How did Britain’s elite live in the capital once their great London houses had become either uneconomic to run or had been sold off to pay off debts and estate taxes? They would find comfort and a home away from home in a cluster of distinctly upper crust hotels that catered to their every whim.
Put yourselves, just for a whimsical moment, into the shoes of England’s aristocratic elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Landed families were struggling to maintain their main historic estates, with their country piles seeming increasingly out-dated and expensive to run. And what to do with the London residence? Hardly used outside of the social season and, even then, a distinctly uneconomic way to spend time in the capital.
What could the ‘squeezed upper’ do? There were, of course, plenty of guesthouses, inns and lodgings available throughout London, but these were hardly suitable for the titled. Could they downsize? Perhaps take advantage of the railways and move into the suburbs? Maybe a few did take these options, but the majority availed themselves of a new development: London’s luxury hotels.
Their names conjure worlds of unimaginable luxury and service: the Cavendish, Claridges, Connaght, Dorchester, Grosvenor, Landsdowne, Ritz and Savoy. Spread through Mayfair and St. James’s and beyond, they offered their regular clientele a home away from home with all of the comfort and deference their station in life commanded.
They would flourish in the interwar period, when rich foreign visitors mingled with aristocrats priced out of keeping a London residence. Claridges was so connected to foreign royalty that it earned a reputation as being an “extension to Buckingham Palace”. This position had been established by the stay of Empress Eugénie of France in 1860. If this French royal blessing wasn’t enough, the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the hotel to visit the Empress ensured the hotel would have a lasting royal legacy.
Another notable example was during the Second World War when the hotel’s suite 212 was ceded by the United Kingdom to Yugoslavia for a single day (17 July 1945) to allow the heir, Crown Prince Alexander, to be born on Yugoslav soil. After war and revolution had caused uprooted European dynasties to head to the relative safety of London, Claridges became the home away from home for crownless monarchs.
London’s first true luxury hotel was the Savoy, which opened in 1889, and was built on the grounds of the ancient Savoy Palace. It had been financed by the owner of the Savoy Theatre, flush with the success of staging Gilbert and Sullivan’s sell out productions. It would be followed by many others keen to emulate its success, including the Ritz – founded by a former Savoy Hotel manager who had been forced out over a scandal involving kickbacks and missing wine and spirits.
One of the latest to arrive was the Dorchester which opened its doors on 18 April 1931. It had been built on the site of Dorchester House, sold off by the impecunious 4th Earl of Morley. Its interwar construction in solid concrete ensured it was renowned as one of the safest places in wartime London, housing luminaries such as Lord Halifax, Duff Cooper, General Eisenhower and even Winston Churchill.
After decades of struggling, London’s luxury hotels are enjoying a vivacious revival. The stalwarts have been joined by a new breed of super hotels and smaller establishments offering boutique luxury. Britain’s elite has never been so spoiled for choice when it comes to staying in London.