and basement contained the entrance hallway, as well as common areas such as the dining hall, smoking lounge, reading room, and lavatories and amenities such as a barber’s shop, shoemaker’s and tailor’s rooms, clothes and boot cleaning rooms, and post and parcels room. The barber, shoemaker, and tailor were most likely lodgers themselves. The upper floors contained private cubicles, each of which contained a bed, chair, shelf, and a chamber pot. Lodgers had the option of purchasing food in the dining hall ranging from 1d (one penny) for small items such as pudding, rice, and mince pies to 8d (eight pence) for beef and chops or cook their own food. In 1903, the building was extended, increasing the number of beds to more than 1,000. In 1960, the building was renamed Parkview House until 1967.
In 1972, the building was converted to use as a tourist hotel and five-foot-tall red letters, erected on the roof, clearly announced its new name – the London Park Hotel. The building looked iconic and continued to operate until 1982. In 1992, a 40-something-year-old property entrepreneur, Firoz Kassam, acquired the hotel. A contract with the Home Office to provide accommodation to over 600 asylum seekers proved to be more lucrative than marketing to tourists. From here, the condition of the building and the experience of its residents went downhill. In an article in the Observer newspaper in July 2000, residents are described as having “nothing to do but hang around in groups around the building or watch TV. It is illegal for them to work, and none receives any state handouts other than food and board.” One occupant comments that he “cannot even get a haircut or a pair of shoes.” This was a stark contrast to its Rowton House beginnings, when lodgers were not allowed in the room from nine o’clock in the morning until six or seven in the evening and haircutting and shoemaking services were available within the building. The hotel attracted violence as clashes arose amongst residents. The building became fraught with crime and drugs and experienced serious social decline. A report published by the Sunday Mirror in 2002, pointed to child trafficking and prostitution rings led by people residing in the hotel, with meetings and illegal trades of stolen property frequently occurring in the hotel lobby. It is unclear when exactly the hotel ceased operating, but a search through planning applications for sites in the vicinity seem to indicate the hotel was being sold in 2003. The current owners, English Partnerships jointly with developer First Base, submitted an application to redevelop the site, which was approved in 2007. The building was finally demolished in Spring 2008. All that remains is an empty lot and the five-foot-tall red letters which featured in an anagram competition run in conjunction with the London Festival of Architecture in June and July 2008.
Planning permission and demolition occurred amidst the current recession and a dearth of property and construction financing appears to have halted any progress on the project. Although the hotel went through some very dark times in recent years, it is another piece of colourful London history lost. Rowton House in Newington Butts was one of a set of six in London. Only two remain – Tower House on Fieldgate Street near Whitechapel, which was converted to flats for rent in 2007 and Arlington House on Arlington Road in Camden, the fate of which is yet to be decided. Arlington House was the sixth built in London and last one operating as a men’s hostel. It continued to be operated as a hostel by housing group Novas and was in the midst of refurbishment when it was put up for sale in 2008.
Derelict buildings, the more chequered their history the better, are particularly interesting for urban explorers, who visit and document these buildings on their forums and websites, often with stunning low-light photography, before the building’s demise or transformation. The first of such urban exploration (“urbex”) docu-galleries I came across was Contamination Zone’s visit to the London Park Hotel.
The most curious thing about this building is the stream of history it was connected to and the other connections it led to. From working men’s hostel to tourist hotel to asylum-seekers’ refuge to crime den to redevelopment dream to rubble to Rowton sibling to urban exploration. It spans so many areas of interest – Victorian philanthropy, tourism, social housing, and issues surrounding regeneration, preservation, and conservation. All this is not immediately visible from the empty lot on Newington Butts, now overgrown with grass and weeds – it requires digging a little deeper.
- Making a Fortune: Learning from the Asian Phenomenon By Spinder Dhaliwal. Firoz Kassam is featured in Chapter 5.