03 October 2016

Hotel Metropole, Brighton 1888-1939

Judy Middleton 1992 (revised 2016)

 copyright © J.Middleton
This fine view of the Metropole dates from 1906 when the hotel was still a comparatively new building.

Red Brick Surprise

The Metropole has mellowed over the years; this applies as much to the brickwork as to people’s attitude towards the building. The striking appearance of red brick and terracotta no longer surprises us. But back in 1890 it was a different matter.

People were used to pale stuccoed buildings that reflected the light; yet the sea air does its best to lift the stucco off and such buildings require constant maintenance.

  copyright © J.Middleton
Brighton people were more used to the pale, stuccoed buildings to be seen in this view on either side of the red-brick Metropole.

Red brick is more durable and Alfred Waterhouse must have been well aware of this when he made his decision. Then the sheer size of the hotel presents a solid statement of confidence.

Waterhouse was in the top league of Victorian architects, being responsible for the Manchester Assize Courts, Manchester Town Hall, the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, University College, London, and the south frontage of Balliol College, Oxford. It is amusing to note that when Hove Councillors decided to ask Waterhouse to design their new Town Hall, a world-weary councillor was heard to remark that it was akin to getting a steam-roller to crack a nut.

copyright © J.Middleton
left:- Manchester Town Hall has an impressive tower. centre:- Waterhouse also designed this part of Balliol College, Oxford (built 1867/8). It is interesting to note these buildings are known as the Brackenbury Buildings after local benefactor Miss Hannah Brackenbury donated £15,000 for the project. right:- Hove Town Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1966 and the decision was taken not to rebuild it.

The Metropole cost an amazing £57,000 to build. By January 1888 the endeavour had become a limited liability company and already some £24,000 had been allotted in blocks of £100 shares to six men who became the board of directors; they earned £600 a year for their trouble, plus one-tenth of the annual net profit.

Some shareholders in the Grand Hotel quietly withdrew their money to invest in the Metropole instead. Some members of staff at the Grand also decided to jump ship. As the Brighton Gazette reported:

‘It does seem strange to be ushered into this handsome new building by the same tall, busy, familiar figure who has shown us in and out of the Grand any time these three years and to see in the front line of officials … one of the most diligent of the Grand’s booking clerks.’

Labour Disputes

It has often been asserted that the building of the Metropole was beset by labour disputes. If there were disputes, the local newspapers failed to report them although they gave full accounts of the London dock dispute.

But one hint of discord came to light after the hotel was officially opened. Brighton magistrates had to adjudicate on a wages dispute between some carpenters engaged on work at the hotel and the builder Thomas Holloway. Harry Winchester of 52 Upper Russell Street was the plaintiff and he stated his wages had been reduced from 9d an hour to 8d an hour without proper notice; therefore he claimed 5/2d in back pay. Two fellow workers backed up Winchester’s statement and the magistrates found in favour of the plaintiff.

There was also a fatality. In April 1890 Samuel Bates, a London zinc-worker, was standing on scaffolding running around the roof; he was working on the dormers when his saw became caught. In trying to extricate it, he overbalanced and crashed to the ground some 70 feet below. The jury at the inquest recommended that a rope should be fixed to the scaffolding at a height of 4 feet from the platform on which the men were working.

Gordon Hotels

copyright © J.Middleton
There was plenty to see from the balconies of the Hotel Metropole including activity at the nearby West Pier.

In 1889 the Hotel Metropole opened at Monte Carlo and the one in Cannes opened around Christmas time that same year. In August 1890 the Hotel Metropole at Brighton opened and the London one followed later. Gordon Hotels owned all these establishments, plus the Grand and First Avenue Hotels (both in London) and the Burlington in Eastbourne; the Royal Pier Hotel at Ryde on the Isle of Wight would be added to their portfolio later.

Grand Opening

A special train transported some 1,500 people from London to Brighton to attend a preview of the Hotel Metropole. The local populace also gathered in force because a rumour had spread that the Prince of Wales would be there too but unfortunately this was not true.

The rumour mill had obviously been busy because it also claimed there were 4,000 bedrooms in the establishment and enough electric lamps to light up the whole of Brighton. Others chose to believe the cost of building the hotel exceeded the entire national debt and that the Turkish Bath could accommodate 1,000 customers at the same time.

One newspaper reporter present at the preview found himself quite disgusted at the amount of food and drink that some guests consumed but then he did admit that the various buffets were excellent and of ‘abundant variety’.

