Augustus J C Hare, a curmudgeonly Victorian essayist, was not a fan of Trafalgar Square. Writing in 1896 he saw a “dreary expanse of granite” with the “miserable buildings” of the National Gallery. Nelson’s Column, he said, was “a very poor work”, flanked by a “hideous hotel and a frightful club”.
That “hideous” hotel was called Morley’s, and it ran the whole width of the square on the site of today’s South Africa House. It did not generate many plaudits. British History Online holds its breath enough to say that it “possessed a certain charm”. Its guests included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote much of The Hound of the Baskervilles there. The Northumberland hotel mentioned in the book is almost certainly based on Morley’s. But Conan Doyle soon got bored with it, writing to his mother in 1900 that he was “somewhat sick” of Morley’s and intended to try the nearby Golden Cross instead.
The hotel cannot have been that bad because it was eventually purchased in 1920 by the Old Colony Club of New York, which was having difficulty booking places in London for its burgeoning membership of US businessmen, who travelled to Europe in their thousands for business and pleasure. The deal was done by club president Albert J Norton, who, after signing it, flew to Paris and bought the prestigious Hotel du Rhin as well. Both deals were, apparently concluded in a single day, a record at the time.
Among other people who stayed in the hotel were “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the US showman, and James Gordon Bennett, the newspaper magnate whose, Gordon Jnr’s controversial behaviour spawned the phrase “Gordon Bennett“ as an expression of incredulity and surprise.
Morley’s was demolished in 1936, but the name Morley has left its mark on London history. Its owner Atkinson Morley gave a handsome donation to help found the Atkinson Morley hospital in Wimbledon, which became one of the most advanced centres for brain surgery in the world. The hospital was closely involved with the innovative British company EMI in developing the CT brain scanner, which won Nobel Prizes for its inventors, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield and Dr Jamie Ambrose.
The Atkinson Morley hospital has since been absorbed into St George’s Hospital, Tooting, obscuring the fact that one of the great medical inventions can be traced back to the money made from a hotel in Trafalgar Square.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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