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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Royal Hotel

The Royal Hotel 

Royal Hoyel decorated for the Jubilee of 1935
Royal Hotel decorated for the Jubilee of 1935

It is the City's good fortune that the majestic turrets, pinnacles and gables that announce the Royal Hotel's presence on Agricultural Hall Plain remain a feature of its skyline.  This lavishly decorative Victorian hotel might, in a different setting, serve as the backdrop for a Harry Potter adventure.  It has also been likened to a small French chateau.  The Royal is one of a trio of stylistically distinct Victorian buildings that sit upon this Norwich Plain, all three having undergone changes of use over their lifetimes 

Hardwick House (1866), originally Harvey's Crown Bank, harks back to a classical style often associated with financial institutions, whereas the Agricultural Hall (1882), built as a public exhibition hall, presents a restrained, no-nonsense façade. The Royal Hotel, by contrast, seems to take inspiration partly from the Victorian Gothic revival.

Origins

The present Royal Hotel replaced an inn of the same name on Gentleman's Walk overlooking Norwich marketplace.  That rambling old coaching inn was one of a number of such inns providing lodgings for travellers up until the mid-19th century, when the stagecoach gave way to rail travel.   Upon the site of that hotel, the Royal Arcade arose, designed in the Art Nouveau style by Norwich architect, George Skipper in 1899.

The site of the new hotel had to be cleared of buildings previously occupied by a firm of solicitors, Fosters, Burroughs and Robberds and the yard of the stonemason company of Barnabas Barrett.  During that demolition in 1896, a section of the Castle outworks was discovered.

Building and naming

The new Royal Hotel was modern, spacious and luxurious.  The prominent Norwich architect, Edward Boardman (1833-1910), designed it in the Flemish style and it is also referred to as Scottish baronial.  The builder, John Youngs & Son, completed it at a cost of £23,905.  The decorative brickwork, known as Costesseyware, was made by Guntons of Costessey.  Being easy to shape, those bricks became popular with architects and were used on other buildings such as the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. 

Despite objections from local restaurateurs to having a hotel on this site, the Company applied to Norwich Brewster Sessions in August 1896 for a provisional licence to sell spirits.  In order to name the new hotel "Royal", the company was required to seek the Sovereign's approval.  Application was sent to Queen Victoria at Balmoral for Her Gracious Majesty's permission, which was duly granted. 

The New Hotel

The former solicitors' offices had contained a particularly fine plasterwork ceiling laid on oak lath measuring 17 ft x 30 ft.  Removed in sections, it was re-fixed in the large, first-floor drawing room with French casements to the balcony.  The Architect's design for this semi-circular site produced a building forming an arch with rounded corners flanking each side leading to the return section in Bank Street.  It comprises six storeys including a basement.  Some of the windows are mullioned and the balcony over the old front entrance has some intricate brick latticework. There are three gable ends around the curve with alternating decorative detail.   At street level red stonework has been used to match the bricks.   The roof was originally tiled with green slate.

The furnishings and decoration were intended to create the impression of a comfortable country mansion, whilst providing the very latest in technology and building standards, having electricity, a fire-proofed staircase, and a large ventilation shaft.  Local and national companies were employed on the project.  R.A. Main was the heating and cooking engineer, Barnes and Pye fashioned the ironwork, Laurence, Scott & Co installed the lifts, bells and lighting.  Trevor Page & Co decorated the principal rooms and Maple & Co were the main decorators and furnishers.  J & J King produced the stained glass windows.

The shape of the site and the style of the building resulted in some of the attic bedrooms having angular corners and sloping ceilings.  The Boardman plans show 65 bedrooms over four storeys.  The first floor dining room, intended for private dinners and wedding breakfasts, comprised a suite accommodating twenty people.  There was a large basement with servants' hall, a pastry room, pantry, several kitchens with a suite of rooms allocated to the plate man with a room or office, bedroom and plate-room.

The Grand Opening

On the 16th November 1897 the Hotel opened with a grand luncheon.  110 people attended, including Mr T C Blofield, Company Chairman, civic dignitaries, senior clergy, leading industrialists and businessmen.