The Metropole’s own band played suitable music in the dining room but should a guest have a preference for a more military style, there was the band of the Coldstream Guards performing in the dining room.

As dusk fell, the electric lamps began to blaze forth and the illumination of the Italian Garden situated north of the hotel produced a sparkling effect.

Description of Amenities

There were three dining rooms, which could accommodate 500 guests at one time. The well-known firm of Maple’s designed all the furnishing including the high-backed dining room chairs emblazoned with the hotel’s badge in beaten gold. The dining rooms were decorated in colours ranging from golden brown to ivory white, with silk curtains to match. The Brighton Herald was lost in admiration at the décor with a ‘moulded ceiling in cream and gold from which depend a number of dazzling electroliers, the cut prisms of which flash all the colours of the rainbow.’

The library had a chimney-piece in finely carved oak created in the Renaissance style.

But the most important chimney-piece was to be found in the drawing room. Not only was the marble statuary finely executed, it was also the work of Prince Victor Hohenlohe-Langenburg whose aunt was Queen Victoria. The prince made his first career in the Royal Navy and he saw active service in the Crimean War. He reached the rank of captain and after retiring because of ill-health, he was created an honorary admiral. He then embarked on a new career in sculpture, helped by Queen Victoria, and he had his own studio adjoining his quarters in St James’s Palace. The work at the Metropole was perhaps his last private commission because he died in 1891. It is indeed unfortunate that when the hotel’s interior was re-modelled in the 1960s, this charming and historic piece was discarded.

copyright © J.Middleton
This lovely view is of the entrance to the drawing room.
Artist Albert Kingsley was commissioned to decorate the drawing room with three panels and they depicted Arundel Castle, Ashburnham Place and Eridge Park.

The drawing room had an Arabian theme and the ceiling was painted in creamy tones with a raised band of solid gilt. At the north end there was an annexe called an oriental lounge with another Arabian-style ceiling. To add to the exotic ambience there were stained-glass octagonal lights and two hanging Moorish lamps.

There was a special smoking room for guests who wished to indulge, furnished with comfortable easy chairs covered in fine, antique Persian saddle-bags and rugs. There was a huge fireplace, stretching from floor to ceiling, created of oak in an ingle-nook style. On the wall hung paintings of coaching scenes commissioned from the Temple brothers by the management.

Downstairs, below the well-appointed billiard room, there was the Turkish Bath also with an appropriate Eastern theme.

A central feature of what has been dubbed a public palace was the magnificent staircase constructed of polished marble with alabaster balusters. No doubt Victorian guests ascending the stately treads were reminded of the popular aria I dreamt that I dwelt in Marble Halls.

Arabian Inspiration

The Arabian theme was right up-to-date. In 1888 Charles Doughty published his Travels in Arabia Desert and Sir Richard Burton presented the public with the last books of his 16-volume Arabian Nights Entertainment. The character of Scheharazada was guaranteed to capture people’s imagination with her repertoire of extraordinary tales. We are told it was the king’s custom to kill his bride the morning after consummation had taken place but Schehahazada managed to stave off the evil hour with her fabulous stories.

The Metropole’s own perfumer had created an exotic perfume to waft spicily about the expensive public rooms. He named his creation The Light of Asia as a compliment to Sir Edwin Arnold who had first suggested it. Arnold’s most famous work published in 1879 was The Light of Asia.


The number of rooms upstairs, not counting rooms for servants, came to almost 700. Not all of them were single bedrooms because there were some suites on each floor containing a drawing room and one or two en-suite bedrooms. Some of the drawing rooms were adorned with brocaded silk on the walls while the furniture varied in style from Sheraton to antique mahogany of the rococo period.

The grandest set of rooms was the State Suite; it had a reception room and a dining room too. There was plenty of gilded furniture in the reception room and the walls were hung with Persian embroidery. The dining room was fitted out in the style of Louis XV with furniture in Italian walnut and a chimney-piece carved from Numidian marble.

Mention must be made of the bathrooms. When guests wanted a bath there was a choice not only of hot and cold water but also sea water. The medicinal qualities of sea water at Brighton had long been recognised and bringing the sea to one’s bathroom was a logical extension. Some of the grander houses on Hove seafront also had this luxury and there was a huge holding tank under the seafront lawns where water was collected at high tide and stored. This tank plus the machinery involved is still in place, no doubt waiting to be re-discovered at a future date.

