I met a woman on the Thames Foreshore recently who was new to mudlarking and had only been out searching for finds a few times. We got chatting, as you do, and I passed on a few tips that other mudlarks had once passed on to me. She hadn’t found an awful lot, some bits of pottery, a bovine jaw bone (she was an artist and was intending to draw the poor beast when she got back into her studio) and was eager to find some brass dress pins, a staple of any mudlark’s collection when you start out. I found a patch of eroding mud and showed her how to search for these. It wasn’t long before she was clutching a decent handful of them and she thanked me for my time.
Pins and pottery are mudlarking staples, the basics of a trip to the Thames Foreshore. Eventually, and if you’re lucky, you find coins, tokens, an item of jewellery, maybe a Roman hair pin although these are extremely rare. You get them home, clean them up and spend a happy hour or two trying to identify them on the internet. That sense of looking things up, like an antiquarian detective, is precisely why I love to find sherds of pottery or porcelain with a logo on. Perhaps the name of a long gone business, trade, café, restaurant or hotel. Sometimes the river breaks the plate or cup in the most perfect place, neat and tidy, so that the name is clear and easy to identify. At other times, The Thames is frustrating with its gifts and leaves you a broken fragment that’s just a few letters too short to make a comprehensive ID.
Last year when I was out mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore near the Southbank I found an intriguing porcelain sherd broken right through the very middle of just such a logo. Fortunately it was fairly straightforward to work out that it was from the famous Hotel Metropole, and so my blog for March is about this, one of London’s long lost hotels.
The Hotel Metropole, built in Northumberland Avenue on the north bank of the Thames, was designed by Frederick Gordon and constructed between 1883 and 1885. It was the largest hotel in Europe when it finally opened its doors in 1885 and Queen Victoria was still on the throne. It had 600 rooms and was seven storeys tall, the first and biggest of a new wave of luxury hotels in London together with The Grand Hotel and The Victoria.
When the hotel opened in 1885 it produced a comprehensive 88 page brochure which claimed –
“That the hotel’s location particularly recommends it 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’s (Palace); 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.”
The Victorian era was a time of enormous transition carried out at lightning pace throughout the whole of Great Britain, but particularly in London where the infrastructure of the Capital was undergoing a massive transformation that would make it unrecognisable from the previous era. From Bazalgette’s new sewage systems to the construction of the Thames Embankment, roads and railways, a huge building programme was under way and the country would never be the same again. An exciting time full of new opportunities if you were wealthy and looking for adventure , less so if you were one of the Capital’s many thousands of poor living in dreadful conditions and struggling to eke out a living. For the working class the very notion of luxury was something out of reach.
Frederick Gordon built hotels with what were considered to be groundbreaking amenities for the time such as lifts, bathrooms and phones in the rooms. Wealthy travellers coming from America and Europe, arriving at the newly built Charing Cross Railway Station nearby, expected no less and luxury was an important commodity with guests prepared to pay good money in order to travel and stay in comfort.
The architecture of the Hotel Metropole on Northumberland Avenue was unmistakably French in style with classic motifs and a Haussman era style. The view of the Hotel below is taken from the Embankment looking towards Trafalgar Square. Its famous triangular shape shows Whitehall Place on the left, while beyond The Metropole sits the Hotel Victoria. Northumberland Avenue itself took its name from the townhouse of the Percy family which stood on this location until demolished in 1874.
The Hotel Metropole quickly became a popular venue for high society in the 1880s and 1890s with celebrities coming to stay and to attend events. Edward VII was a frequent visitor and the hotel held a special banquet in his honour for his coronation on June 24 1902. As Prince of Wales and later King he entertained guests here on many occasions having reserved a box in the magnificent ballroom and using the Royal Suite, on the first floor of the hotel, with bow-fronted windows overlooking Whitehall Place. The hotel inevitably benefited from the cachet bestowed on it by its Royal clientele.
The Metropole was also the base for The Aero Club and The Alpine Club, and acted as the meeting point for competitors during the first London to Brighton car rally in 1896.
In 1916, during the first world war, it was commandeered by the Foreign Office and turned into government offices in order to provide a base for necessary war work. Winston Churchill worked in the rooms here during this time and in his letters he wrote about looking out of his window and watching hundreds of Londoners pour onto the streets to celebrate the end of the war on 11th November 1918.
The night before the British Expeditionary Force journeyed to France on the outbreak of war in August 1914, its two Commanders-in-Chief, Field Marshals John French and Douglas Haig, both stayed in the building.
The Hotel reopened after World War One and guests returned to its iconic location. The twenties were in full flow, fashions and tastes were changing and ‘The Midnight Follies’ became a well-known cabaret fixture in the ballroom at The Metropole. There was also The Midnight Follies Orchestra which included Mantovani as its band leader during this period.
When the Government redeveloped the buildings at Whitehall Gardens in the mid 1930s they leased the Hotel Metropole for £300,000 per annum to provide alternate office space for the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Transport, and later for the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence. The rise of Hitler in Germany, and Europe moving towards a second world war, meant that it was essential The Metropole was commandeered again for war purposes.
The hotel’s location close to the Houses of Parliament and Government offices in Whitehall made it ideal for additional offices. The British Secret Services were based here, monitoring German internment camps and helping troops escape or avoid capture. Room 424 became the first home of MI9 and the SOE (Special Operations Executive), and later the holding point for one of the model planning beaches for Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied Operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War Two. The Operation was launched on 6th June 1944 with the Normandy landings, also known as D-Day, and lasted until 30th August 1944, two months, three weeks and three days.
Transferred to the Crown Estates portfolio after the war, the building remained in the control of the MOD who continued to use it as an overflow building and by 1951 the Air Ministry was again a major occupant. From the mid 1960s to 1992 it housed the bulk of the Defence Intelligence Staff and the mirrored ballroom provided the setting for many press conferences.
The building has many secrets and there are reputed to be tunnels and secret passages under the road that link the hotel to other government offices nearby. A rumour persists to this day that, until fairly recently, there was an office in this building monitoring UFO sightings and activity.
In 2008 the building was eventually left empty and the Corinthia Hotel Group bought it from The Crown Estate for £130 million, determined to restore it to its original function as an upmarket hotel in one of the greatest cities in the world. After extensive renovation the hotel, now renamed the Hotel Corinthia, reopened in 2011. Some of the original features of the Hotel Metropole, such as the ceiling in the Grand Ballroom, were preserved, but much of the original Victorian design had to be adapted to the modern age as it was impossible to preserve in its entirety. Replacement stones were brought in from Italian quarries and contemporary interiors were designed by the best designers in this field. 300 guest rooms and 47 luxury suites, some with private lifts, were revamped, their views overlooking some of the most iconic sights in London.
The Hotel Metropole no longer exists as it did in the late 19th Century but it’s satisfying to know that the building lives on as the refurbished Hotel Corinthia and has had such a fascinating 20th Century history, while Northumberland Avenue is forever commemorated as a pink square on the Monopoly Board.
So, who knew that finding this broken porcelain sherd, washed up on the Thames Foreshore at low tide, would lead to uncovering the history of one of London’s lost and finest hotels.