Sir Harry Bullard, MP proposed a toast to the hotel's success and praised "... the very elegant palace that had been erected".  All involved in the construction work, the architect Mr Edward Boardman, junior, the builder, Messrs John Youngs & Son, were thanked and praised for completion of the hotel a month ahead of schedule, to coincide with the Cattle Show week.  This building represents a tribute to Victorian energy and efficiency being completed in only 15 months.

The Manager of the new Hotel was to be Mr Charles Butcher who had managed the former Royal near the marketplace. 

A Tourist Venue

A pocket-book printed for the hotel by Jarrolds & Sons in 1899, entitled "The Royal Hotel Company's Guide to Norwich" describes, with illustrations, some of the public rooms.  The main entrance was said to contain "marbles of various colours" and behind that guests had the amenity of a winter garden with mosaic floor.

Room tariffs, current at the time, reveal that a private suite comprising sitting-room, dressing room and bedroom (including attendance) costs from 15 shillings per day;  whereas, a single bedroom (including attendance) would be 4 shillings, there being separate charges for fires, lights and baths.  Subsequent chapters contain much useful information about Norwich's history, major institutions, environment, entertainments and sporting facilities.

Location

Convenient access to Norwich Thorpe Station and proximity to the City centre were doubtless guiding factors in the location of this hotel in 1896.  Up until the 1860's road access to Norwich Thorpe Station was along Rose Lane.  The Prince of Wales Road, named after Edward VII, was planned by the New Street Company, formed with a group of local businessmen, who, by private Act of Parliament, purchased the land and any properties thereon required to build the road.  When the Consortium ran short of capital, the Corporation adopted the project which was completed in 1865.  Transportation by tram along the Prince of Wales Road to the station began in 1900 and continued until mid-1930.

Heyday and decline

The hotel seems to have been at the centre of Norwich's social and political life for the first three quarters of the 20th century, as a venue for events such as conferences, reunion lunches and occasional property auctions.  In 1959 Anglia Television set up its regional studios and offices in the Agricultural Hall. Throughout the 1960's and '70's actors taking part in Anglia's network drama programmes or in regular local series, like the actress Susan Hampshire, often stayed at the hotel. The first Chairman of Anglia Television, Lord Townshend, was an occasional visitor. 

Whilst the old Royal Hotel had accommodated visiting politicians, so the new Royal carried on that tradition.  Local MPs used the hotel's hospitality during election campaigns, as did Prime Ministers, for example, Mr Harold Macmillan on one occasion and in October 1964, Mr Harold Wilson and members of his Government.

By the 1970's it became clear that lacking car-parking space, the hotel was no longer well placed.  The owners put forward a proposal in 1973 to demolish the building and erect a glass towered office block.  Fierce local opposition led Norwich City Council to refuse the application.  In 1984 there was another proposal to turn the ground floor into a shopping arcade which was also rejected.

By 1977 the second, third and fourth floors had been taken over by Anglia Television as offices.  The ground floor bar and buttery continued in business until March 1986, when it was announced that these facilities would also cease.  Today, occupied purely as office space, this once grand and fashionable hotel has been humbled by changing times; nevertheless Norwich citizens may be grateful that this handsome Victorian building has been saved to grace the eastern approach to the City centre.

Sources:

  • Norfolk Record Office:  original Architect's plans and photographs, BR35/2/39/7, BR35/4/2
  • Norwich Millennium Heritage Library:  "The Plains of Norwich" by Richard Lane L942.615
  • Norwich Millennium Heritage Library:  "Archive from Former Norwich"  by Andrew Cluer and Michael Shaw, L942.615
  • Norwich Millennium Heritage Library:  "The Royal Hotel Company's Guide to Norwich" by James Hooper, N942.615 (091) library store
  • Norwich Millennium Library: Scrapbook by E A Tillett titled "St George, Tombland, Norwich. No 11", Colman Collection - library store.
  • Norwich Millennium Library: Joyce Gurney-Read's Collection, N942.615, library store.
  • "The Buildings of England: Norfolk1: Norwich and North East" by Nikolas Pevsner and Bill Wilson

Kirsty Way

February 2009