A single room at the Hotel Metropole cost 3/6d while one of those splendid suites would set you back anything from £3-8s a day. But there was the consolation of knowing one’s own servants were close at hand and could take their meals in the steward’s room for only 6/- a day.

Italian Garden

copyright © Tony McKendrick-Warden
The Italian Garden was sheltered from sea breezes.

The Italian Garden was set out on the north side of the hotel. It was claimed that ‘this restful garden with its twin parterres, stately bridge and placid water, is a most agreeable feature.’ It was sheltered from the blustery seafront and must have proved a welcome relief for ladies who wished to take the air without being buffeted by it.

Grandstand View

August Bank Holiday came shortly after the Hotel Metropole opened and would have been the perfect place to observe two colourful parades making their way along the seafront road. The Press reported it was a sight that even the ‘nobility and gentry who hung about the steps of the Hotel Metropole were not quite indifferent to.’

One parade belonged to Sanger’s Circus and there were cages full of lions and tigers. The cavalcade also included elephants and camels attended by ‘troops of African and European men in brilliant uniforms’.

The other parade was staged to advertise a skating rink. There were six ‘hackney carriages containing instalments of musicians, who tried to play together, but under the circumstances found that to be a little beyond their powers.’ Around 30 men dressed in dark blue plush uniforms and many boys in sailor suits followed behind the carriages.

Guests of Importance

The year 1890 seems to have been something of a vintage year for the hotel as regards society figures frequenting the establishment. The list included the following:

Prince Esterhazy
Prince Antoine D’Orleans
The Infanta d’Espagne
Princess Alexis Dolgourouki
Prince Ilbrahim
The Russian Ambassador
The Turkish Ambassador

Some of the very first of the Metropole’s guests in the first week of August 1890 were as follows:

Countess of Stradbroke
Lady Gwendoline Rous
Honourable Charles Willoughby
Count Appongi
Comtesse de Brémont

The Comtesse de Brémont was an interesting lady who regularly appeared on the Brighton social scene that year. For her stay in August she was mixing business with pleasure because later in the month she gave a lecture in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion concerning the goldfields and social life in the Transvaal. There was a select audience (meaning presumably that the room was not crowded) and they enjoyed the Comtesse’s little jokes such as marriage without love was like soup without salt.

Another lecturer who enjoyed a restful time at the hotel in January 1891 was Charles Dickens; not of course the famous author but his son who had come to unwind after an arduous lecture tour. He was gratified to find the sun shining and said he had not enjoyed so much sunshine anywhere else for a long time.

Indian Princes

Out of foreign royalty that stayed at the Metropole probably the most interesting were the Indian princes.

The Maharajah of Cooch Behar arrived in September 1900.

Maharaja Sayajirao, Gaekwad III of Baroda (r.1863-1939) also arrived in 1900 and stayed for most of November. His Maharani and their children, four princes and one princess, accompanied him. It would be interesting to know if his retinue contained his usual entourage when visiting Europe consisting of two cooks, groceries and two cows because he mistrusted foreign food to meet his religious dietary requirements. Like many Indian princes he owned magnificent jewels including a diamond collar composed of 500 large diamonds from which hung the Star of the South, a diamond of 128 carats.

But the Maharaja was also a progressive ruler and introduced a whole raft of reforms including free and compulsory education; he outlawed polygamy and allowed Hindu widows to re-marry; he built an irrigation system, railways and hospitals. He was also a patron of the arts and encouraged craftsmen. His name is remembered locally because of the Baroda Pigeon House commissioned for the Indian and Colonial Exhibition of 1886 in London that was eventually presented to Hove Museum and stood in the grounds for many years but is now unfortunately no longer extant.

 copyright © J.Middleton
The Baroda Pigeon House in the grounds of Hove Museum.

The Maharaja was contemptuous of British rule in India and famously at the Delhi Durbar refused to wear his full regalia and jewels while giving the briefest of bows before turning his back on British royalty. This was a grave insult but because the Maharaja was so popular and such a model ruler the British wisely let matters rest.

The Clarence Rooms

The Clarence Rooms had a separate entrance from Cannon Place but were an important feature of the hotel and could be hired for private functions. There was a handsome reception room with an octagonal roof, an imposing ballroom with a beautifully modelled wagon-head roof, and beyond the ballroom was the crush room where guests could sit out the dancing and partake of light refreshments.

