On 24 – 26 February 2012, Olympia London will be hosting ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Live, the world’s largest family history event.
Novice and experienced genealogists will be heading to the event to learn more about how to trace their roots, whether they want to find out how to make use of parish records, find out more about military memorabilia passed down through the generations, date old photographs and to learn more about their ancestors’ professions.
Read on to see how we’ve given our family of historic London hotels the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ treatment.
The Tower Hotel
Although The Tower Hotel is a reasonably contemporary structure, having been completed in 1974, it is still of interest to history buffs.
The hotel stands on the former site of St. Katharine’s Hospital, which was founded by Queen Mathilda of Boulogne, the wife of King Stephen, in 1148. The hospital was situated at the centre of an area later to be named St Katherine’s by the Tower, one of a group of settlements known as the Tower Hamlets.
In 1441, the parish was excluded from the jurisdiction of the City of London by a city charter. It became an independent area – known as a “Royal Peculiar” – and fell under the control of the Lord Chancellor. As a result of this, immigrants from other European countries flocked to the area, keen to reside in an area outside of both the City of London and the central government’s control.
By the beginning of the 19th century, St. Katharine’s was an area characterised by slums – but in 1825, the Government passed The St Katharine Docks Bill, giving the go ahead for developers to completely clear the area in order to construct much-needed new wet docks for the city, and allocating £1,352,752 of public money to the project.
The new dock, designed by civil engineer Thomas Telford, became a bustling commercial hub, handling luxurious goods from the West Indies, Africa and Asia, as well as Europe. These goods, which included ivory, tortoiseshells, ostrich feathers, spices, rum and brandy, were stored in vast warehouses designed by Thomas Telford and architect Phillip Hardwick. Today, fittingly, the land on which these warehouses stood is home to the equally luxurious Tower Hotel.
The construction of the Tower Hotel continued the tradition of innovation that can be seen in the history of the St. Katharine’s area – its design was an early example of the post-war Brutalism architectural style, making it an eye-catching landmark at the time that it was built.
In more recent years, the hotel has sealed its place in cinematic history too, being used as a location in films such as Brannigan (1975) and The Long Good Friday (1980).
The Royal Horseguards Hotel
The Royal Horseguards Hotel‘s history lives on in many aspects of the property – and with a backstory including corruption, celebrities and espionage, it’s certainly a past worth delving into.
The buildings that form Whitehall Court, in Whitehall Place, were originally constructed in 1884. Most of them were designed by architects Thomas Archer and Arthur Green in the Parisian chateau style and were sold as luxury apartments. Unfortunately, however, not all was as it seemed.
The apartments were, in fact, part a fraudulent scheme engineered by Jabez Balfour, Liberal MP, former Mayor of Croydon and businessman. Balfour had set up the Liberator Building Society in 1867, but when it collapsed in 1892, leaving many of its investors penniless, it transpired that Balfour had been selling his own properties to the society at above market prices, and borrowing money from some of his companies to pay dividends to another.
The ornately designed buildings did, however, attract some famous residents, including H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1882, William Gladstone established the National Liberal Club, a gentleman’s club, at Number One Whitehall Court. Parts of the original National Liberal Club is now contained within the hotel – and their origins are remembered in their new names, Churchill’s Bar and Gladstone Library, which honour two of the club’s most famous members.
In 1887, Whitehall Place became home to another British institution – the Metropolitan Police. Scotland Yard, the Met’s headquarters was located at 4 Whitehall Place, although the police force also later expanded into Numbers 3, 5, 21 and 22. Although the Met moved to New Scotland Yard in 1890, you can still find a reference to them in the name of the Royal Horseguards Hotel’s restaurant. One Twenty One Two was the original telephone number for the Metropolitan Police.
During World War I, Whitehall Court became a centre for espionage – it was headquarters of the Secret Services until the end of the war, so when you explore this hotel, you can imagine the hushed briefings and secret planning that happened in this beautiful building.
The Grosvenor Hotel
The Grosvenor Hotel has a rich history as one of London’s most glamorous railway hotels. Recently refurbished and re-opened to guests, this elegant hotel’s origins date back to the 19th century and the Golden Age of Steam – although the land upon which the hotel was built belonged to the Grosvenor family, who can date their family tree as far back as the court of William the Conqueror.
Designed to function as an alternative to London’s gentlemen’s clubs and to exude the same sense of opulence as the first-class rail carriages that Britain’s new generation of travellers would now be used to, The Grosvenor first opened in 1862.
The hotel was designed by the architect J.T. Knowles and styled after chateaus of Paris. In addition to its opulent décor, it featured a number of modern innovations to thrill its wealthy guests, including: bathrooms on all of its landings, which were serviced by hot and cold water; an early version of a telephone system – called a speaking tube – which enabled communication between floors; and the ‘lifting room’ or elevator.
As all genealogists know, when you’re tracing your history, you may uncover something a little salacious – and The Grosvenor has certainly had its share of scandal over the years. In 1928, Beryl Markham, English aviatrix and mistress to Henry Duke of Gloucester gave birth to a son in a suite at the hotel. The child was not the Duke’s, but he still paid her £15,000 in return for her keeping quiet about the matter.
The Cumberland Hotel
Don’t let the ultra-contemporary design of The Cumberland Hotel fool you – this stunning building has a fascinating past too.
Since first opening its doors to guests in 1933, The Cumberland Hotel has attracted royalty – the opening ceremony was attended by King George V and Queen Mary, but Kings and Queens of the rock world were also drawn to stay in this luxurious hotel during the 1960s and 1970s.
Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix gave his very last interview from the Cumberland Hotel on 11 September 1970. Hendrix, who was a regular guest at the hotel, checked in on 6 September 1970 – just 12 days later, he was found dead from a barbiturates overdose in his girlfriend’s room at another London hotel.
His place of residence was even listed as The Cumberland Hotel on his death certificate – and in September 2012, to mark the 40th anniversary of his death, the hotel redesigned one of its fifth floor suites in contemporary psychedelic style, complete with a mural of the musician, and renamed it ‘The Jimi Hendrix Suite’.
Following a 2-year closure and £95 million refurbishment, and re-opened in 2005, The Cumberland Hotel is now known for its cutting-edge design – but it was famous for leading the way in hotel design and technology when it first opened too. It was the first hotel to feature en-suite bathrooms and to have telephones in every guest room.
The Charing Cross Hotel
The Charing Cross Hotel, like The Grosvenor, is one of London’s historic railway hotels. But it also has some fascinating literary connections too.
Opened in 1865, the Charing Cross Hotel epitomises the glamour of the railway age. The hotel is located on the Strand – once home to the mansions of some of London’s most celebrated noblemen and bishops, and later popular with artists and writers.
Sherlock Holmes devotees may recall that the famous detective, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the nineteenth century, lured the secret agent and suspected murderer Hugo Oberstein to the smoking room of the Charing Cross Hotel in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.
The poet John Betjeman is also said to have enjoyed taking afternoon tea at the hotel on regular occasions, and the hotel honoured him by naming one of its most exquisitely designed events rooms after him – the John Betjeman Suite.
Do you have any historic stories about our London hotels? Just let us know by leaving a comment below …