12 January 2016

Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

Judy Middleton 1982 (reprinted and revised 1996, revised again 2016)

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton & Hove
The Old Ship Hotel Brighton in the 1800s
The Old Ship Hotel, standing on Brighton’s seafront, has a history stretching back as far as the 16th century. Of course in the early days it was nothing like the size of the present-day premises – it was just a simple structure in Ship Street called the Ship Tavern. In 1650 it was re-named the Old Ship for the very good reason that the New Ship was built opposite.

In those days the Old Ship was not as close to the sea as it is today because the lower part of Brighthelmstone still stretched south of the site. Then just fifteen years after it was re-named the angry sea swept away no less than 113 properties, including cottages and shops. The great storm of 1705 finally obliterated all vestiges of the lower town built beneath the cliffs.
copyright © J.Middleton
Visitors to the Old Ship only needed to cross the road to see the interesting scene pictured here.
During the late 18thand early 19th centuries a familiar sight from the windows of the Old Ship must have been the colliers and merchant ships, which were beached on the shore for rapid unloading because they had to be ready to sail at the next high tide. There were fishing boats too that unfurled dark sails out at sea; and not forgetting the tough, little boat known as a hoggy, especially built to survive the rough treatment of being hauled across pebbles. When the fishermen were ashore, they spread out their nets to dry over the wooden railings.
copyright © J.Middleton
This drawing of a stout Brighton ‘hoggy’ was
taken from a model at Brighton Museum.
According to Goodwyn’s Rental of 1665 Richard Gilham owned the Old Ship. But it is possible there was a previous family connection because in 1559 Richard and John Gilham owned a cottage in the Hempshares (probably the Old Ship) and there was another William Gilham before Goodwyn’s one. After the Gilhams, the Old Ship passed rapidly through a number of hands. In 1670 George Hackett owned it while the following year owners John Arnold and his wife Joanna sold it to Nicholas Tettersell, the Old Ship’s most celebrated owner. Tettersell held the freehold but whether or not he ran the place is open to question. However, his connection with the Old Ship was brief as he soon made it over to his son, also Nicholas Tettersell, and he himself died in 1674. His son likewise relinquished the property to his son-in-law John Geering and his wife Susanna.

By 1714 Richard Rogers owned the Old Ship; he was already a successful carrier with two teams of good horses and the necessary wagons and tackle. Indeed when he died in 1719 he was one of the wealthiest men in Brighton. He would have been even wealthier had his customers paid their bills on time; the value of the goods listed on the inventory was calculated at £712 but unhappily there was £200 of debts owing to him. The entire contents of the Old Ship, which included stocks of wine and beer, were valued at £200. 

In 1733 William Hicks purchased the Old Ship. Cock fighting was one of the entertainments he provided – a popular ‘sport’ with local men and visitors. It was recorded that a cock-fight took place in 1746 and it was not until 1849 that the Government made it illegal. Even after that date it is believed clandestine cock-fights still took place at Hove.

It is thought William Hicks commissioned the painting of Richard Russell, which was executed by Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788) and hung in the Old Ship Assembly Rooms until the 1880s. Perhaps he felt he owed something to Dr Russell, often regarded as the father of modern Brighton. It was Dr Russell’s praise of the beneficial properties of sea-water that first brought Brighton to the attention of the fashionable world.

Hicks died in 1765 and his widow and their three daughters ran the place, followed by their son John Hicks. It was under the management of John Hicks that the Old Ship started to expand. It was really a case of necessity because in 1755 the Castle Inn was built in Castle Square and in order to prevent all trade from departing thither, it was decided to counter-attack by constructing the ‘unique and elegant Assembly Rooms’. The building operations were not carried out without difficulty. While work was still in progress and ‘just forward enough to be healed in one side, it was blown to the ground by a hurricane.’ The cost of the damage amounted to between £200 and £300. But once the Assembly Rooms were finished by 1767, they turned out to be a great boon to the Old Ship and all sorts of functions took place there. The entrance was in Ship Street.

