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Was the Royal Clarence Hotel the first hotel in the country?

Page added 23rd June 2017

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It is a well known story that the Royal Clarence was the first assembly room/inn to be called a hotel in the country. Many histories of the city including Hoskin’s 2,000 Years in Exeter state that Pierre Berlon, the manager of the new Assembly Rooms in Cathedral Yard, put an advert in Trewmans Exeter Flying Post on 7 September 1770, calling his establishment The Hotel for the first time in England.

“… New Coffee-house, Inn and Tavern, Or THE HOTEL, In St. Peter’s Church-yard, EXETER…”

As this story has been a source of pride for many in the city, further investigation was required to confirm the veracity of the claim.

The word ‘hotel’ is of French derivation, from the word hostel. One dictionary definition is “Noun. 1640s, "public official residence," from French hôtel… Modern sense of "an inn of the better sort" is first recorded 1765."

It was a familiar word to the English, especially through the early newspapers that would run adverts and articles referring to Hotel de Ville, for a French townhall, or Hotel Dieu or hospital. 18th Century books about grand tours of Europe would often refer to ‘hotels’, meaning a place to stay overnight. In 1720, the Caledonian Mercury has several stories mentioning hotels in Paris, such as Hotel de Conde and Hotel de Soiflons.

Certainly, hotels started to appear in the country soon after The Hotel in Exeter. The Grand Hotel opened in London in 1773, another hotel opened in Ramsgate in the same year, while there was reportedly a Wynne’s Hotel in Falmouth in 1797. So it is certain, on most of the available evidence that what we know as the Royal Clarence Hotel was trading in 1770, was the first.

That is until an awkward advert was found in the London Evening Post for 17 November 1764, placed by a Mrs Martin of King Street, St James’ Square.

At the Gentlemens Hotel in King-Street, Saint Jame’s Square.
TAKES this Opportunity of acquainting all Noblemen, Gentle men, Foreigners, and others, That they may be accommodated with genteel Lodgings for one Night, or as long as they think proper. Breakfasts, Dinners, &c. prepared in the cleanest and neatest Manner, with the best of Wines of all Sorts: And all Gentlemen who will please to honour her with their Commands, may depend on being attended in the best and politest Manner, by
Their humble Servant
N. B. It is the only Hotel in London

The advert was repeated in French, for the discerning continental traveller. Thus, the Gentlemens Hotel precedes The Hotel of Exeter by sum six years. It would appear the establishment fits the requirements to be the first as it was a superior inn, offering genteel lodgings in the form of a bed, as well as food and drink for the gentleman.

As such, it pains me to write that the Royal Clarence was the second recorded hotel in the country, not the first. What had been a point of civil pride has been reduced to second. However, as the Gentlemen’s Hotel of St James Square is no longer, it can be said that the Royal Clarence was the oldest still trading hotel in the country until the disastrous fire, and will regain its rightful place when the rebuilding is complete.

Sources: The Royal Clarence page from Exeter Memories, Exeter's Royal Clarence Hotel by Darren Marsh and the London Evening Post of the 17 November 1774.

The two adverts, the first in French

The two adverts, the first in French.

The front page of the London Evening Post

The front page of the London Evening Post.


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