Most of London’s oldest hotels stem from around the same period, the mid to late 19th century, and were built to act as accommodation for passengers who were making use of London’s flourishing railway network.
But even these ‘railway hotels’ were built to impress, and still do today, thanks to all kinds of exquisitely designed features and architectural innovations that stood the test of time. It’s no wonder that many of these magnificent hotels attracted monarchs from across the globe and the leading lights of the showbiz world.
Here are 10 of London’s oldest hotels that all made their own mark on the history of this immense city.
1. The Langham
When The Langham opened in 1865, the Prince of Wales and future king Edward VII attended, marking the venue as a truly ‘grand hotel’ (a popular 19th-century title reserved for lavish venues with first-rate service).
This was the first of many famous faces to grace The Langham. These included French Emperor Napoleon III in 1871 (after being exiled from France), Charles Dickens (who noted both the expense and quality of the hotel’s meals in his writing) and Arthur Conan Doyle (who featured The Langham in several Sherlock Holmes stories).
During World War Two, The Langham was used as a first-aid station for British soldiers and was also used by the BBC (who would later buy the building in 1965) for wartime broadcasts. Perhaps due to its location opposite the BBC’s headquarters, Broadcasting House, the hotel also suffered damage during the war, when a bomb from a German Luftwaffe aircraft hit one of its towers.
2. Brown's Hotel
With an opening date of 1837, Brown’s is widely regarded as London’s oldest hotel. It wasn’t until its sale in the 1960s, however, that the venue became known as a destination spot and began to attract a suitably elite guestlist. Monarchs from around the world stayed at Brown’s in the 1960s (including Frederick Augustus III, the final King of Saxony), as did Theodore Roosevelt before he became US President (Roosevelt also stayed at the hotel the night before his honeymoon). Brown’s was also the site of what is thought to be London’s first telephone call, made in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell.
By the early 20th century, Brown’s had become a favourite hangout of aristocratic circles and literary figures, famously including Mark Twain in 1907, who reportedly walked through the hotel lobby in dressing gown and slippers, attracting the attention of the world’s media. Later on, guests included British Prime Ministers such as Anthony Eden and David Lloyd George, and even Princess Elizabeth in 1951, the year before she became Queen Elizabeth.
This ever-grand London icon grew from humble beginnings, when William and Mary Claridge ran a small hotel at 51 Brook Street (the same street Claridge’s currently sits on), before buying the adjoining buildings and officially opening the hotel in 1856. It soon gathered an enviable reputation and was visited by Queen Victoria, who stopped by in 1860 to visit Empress Eugenie of France.
After closing for a substantial redesign and reopening in 1898, the revamped Claridge’s became a hotspot for London’s young and hip partygoers, who regularly danced the night away in its lavish ballroom. A further redesign by architect Oswald Milne in 1929 gave Claridge’s its distinctive Art Deco features that remain today.
The hotel hosted a different kind of clientele during World War Two, acting as a popular haven for exiled royalty and heads of state, including the Queen of the Netherlands, and the kings of Greece, Norway and Yugoslavia. A popular story from this time is that Winston Churchill declared suite 212 of the hotel Yugoslavian territory for one day during 1945, so that the exiled Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia could give birth to her son, the Crown Prince Alexander, on Yugoslavian soil. Rumour has it that actual soil from the country was even scattered under the bed that Alexandra gave birth on. Neither part of the story has been proven, though.
4. Great Northern Hotel
The distinctive curve of this hotel was designed to trace the shape of Pancras Road (where it still sits) when it was built in 1854. The road may no longer curve around the hotel in the same way, but the building’s exterior is just as impressive, all thanks to its designer, architect and civil engineer Lewis Cubitt.
The Great Northern was the first purpose-built railway hotel (aimed primarily at passengers using neighbouring King’s Cross Rail Station – also designed by Lewis Cubitt and opened in 1852 as the Great Northern Railway’s London terminus) in the city and also one of the earliest in the UK.
5. Midland Grand Hotel (St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel)
Few hotels in London are as striking as this gothic behemoth attached to St. Pancras Railway Station. Opened in 1873, the hotel was designed for the Midland Railway company by renowned architect George Gilbert Scott.