In the 1790s John Hicks expanded the Old Ship further by the purchase of two houses on East Cliffe, which faced the sea. In an advertisement dated 31 May 1794 John Hicks advised the public ‘In the new part he has five very good sitting rooms fronting the sea with bedrooms near them, therefore (he) will have it in his power to accommodate Families in the Genteelest manner.’

In 1796 Anthony Pasquin wrote in the New Brighton Guide ‘There are two taverns, namely the Castle and the Old Ship where the richer visitors resort.’ For some fastidious visitors such as Peregrine Phillips who came to Brighton in 1778, the Old Ship was just too popular. He went and took breakfast at the New Ship, writing peevishly in his diary that the Old Ship ‘had too much custom’.

In 1802 Leah Hicks, widow of John Hicks, died. The Old Ship was sold at auction to German-born Leonard Shuckard who continued to own it until the 1830s. It was during his proprietorship that the Old Ship took its place in the best social calendars and in 1819 was the venue for the Race Ball as well as the Prince Regent’s Ball. When the Ball arranged by the Master of the Ceremonies took place at the Old Ship on 13 June 1823, the theatre did not bother to open its doors that evening. In those days the Master of the Ceremonies was an influential man in Brighton. Visitors, particularly those with unmarried daughters, lost no time in presenting their cards to him in order to gain a proper introduction into society.

In 1824 assemblies were held at the Old Ship on Mondays from July to February. The price of admission was six shillings, which included tea and coffee. By this time there was agreement between the Castle and the Old Ship that the former held their card assemblies on Wednesdays and Fridays while the latter held their card assemblies on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

It should not be thought that the Old Ship was only used for grand social occasions. It was also utilised for more mundane but essential matters. Vestry meetings were held there plus the meetings of the Brighton Commissioners. Leonard Shuckard provided a room for the Commissioners at a cost of twenty-one guineas a year but for some reason the Vestry meetings were more expensive at £100 a year plus £10 for servants and waiters.

Brighton Petty Sessions were also held at the Old Ship for a short time during the 1820s. J.G. Bishop stated that a court martial was held at the Old Ship in 1795 although other authorities claim it was the Castle. Whatever the venue, the result of the court martial was that Edward Cooke and Henry Parish of the Oxford Militia were found guilty of mutiny and shot at Goldstone Bottom, Hove, in front of the massed ranks of their own regiment besides other regiments too as an example.

But the Old Ship did make the most delightful Officers’ Mess for the Sussex Militia during the time of anxiety about a possible French invasion. It was while the place was resplendent with officers’ uniforms that Mr and Mrs Thrale (friends of Dr Johnson) and Fanny Burney came to dine.

As a counter-balance to these military and legal matters, it must be recorded that the Old Ship had connections with the artistic and literary world. On 9 December 1831 Nicolo Paganini gave a violin recital at the Assembly Rooms and this event was commemorated by a plaque still to be seen to this day. At the time of the recital, Paganini was tall, thin and pale but with a dazzling technique; he died in 1840. In February 1841 Charles Dickens stayed at the Old Ship – the same year in which he published Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop. William Makepeace Thackerary was another literary giant who during his stay was hard at work on Vanity Fair published in parts during 1847 and 1848. In this book Amelia Sedley and George Osborne spent their honeymoon at Brighton ‘having engaged apartments at the Ship Inn’.

Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) the well-loved poet wrote in June 1982 ‘I often stayed at the Old Ship with my father and associate it with cigar smoke and happiness and Volk’s electric railway.’ 