One of the first people to take advantage of the Clarence Rooms were Mrs and Miss Campbell of 16 Eaton Gardens, Hove, who gave a charming ‘At Home’ in January 1891. The Campbells hired the Fraser Quintet from London to provide the music and the guest list included Lady Pocock, Lady Napier and General and Mrs Holland.

Later in the same month the Brighton Troop of the Middlesex Yeomanry Cavalry gave a Cinderella Dance in the ballroom; (the inclusion of the word ‘Cinderella’ meant the guests departed at midnight). Notable among the many beautiful gowns were Mrs Cargill’s of white silk trimmed with pale blue feathers and Miss Twaite’s of black velvet with mauve ostrich plumes; Miss Minnie Freeman wore a gown of rose pink with spangled net, and Miss Williams was adorned in a gown of lemon veiling trimmed with snowdrops. It must have been a colourful sight with the men dressed in military uniform.

An Eccentric Guest

Among so many guests of differing backgrounds, there was bound to be a few eccentrics and Miss Lamont certainly fitted that category. Miss Lamont was a lady of means and more or less lived at the hotel in 1896. She was under the delusion that slanderous allegations were being made against her character. She engaged the services of Moser’s Detective Agency and enlisted the help of both Mr and Mrs Moser to combat the situation.

Mr Moser was despatched to Cairo, and no doubt realising he was on to a good thing he charged Miss Lamont 21 guineas a week; the total expenses for his trip came to 200 guineas.

The fee for the English enquiries was charged at one guinea an agent, plus 2nd class rail travel and 12/6d for hotel expenses.

Miss Lamont settled the accounts with the exception of the final £64, which she refused to pay. Mrs Moser brought an action against her in the Court of the Queen’s Bench and Miss Lamont responded by hiring a Queen’s Counsel for the defence. The conclusion was that Mr Justice Charles, whilst making comments about Miss Lamont’s mental capacity, referred the whole matter to official referees.


On 14 November 1896 the emancipation of the motor car took place and it is amusing to recall the relevant Act of Parliament referred to them as ‘light locomotives’. It meant that at last cars were allowed to use the public highway without the attendance of three persons, one of who had to precede the vehicle by at least 20 yards; whether or not this personage was still waving a red flag in the 1890s is open to debate.

To celebrate the event a group of cars made their way from the Hotel Metropole, London, to the Hotel Metropole, Brighton. This day is still commemorated by the annual Veteran Car Rally that takes place on the first Sunday in November and was so memorably depicted in the classic film of Genevieve.

Back in 1896 there was a great deal of public interest in the event and it was rashly claimed that 54 cars were to take part. As it happened 21 of them failed to turn up and of the 22 that left Brixton, 20 managed to make it to Brighton.

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
There was a crowd of people, despite the rain, to watch the first cars arriving at Brighton on 14 November 1896.

It was piously hoped that participants would have the good manners not to overtake the car driven by Harry Lawson, president of the Motor Car Club that had organised the run. This proved impossible when Lawson lost a bolt from his cylinder and chugged into the Reigate lunch stop three-quarters of an hour behind the first arrival. But he did manage to be the fourth car into Brighton.

The Motor Car Club awarded gold medals to the first eight arrivals. They were:

A Bollée Voiturette
Another Bollée
A Panhard omnibus
Harry Lawson’s car
A Panhard and Levessor
A Britannia Bath Chair
A Daimler Phaeton
A Pennington Tricycle

It should be noted that 10,000 cyclists were said to have been on the road to Brighton at the same time as the car run was taking place. Such a sight would have gladdened the heart of Mr Lawson, despite losing his bolt, because he was the inventor of the safety bicycle as was rumoured to be on the way to becoming a millionaire.

At the Metropole Hotel, Brighton, a celebratory dinner was held after the event. Lord Winchilsea presided over the occasion and the Mayor of Brighton and the Mayor of Reigate were also in attendance.

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
These two splendid cars were photographed outside the Hotel Metropole on 16 November 1896.

Monday 16 September 1896 turned out to be a fine day, in stark contrast to the miserable conditions of the Emancipation Run. A crowd of curious Brighton residents made for the seafront to view these new-fangled vehicles drawn up outside the Metropole. The police were out in force to control the scene and from time to time halted the ordinary traffic to allow people to cross the road.

The Brighton Herald summed up the general attitude to the cars as follows:

‘At present the horseless carriage is certainly not a thing of beauty. One of the first things to be done must be to design a car that will at least have the appearance of completeness, and not that of a trap or ordinary van with the horse left out.’

