Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Driscoll House is an imposing building, both gloomy and attractive, on the New Kent Road which is passed by thousands of commuters every day. It was built just over 100 years ago and has a history that surely could be the source material for at least two films. It was threatened with demolition in 2005 but planning permission was denied and subsequently the building received Grade II listing status. It has recently undergone refurbishment and is still, even now in its third incarnation, a budget hostel.
It was built in 1913, and though not the first hostel for single women in London, was the largest and built along the lines that the National Association for Women’s Lodging Houses had campaigned for since the 1880s. As more single women came to London to work, there was the problem of where those on a low income could live safely, both morally and physically, other than common lodging houses with a dubious reputation. Opportunities for working in offices as typists and clerical workers were increasing rapidly - in 1901 only 1.6% of women worked in offices but this had increased to 15.1% by 1921 - and teachers, nurses and those employed in the new telephone exchanges also needed somewhere to live.
In theory, providing such accommodation was within the remit of the local authorities to provide some housing for low paid single women but such accommodation had to be self-supporting rather than subsidised in any way from public funds. It had been possible to open some large hostels for male workers who, as their wages were significantly higher, were able to pay a higher rent. The LCC had investigated the possibility of building a large hostel and had even had architectural drawings prepared but, as any hostel built could not meet the requirement of being financially self-sufficient, the plans were abandoned.
Ada Lewis was the widow of philanthropist Samuel Lewis and shared the same concern as the National Association for Women’s Lodging Houses regarding living accommodation for low earning working women in London She financed the Ada Lewis Women’s Lodging House which was opened in 1913 by Princess Louise. Built on a horseshoe plan, it looks very grand, six storeys high with tall windows. There is pediment over the entrance door reached by climbing a short flight of semi-circular steps and once inside there was a staircase with an elaborate iron balustrade that reached the full height of the building. Inside, some of the common areas are tiled in green, brown or mauve and there were decorative fireplaces. There were 214 single cubicles and twenty double bedrooms. Common areas included a sewing room, a clothes brushing room, foot baths, a laundry and drying rooms, a sitting room and a dining room. It was the first women’s lodging house in London that compared in terms of design and size with accommodation previously available to male workers.
Source: Emily Gee ‘Where Shall She Live?’: Housing the New Working Woman in Late Victorian and Ewardian London
In 1965 the building was acquired by engineer Terence Driscoll who opened the Driscoll House Hotel. It opened as a low cost hostel for visitors from overseas, originally just for women but in time men were allowed to stay there also. Accommodation remained as basic as Edwardian times with each room furnished simply with a single bed, sink, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers with shared bathroom and loo facilities at the end of the corridor. Mr Driscoll changed little inside and visitors described going into the hotel as walking back in time. Many fond memories have been posted from visitors about the hotel and customers were very loyal to the hotel. It had permanent residents, one had been there for 50 years, who used the communal facilities including the dining room where supper was served promptly at 5.30 pm each evening. Each Sunday lunchtime, Mr Driscoll would give a speech about what was happening in London and news of former visitors.
By the 1990s, the hotel had become seriously run down and in need of modernisation, some say it had become dirty whilst others maintained, though it was shabby, was clean and hygienic. Nevertheless, Mr Driscoll, now aged 93, was taken to court and fined for breaches in Food Hygiene Regulations. During the hearing it emerged that he had sold the hotel for over £1 million pounds. The next year, a planning application was made for demolishing the hotel and to put up low cost housing in its place. There was a local campaign against the redevelopment and Southwark Council refused planning permission, and a year later the building was Grade II listed. Mr Driscoll announced the hotel would remain open for a further three years. Sadly, Terence Driscoll died in July 2007 and the hotel closed the following weekend. Mr Driscoll had remained active within the hotel, sitting on reception for a part of the day, up until a short time before his death. His funeral service was held at Southwark Cathedral. Photos taken of Driscoll House at this time show both how fine the original interior was and how badly it had deteriorated.
Keeping the name Driscoll House, Restup London opened a budget hostel facility in 2012 and offers cheap accommodation in double, 4-bedded and dormitory (up to 20 bunk beds) accommodation. The interior has been completely modernised in keeping with the 21st century whilst keeping some of the old features such as the tiled walls.