In 1841 the Old Ship was providing entertainment of a different sort. The Brighton Gazette announced that a lady was devoting some hours daily to the exhibition of a talking canary, the charge for admission being donated to the Sussex County Hospital. Apparently ‘the little songster warbles, in a perfectly distinct manner, a great number of loyal phrases, such as ‘‘Long Life to the Queen and Prince Albert.’’ ’

In 1834 Edward George Cuff and John Strachan took over the management of the Old Ship. One of their most important events must have been the banquet held there on 21 September 1841 to celebrate the opening of the London to Brighton railway; town dignitaries invited the railway directors along to the Old Ship for the evening and over 200 people sat down to the banquet at a cost of £1-11-6d a head. The menu included turtle soup, turbot, venison, game, joints of meat and various sorts of pastries, all helped on their way by champagne, wine from the Moselle district and claret. The band of the Scots Greys provided the music. It is interesting to note there was a previous ‘railway’ occasion at the Old Ship in 1825 when a town meeting passed a resolution in favour of building an iron railway from Brighton to Shoreham. In fact this line was opened before the London to Brighton one.

Another mode of transport connected with the Old Ship was the coach and horses and indeed the place had a long tradition as a coaching inn. For instance, in the summer of 1745 a coach called the Flying Machine used to depart from the Old Ship at 5.30. a.m. and passengers could expect to reach London the same evening. In later years the post coach set off from the Old Ship for Chichester, Portsmouth, Bath and Bristol every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 a.m. Naturally, there was a decline in patronage once the railways arrived but later in the 19thcentury there was a revival of interest in the old coaching days powered by enthusiastic amateurs.
In 1888 the celebrated coachman James Selby took the coach Old Times from the White Horse, Piccadilly to the Old Ship and back again in seven hours and fifty minutes, the fastest time ever recorded. Selby made his last journey from the Old Ship on the Old Times on 7 December 1888 in defiance of his doctor’s advice; on 14 December 1888 he died of bronchitis and heart disease.
copyright © J.Middleton
This photograph dating from 1906 and showing a coach and four, has an indication of modern times with the shield fastened to the railings bearing the logo of the Automobile Club founded at the Old Ship in the same year.
The enthusiasm for coaching lasted until the First World War. Certainly in 1913 the coach Tantivy drawn by the customary four horses was outside the Old Ship before making a circular excursion through the Sussex countryside. In 1914 the military authorities commandeered the magnificent coach horses, including the ones from the Old Times. It seems appropriate that later travel enthusiasts for times past should have founded the Veteran Car Club at the Old Ship in 1930.
This photograph entitled " A Jovial Coaching Party from the "Old Ship Hotel" appeared in the Brighton Season Magazine in 1906 , the gentleman seated on the left is John L. Toole, a famous Victorian actor and theatrical producer.
Meanwhile, the Old Ship embarked on a long relationship with the Bacon family. In 1852 Robert Bacon and his brother-in-law Samuel Ridley leased the hotel for £100 a year; Ridley was an auctioneer and an Alderman. Four years earlier Robert Bacon married Miss Charlotte Cuff, the youngest sister of Edward George Cuff, one of the previous owners. In 1878 the lease expired and Bacon purchased the freehold for £8,300. This was a considerable sum for those days but he was buying what a fashionable guide described as the most distinguished of Brighton’s numerous hotels. It was Bacon who presented the portrait of Dr Richard Russell to Brighton Art Gallery.  Robert Bacon died in 1888 and his son Gresham took over. In fact a recently discovered old print shows that the hotel once displayed a large sign that read ‘Bacon & Co. Family Hotel’. It was also in 1888 too that Bacon & Co. was registered as a limited company. Gresham Bacon’s sister Edith had married Harry Duke Warne, a solicitor, who had advised that such a step should be taken.
An advertisement from Towner’s Directory. 
In 1899 Towner’s Directory printed a full-page advertisement enumerating the Old Ship’s attractions in typical Victorian fashion. It was stated to be a true specimen of English comfort with its high-class cuisine and vintage wines. There was a Billiard Room for the gentlemen while ladies could withdraw into their own Coffee Room or Drawing Room. The hotel had the benefit of electricity too and there was still good stabling for the horses.
copyright © J.Middleton
Visitors to the Old Ship who fancied a trip on the waves could go aboard the well-known Skylark.
Gresham Bacon completed the first modernisation of the Old Ship in 1895 and in 1906 he handed over the chairmanship of the company to his brother Francis. Francis Bacon already had a thriving practice as an architect and the management was by then in the capable hands of professional hoteliers.
copyright © J.Middleton
The Old Ship was photographed in 1939 with its quaint tower and weather vane. 
Under the management team of Clifford and Hannah Hindle who were in charge from 1908 until 1940, the hotel expanded dramatically. In 1927-1928 the garage and stable area were rebuilt on the site of Saunder’s Cottages and provided enough space for 120 cars. It was unusual at the time for a hotel to have such spacious parking while today it is even more amazing when parking spaces in central Brighton are like gold dust. In 1937 three cottages in Ship Street were acquired for redevelopment. A new east wing was built on the corner of Black Lion Street in 1963-1964.

