Above: Painting on a postcard looking NW from the Thames end of Northumberland Avenue. It was advertising material for the three hotels and also showed Nelson’s Column in the distance.
In these days of international travel, London is an important destination for tourists and to attract the wealthy visitors there is a more than ample provision of luxury hotels to be found. Central London has in excess of 50 hotels that are rated 5-star of which probably 25 are really famous – like Claridge’s and the Savoy Hotel. The provision of luxury hotels in London started in the second half of the 19th century – mainly due to rail travel beginning in England and spreading to the Continent. Passengers sailed from the continent to Dover before travelling to London by train. Although visitors to luxury hotels in London declined due to the two World Wars, the tourist industry is once again a flourishing business in the 21st century.
It may come as a surprise to find that Northumberland Avenue (which runs SE off Trafalgar Square) was, in the late 19th century, the venue for no less than three luxury hotels. Two of them are still in use today.
The Hotel Metropole was built at the SE end of Northumberland Avenue, near the Victoria Embankment. Among the Victorian hotels in the area, there seems to have been a certain air of grandeur created by the word ‘hotel’ being in front of the name – rather than behind it. In the Strand was ‘Hotel Cecil’ and in Northumberland Avenue was also ‘Hotel Victoria’ as well as ‘Hotel Metropole’.
Hotel Metropole was built on a large triangular site at the junction of Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall Place. The main front of the hotel was in Northumberland Avenue with no less than three entrances. It extended from the junction with Whitehall Place to the junction with Great Scotland Yard. The hotel was built for the Gordon Hotels Company, designed by Frederick Gordon. Work started in 1883 and the hotel opened in 1885.
There was an impressive 88-page brochure which informed the visitor that ‘The hotel’s location is particularly recommended to ladies and families visiting the West End during the Season; to travellers from Paris and the Continent, arriving from Dover and Folkestone at the Charing Cross Terminus; to Officers and others attending the levees at St James; to Ladies going to the Drawing Rooms, State Balls, and Concerts at Buckingham Palace; and to colonial and American visitors unused to the great world of London.’ Clearly, this hotel was not for the tourist on a budget.
By the turn of the 20th century, the venue had become one of the most popular hotels in London – being described in one brochure as ‘of world-wide reputation’. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, entertained guests at the hotel on various occasions, having a reserved box in the ballroom. He used the Royal Suite in the hotel – believed to have been the first floor rooms with bow-fronted windows overlooking Whitehall Place.
On the curved corner of Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall Place was a large restaurant called ‘Restaurant des Ambassadeurs’. The name is to be seen on the exterior wall of the picture. If this does not ‘ring a bell’ it should be pointed out that the name is a copy of the name of a restaurant in the Hôtel de Crillon, in Paris. The Crillon family had owned the building which had, at one time, been one of two identical palaces in the Place de la Concorde. It became a hotel and it is still in existence today. The Restaurant des Ambassadeurs, in Paris, opened in the mid-19th century and remained in its original form until 2013. It is now a famous Paris bar.
It would seem, therefore, that the Hotel Metropole opened its main restaurant with a name deliberately chosen to attract the wealthy travellers from Paris. With Charing Cross Station having opened initially in 1864, the station became the main London terminus for continental passengers via the boat trains, particularly from Dover and Folkestone, during the rest of the 19th century. When the Hotel Metropole opened in 1885, many wealthy visitors from France were coming to London and, as the quote above shows, the hotel was making every effort to attract guests to its doors. To call the restaurant after a famous establishment in Paris would have encouraged French customers for a meal while they were staying there.
The hotel was forced to close when the building was requisitioned in the run-up to World War I – to provide accommodation for government staff, together with the other hotels and buildings in Northumberland Avenue. The hotel opened again after the First World War and it became well-known for the cabaret evenings held there, known as the ‘Midnight Follies’. It was certainly the places to be and the place to be seen.
When the government redeveloped buildings at Whitehall Gardens in mid-1936, they leased the entire Hotel Metropole for £300,000 per annum to provide alternate office accommodation initially for the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Transport. Later it was used by the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Defence. After the Second World War, the building was purchased from Gordon Hotels by the Government and transferred to the Crown Estates portfolio. It was occupied variously by the Air Ministry, the Defence Intelligence Staff and the Ministry of Defence. The ballroom was even used for Government Press Conferences and other major events.
The story does not end there. Having stood unoccupied since 2004, the old Hotel Metropole and the adjoining premises at 10 Whitehall Place were acquired in 2007 for £130 million by a consortium owned equally by Malta’s IHI PLC and two of its principal shareholders – the Libyan Foreign Investment Company and Nakheel Hotels of Dubai. In September 2008 the City of Westminster council approved the development of the two buildings as a hotel once more, as well as a residential complex.
The building reopened as a luxury hotel in 2011 – managed by Corinthia Hotels International. Wealthy visitors to London are coming in even greater numbers than 100 years ago. Any dip in luxury hotel accommodation that happened in the mid 20th century has risen to new heights today. The Corinthia Hotel no longer has a dining room called ‘Restaurant des Ambassadeurs’ but it has a modern restaurant situated in exactly the same position. Although the building endured a variety of uses during the two World Wars, it is great to realise that the premises that were designed as a luxury hotel have now been returned to their former glory to serve 21st-century guests.
At the Trafalgar Square end of Northumberland Avenue was the Grand Hotel. It was also built by Frederick Gordon in 1881. Although it closed in the 1900s as a hotel, the curved building – at the junction of Northumberland Avenue and Strand – is still there. The internal layout remains much the same as it did in its days of being a hotel. Its interior is now used for functions and the ground floor entrance is now a bookshop called Waterstones.
The Hotel Victoria opened in 1887, its name commemorating the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria celebrated during that year. It stood in Northumberland Avenue, on the same side as today’s Corinthia Hotel. Part of the premises is now a functions venue, called 8 Northumberland Avenue.
The Picture of Northumberland Avenue
Hotel Metropole and the Grand Hotel were both built by Frederick Gordon. The Hotel Victoria followed a few years later but it too was acquired by the same owner. When the picture was produced is not known but it was probably around 1900 or slightly later. The whole idea of the picture was to make it clear to any intending visitors that Gordon had three high-class hotels all in Northumberland Avenue and, therefore, within in just a few minutes travel by taxi of Charing Cross Station. It was clearly a publicity picture, hoping to attract wealthy guests from England and also from the Continent.
One final thought. The picture is not a photograph but a painting. The artist has cleverly foreshortened the view of Northumberland Avenue to show Hotel Metropole on the left, Hotel Victoria in the centre and the Grand Hotel with its name appearing vertically on the right. The policeman, the flower-seller and the newspaper-boy add to the busy scene, along with many motor taxis of the day conveying their wealthy fares between the hotel, the railway terminus and the many theatres nearby. In the background has been painted the unmistakable outline of Nelson’s Column. The only problem with that is that is not possible to see Nelson’s Column from the view-point of the artist. You need to walk almost to the Trafalgar Square end of the avenue before you can see Nelson on his column. No doubt, the painting helped to ‘sell the dream’ to would-be guests at these three hotels – especially is they lived in France and were not familiar with London.