The Midland Grand’s name was not hyperbole at the time of its opening, and it was aimed to be unashamedly lavish in its design, boasting high-end features like flushing toilets. However, the hotel gradually fell behind the times and was overtaken by its competitors. There were plans to demolish the hotel in the 20th century after it closed for a time, but a campaign to save it (led by preservation organisation The Victorian Society and publicly voiced by Poet Laureate John Betjeman) was successful and the venue reopened as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in 2011.
6. St. Ermin’s Hotel
Just a stone’s throw from some of London’s greatest landmarks (including Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace), St Ermin’s is built on the site of a 15th-century chapel, but its key historical contribution doesn’t begin until 1938, almost four decades after its opening in 1899.
By 1938, part of St. Ermin’s was used as a makeshift base by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, and in 1940, wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the hotel, which remained its headquarters. The group carried out covert espionage and sabotage operations around Europe and Asia as part of Britain’s war effort. A silk scarf with a coded message printed on it by the SOE still hangs in the hotel lobby.
During the 1950s, Guy Burgess – a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, who covertly passed British intelligence information to the Soviet Union – is believed to have passed on documents to a Russian spy in the hotel’s Caxton Bar. The spy credentials of St. Ermin’s were also given a boost by Ian Fleming, who became a regular visitor.
7. Charing Cross Hotel (The Clermont, Charing Cross)
Convenience was the big selling point of Charing Cross Hotel, which sat directly above the front entrance of Charing Cross Rail Station (and still does, now known as The Clermont, Charing Cross). In fact, when the hotel first opened in 1865 (one year after the opening of the station), there were large communal areas and balconies overlooking the station concourse, so that guests could watch the hubbub as trains arrived and departed.
It’s also London’s most central hotel, situated two minutes away from what many take to be the central point of the city, marked by a statue of Charles I on horseback just south of Trafalgar Square (opinion is divided on this, however, and some believe London’s central point is in nearby Lambeth, depending on what measurement criteria are being used).
8. The Savoy
The Savoy’s reputation as a place of glamour can be traced back to its founder, Richard D’Oyly Carte, a man of many guises including theatre manager and talent manager, as well as hotelier. He also brought together famous composer and lyricist pairing Gilbert and Sullivan, later opening the Savoy Theatre in 1881 to host the duo’s operas. The Savoy hotel, built next door to the theatre, opened in 1889, immediately attracting a fashionable crowd from the entertainment world. This included opera singer Nellie Melba, whose name lives on through Melba toast and peach Melba, two created for her at The Savoy by the hotel’s chef, Auguste Escoffier.
The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) would regularly dine at The Savoy, signalling the first of many royal visitors at a venue which positions itself as “the first purpose-built deluxe hotel in Britain.” Various innovations and luxuries were also featured throughout the hotel to further its reputation as a place of high comfort, such as free-flowing hot water for all rooms and hydraulically operated lifts to transport guests to different floors.
9. Great Eastern Hotel (Andaz London Liverpool Street)
Another of London’s railway hotels was the Great Eastern, opened in 1884 and now refurbished and renamed. From 1247-1676, the site housed Bethlehem Hospital, a psychiatric hospital which gave rise to the word ‘bedlam’, now located in Beckenham and named Bethlem Royal Hospital.
When the hotel opened in 1884 it was firmly focused on providing a luxurious experience, even ferrying in seawater by train so that guests could enjoy salt water baths. But the Great Eastern’s most notable historical feature still stands today: an opulent masonic temple, used as a meeting place for members of the Freemasons. Discovered during a revamp in the 1990s, the temple – known as the ‘Grecian Temple’ – dates back to 1912 and features a gleaming gold star pointing towards the signs of the zodiac. Nowadays, the temple is used for events.
10. Great Western Royal Hotel (Hilton Paddington)
Of all London’s railway hotels, the Great Western Royal had the honour of being the first to offer direct access to a station (Paddington) when it opened in 1854, having taken only 14 months to build. The hotel was initially planned by visionary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (who had masterminded the Great Western Railway, the London base of which was at Paddington station), but later led by architect Philip Charles Hardwick.
A sad tale from this grand hotel is that of the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, who died while staying at the Great Western Royal in 1861, allegedly bankrupt and owing huge debts of money, despite having inherited a fortune from his family.