Unlike other large establishments in Brighton and Hove during the Second World War, the Old Ship was left alone to continue its function as a hotel while the Metropole, for instance, was requisitioned. The same fate befell the Princes Hotel at Hove plus many of the large houses in Grand Avenue and a couple of private schools while the Dudley Hotel (now no more) continued as a hotel and hosted special occasions for nearby HMS King Alfred.

At the Old Ship it was business as usual and the Swiss chef, Mr Monnier, and his son continued to produce good food, despite the shortages while Mr Gretton, also with his son (a family hotel indeed) supervised the running of the restaurant. Miss Court continued to run the downstairs bar, which was more like a gentlemen’s club than anything else. Indeed she was such an established figure that ‘Courtie’s’ became the accepted name. She used to draw beer straight from the barrel and serve it in a jug. She had her favourites, which meant quick service, and the regulars had their accustomed seats.

The Old Ship escaped the wartime bombs but a peacetime bomb shook up Brighton considerably. This occurred in October 1984 when the IRA attempted to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was staying at the Grand Hotel for the Conservative Party Conference. She escaped unscathed but others were not so fortunate. The bomb was timed to go off at 3 a.m. and the event became a worldwide news sensation. Just along the road the correspondent of the Washington Post was staying at the Old Ship and had enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep. The telephone rang in his room as he was eating breakfast. It was his news editor far away in America wanting to know why he had not filed any details about the Brighton bomb. The unfortunate correspondent had no idea something momentous had occurred.
copyright © J.Middleton
The Old Ship photographed 20 October 2010
Today the Old Ship, which started off as a small tavern in Ship Street, has grown into a hotel occupying the whole frontage between Ship Street and Black Lion Street. Viewed from the sea-front the differing height in the hotel’s sky-line gives the clue as to the various stages of growth. But the best view is to be had from the roof at the front, from where you can look down upon the roofs of the Assembly Rooms and the old history is more easily discerned.

Underneath the Old Ship are the historic wine cellars, cut out of solid chalk many, many years ago. It is the best environment for keeping fine wines at a constant temperature. Indeed the old cellars are so valued that nowadays there are special dinners there so that the general public can appreciate them too.

On 13 July 1988 there was a re-enactment of James Selby’s famous run from London to Brighton in the coach Old Times. It was billed as a Centenary Celebration and started from Piccadilly outside Hatchett’s/Ritz at 10 a.m. and reached the Old Ship, Brighton at 6.00 p.m. – a distance of 52 miles. George Mossman guided the four horses on their way and Charles Hewitt was the guard. Also on board was Major John Bacon, vice-chairman of the Old Ship, and the last member of the family to have an association with the hotel, one that lasted for over 150 years; he was the great-grandson of Robert Bacon.

By 2009 the Old Ship was run by Barceló Hotels and Resorts. This company is an international concern with businesses in sixteen different countries. On 28 September 2009 Simon Pedro Barceló, co-president of the company, flew over from Spain for a special party at the Old Ship to celebrate its 450th anniversary. The ladies handing round refreshments were elegantly dressed in Regency style and there was even a be-wigged Old Ship ‘accountant’ wearing breeches and a red frock-coat with lace at throat and wrists, seated at a table with ledger and quill pen. The music was provided by musicians also suitable dressed for the occasion while the massive cake was a faithful replica of the hotel.
The Argus (17 November 2016) carried an account of the Cairn Group acquiring ownership of the Old Ship. The Cairn Group is based in Newcastle and Naveen Handa, director of the company, had this to say.

