It is unlikely there has ever been a hotel in London more beautifully situated than the Westminster Palace Hotel. Opened in 1860 with 317 rooms, it peered out onto the pristine splendour of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben with not a modern building in sight. The Royal Aquarium (on the right of the photo above) was not built until 16 years later. Westminster Abbey was so close you could almost touch it. The hotel was luxurious, complete with the country’s first hydraulic lifts, though it boasted “a moderate tariff” and “no charge for attendance”, whatever that meant.
The site of the hotel is better known for earlier uses. The Abbey’s almonry, which distributed alms to the very poor – an activity not normally associated with luxury hotels – used to be there. William Caxton set up the country’s first printing press in this location in 1476. In his Curiosities of London, published in 1868, John Timbs wrote that the position of Caxton’s house was “immediately adjoining the spot now occupied by the principal entrance to the Westminster Palace Hotel”.
An edition of The Canterbury Tales was produced there and Caxton’s endeavours helped to shape modern English as a language because he had to choose among different dialects from up and down the land to find a version common to all. The hotel apparently had a statue of Caxton to remind itself of its heritage. No-one knows what happened to it. Westminster Council could do worse than commission a new one in honour of one of its most influential sons.
But although overshadowed by prior local history, the Westminster Palace Hotel made its own contribution. It lost much of its capacity in the very year it opened, when the government’s newly created India Office leased 140 rooms at the rear of the building before moving into its permanent offices in Whitehall next to the Foreign Office seven years later. For that period, therefore, India was governed from the hotel.
This gave rise to a puzzle some years later when Mahatma Gandhi, the pacifist leader of the movement against British rule in India, stayed at the hotel. He occupied a room where Sir Richard Vivian, a former military commander in Madras who was a member of the governing Council of India, had stayed. It is not known whether Gandhi knew this at the time or indeed that his country had been ruled from the premises. During his stay, on 1 October 1909, Gandhi wrote a fascinating letter to Leo Tolstoy in which he outlined the fate of British Indians in South Africa and sought his permission to print 20,000 copies of a letter Tolstoy had written about the unrest.
Before that, in 1867, the hotel hosted the conference that created Canada as a country. It was the last of a series of such gatherings which brought the major regions of Canada into a single confederation. The tactical genius of the conference was Sir John Macdonald who went on to become Canada’s first Prime Minister.
In 1908 the hotel was the setting for the launch of a domestic political movement: the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed there with the aim of opposing women being granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Yes, you read that correctly – a group of women wanted to prevent women being able to vote for MPs (though it didn’t mind them voting in municipal elections). In 1910 the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League merged with the Men’s National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage to form the National League of Opposing Women’s Suffrage. It was not successful.
There are many stories yet to be told of the Westminster Palace Hotel’s 317 rooms, though it wasn’t in business for all that long. It closed in the 1920s and the building was used for offices instead before being demolished in 1974. A branch of Barclays bank – address, 2 Victoria Street – now occupies the space. It is hard to imagine a hotel on such a prime site being knocked down today.
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