‘The Old Ship Hotel is undeniably a striking venue and an iconic feature of the seafront in Brighton… As part of our future plans we intend to invest in the hotel’s facilities to really bring the Georgian property’s grandeur to life.’

The exact sum the hotel was sold for was not disclosed because the deal is part of a multi-property sale involving four other hotels and the staggering price came to £75 million.

The Royal Escape Race
copyright © J.Middleton
The lovely old port of Fécamp, which is 89 nautical miles from Brighton.
 It was in 1977 that the first Royal Escape Race from Brighton to Fécamp took place. It was planned as a one-off to celebrate the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee but it proved to be so popular that it has become an annual event. Forty-nine yachts took part in the first race but later on the number averaged eighty vessels; by 1999 over 100 boats took part. By this time the race was often referred to as the Great Escape Race, no doubt being muddled with the famous film of 1963, which used to surface on TV annually at Christmas time. Programme notes insist the race was named after King Charles II’s famous escape to Fécamp with the help of Nicholas Tettersell after the King’s defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651. 

The race is normally open only to members of Sussex yacht clubs; the Sussex Yacht Club organises the event, which is sponsored by the Old Ship and various local firms; it is the largest cross-Channel yacht race. To ensure fairness, the competitors are divided into three classes with prizes in each class. It takes some time to compute which yacht is the overall winner because with racing handicaps, the first boat to arrive at Fécamp is not necessarily the winner. Fécamp lies 89 nautical miles from Brighton and the average time for the crossing is twelve hours. But if light winds prevail, the race can take as long as 24 hours. The fastest time is nine and a half hours.
Invitation card
The Royal Navy assist in the race and in particular HMS Pursuer of the University of Sussex’s Royal Naval Unit. Two Admiral’s pinnaces kept at Shoreham, patrol the start of the race and the Royal Navy is also responsible for placing the flashing finishing buoy off Fécamp as many of the yachts arrive after nightfall. The following night there is a reception at the Fécamp Casino and in June there is a function at the Old Ship where the winners receive their prizes. The race itself takes place in late May, during the Spring Bank Holiday weekend.

Christopher Mileham, a retired solicitor, was responsible for creating a detailed model of the Royal Escape, which served as the trophy for the overall winner; Mr Mileham was also chairman of the Old Ship from 1952 to 1968. He took advice from the National Maritime Museum as to what a ship of that period was actually like because the old shipbuilders did not work from three-dimensional plans. He built his model plank by plank and the task took him a year to complete. It was housed in a special case that he also constructed. Unhappily, in 1995 the model was stolen and the winner receives a framed coloured photograph of it instead.          
Old Ship Chronology

1559 – Cottage in the Hempshares, owners Richard & John Gilham
            Queen Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603
            James I reigned from 1603 to 1625
            Charles I became king in 1625, executed in 1649
            Charles II proclaimed king

1650 – Ship Tavern renamed Old Ship; New Ship built opposite

1665 – Old Ship owned by Richard Gilham
            1665 Great Plague
            1666 Great Fire of London

1670 – Old Ship owned by George Hackett

1671 – John & Joanna Arnold sold Old Ship to Nicholas Tettersell; he passed it on to   
            his son, also Nicholas, then to John Geering

1674 – Nicholas Tettersell (senior) died
            1685 Charles II died
            1705 great storm swept away 113 shops and cottages at Brighton

1714 – Old Ship owned by Richard Rodgers

1719 – Richard Rodgers died, contents of inn valued at £200

1733 – Old Ship owned by William Hicks

1745 – Coach Flying Machine left the Old Ship for London at 5.30 a.m.
            1745 Jacobite Rebellion led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart,
            Charles II’s great-nephew

1746 – William Hicks hosts a cock-fight

1755 – Castle Inn built

1766 – Old Ship owned by John Hicks, son of William Hicks

1767 – Assembly Rooms at the Old Ship built

1794 – John Hicks purchased two houses on East Cliffe

1795 – Court Martial

1802 – Leah Hicks died; Old Ship sold at auction to Leonard Shuckard
            1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson killed
            1815 Battle of Waterloo
1819 – Race Ball and Prince Regent’s Ball at Old Ship
            1820 Prince Regent became George IV, reigned ten years

1825 – Captain Brown, designer of Chain Pier, presented with a piece of plate
             at a dinner at Old Ship

1831 – 9 December Nicolo Paganini gave violin recital at Old Ship Assembly

1834 – Edward George Cuff & John Strachan lease the Old Ship

1836 – Cuff & Strachan build west part of inn on corner of Ship
            1837 Queen Victoria ascended the throne
            1840 hurricane, three ships wrecked at Brighton on same day

1841 – Charles Dickens stayed at Old Ship

1841 – 21 September, London to Brighton railway opened, banquet at Old
            Ship to celebrate

c.1846 – William Makepeace Thackerary stayed at Old Ship

1848 – Robert Bacon married Charlotte Cuff

1852 – Old Ship leased by Robert Bacon in partnership with brother-in-law Samuel Ridley
             1854 Crimean War broke out
             1854 September, Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava
             1857 Indian Mutiny
             1861 Prince Albert died of typhoid

1878 – Robert Bacon purchased Old Ship for £8,300

1888 – James Selby drove coach Old Times from Piccadilly to Old Ship and back
            in seven hours and fifty minutes

1888 – Robert Bacon died; Gresham Bacon new owner

1888 – Bacon & Co registered as a limited company

1895 – First modernisation of Old Ship
            1900 Relief of Mafeking
            1901 Queen Victoria died

1906 – Francis Plews Bacon, new chairman of old Ship

1906 – Automobile Club Headquarters at Old Ship

1913 – Company to lease Saunder’s Buildings for £42 per annum and 79 Ship Street
            for £70 per annum from Mrs Warne, Robert Bacon’s daughter
            1914-1918 First World War

1916 – Company purchases numbers 33, 34 and 35 King’s Road

1918 – Company purchases copyhold premises 1 & 2 Black Lion Street for
             £750 and £785

1930 – Veteran Car Club founded at old Ship
             1939-1946 Second World War

1963/1964 – East wing built

1977 – First Royal Escape Yacht Race

1979 – Ewbank & Partners own Old Ship; it has 152 bedrooms

1984 – Reporter from Washington Post stayed at Old Ship and slept through
            bombing of Grand Hotel

1988 – Centenary Run of coach Old Times from London to Brighton

1994 – Following the takeover by Mott Macdonald Ltd of Ewbank Preece Ltd, the
            Old Ship (Brighton) Ltd was purchased by its Board of Directors John Davis,
            Trevor Wiltshire, Derek Sparrow and Trevor Vokins

1995 – Old Ship wine cellars made available for private dining and receptions 

2009 – 28 September Old Ship celebrates its 450th anniversary; owners now Barceló

copyright © J.Middleton
The Old Ship Hotel photographed 12 February 2009


(This bibliography also applies to The Royal Escape page on this website).

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Gounter, Colonel Last Act in the Miraculous Story of His Majesty’s Escape (1873)
Harrison, F & North, JS Old Brighton, Old Preston and Old Hove (1937)
Huxford, JF Arms of the Sussex Families (1982)
Lee, W History of Lewes and Brighthelmstone (1795)
Lower, MA History of Sussex (1870) two volumes
Matthews, W. Editor Charles II’s Escape after the Battle of Worcester. A collection of narratives assembled  by Samuel Pepys (1967)
Phillips, P Diary (1780) two volumes
Royal Escape 2000. Brighton to Fécamp Yacht Race. Programme
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Thomas-Stanford, C Wick (1923)

Copyright © J.Middleton
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