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
This car called Present Times also took part in the Emancipation Run.

copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
Alfred Vanderbilt was photographed with the Venture 
in May 1908; he stands on the right and the guard 
Walter Godden is on the left.

It might be thought that with the arrival of the railway to Brighton in 1841 and the invention of motor cars, the coach and four horses would soon be consigned to history. This was not so and well turned out equipages continued to trot along the coast road.

By the 1890s coaching had become something of a prestigious art and great care was taken to match the horses. For example the Nimrod had matched pairs of greys or roans that drew a coach painted in primrose yellow; the guards were decked out in plush yellow coats. This splendid mode of transport was to be seen in the 1890s drawn up in front of the Metropole with the famous Ted Fownes sitting majestically on the driver’s seat. Fownes wore a silk top hat and lightly held the reins and long whip. Ted was one of the old school that had grown up with coaching. He was born in 1851 and being out on the open road in all weathers did not seem to do him much harm because he lived until his ninety-second year, dying in 1943.

Ted Fownes would have been familiar with Hatchett’s White Horse Cellars in Piccadilly, which was a famous rendezvous for the coaching fraternity. When the premises changed hands in 1890, coaches were obliged to find a new starting point. Some migrated to the Hotel Metropole in Northumberland Avenue and thus a fitting conclusion to a pleasant outing was to finish up at the Hotel Metropole, Brighton. The staff in the cigar department at the London Metropole, were most helpful in dispensing timetables to prospective customers.

Coaching was an expensive business, even with good patronage. It really did not pay its way but there were still wealthy men eager to have a chance of owning a prestigious coach and four and doing a spot of driving now and again. For example, Captain J. Spicer and Captain Hamilton financed the Nimrod.

In 1908 the conservative world of coaching was shaken up by the arrival of American money in the shape of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. His horses were American trotting horses and were swifter than the old English coach horses. Strength was no longer paramount because road surfaces had been improved; besides Vanderbilt set his horses on shorter stages so that they did not tire themselves out.

copyright © Robert Jeeves
Alfred Vandebilt’s coach Venture was photographed in around 1908 with the Metropole in the background. Note the horses’ distinctive headbands.

Vanderbilt’s first coach was the Venture, which called regularly at the Brighton Metropole. Later on he added the Old Times and these two coaches with their beautiful horses became one of the sights of Brighton.

There was huge excitement when the first Vanderbilt coach came to Brighton and it was the ‘millionaire whip’s first business run’. The Venture left London at 11 a.m. on 8 May 1908. The first team was the famous greys with their manes braided with red and white ribbons and their heads adorned with red and white carnations. The coach was painted maroon with red and white fine-lining.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The famous Vanderbilt greys

There were eight changes of horses on the way, the last being at Pyecombe where the company adjourned for tea at the Plough. Alfred Vanderbilt occupied the box seat dressed in a grey frock coat and grey top hat. Guard Godden wore the Venture uniform of a single-breasted frock coat of French grey with maroon cuffs, collar and lappets, black gaiters and boots and a beaver hat. As the Venture sped along King’s Road, Godden was observed playing the 100-year old bugle with all his old skill. Vanderbilt never forgot the enthusiastic reception he received from crowds outside the hotel.

copyright © D.Sharp
Alfred Vandebilt’s coach Venture photographed on its last run of the 1909 season. (Brighton Season Magazine)

While Vanderbilt was running his coaches, he and his wife occupied a house in Kemp Town. Young Master Vanderbilt had his own private brougham with a basketwork body and the paintwork in Vanderbilt maroon. The youngster was often seen taking the air in this carriage accompanied by his nurse and two male servants. Locals were amused to see that the servants on the box wore white hats whereas an English servant in that situation would have worn a black silk hat.

Vanderbilt’s enthusiasm for the sport can be gauged from the fact that he once shipped across the Atlantic 26 horses, 16 coaches plus a team of grooms and assistants.

In 1913 Vanderbilt sold the Old Times to Lord Leconfield, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, who was also a keen sportsman and relished the chance of driving the coach, which still came to the Brighton Metropole. It was mostly Ted Fownes up on the box seat and Lord Leconfield thought the world of him, writing this touching tribute:

‘During all these years I never saw him worried, nor did I ever see one of the grooms at the changing places in any way rude to him. As a coachman it was a wonder to see him drive; I have seen him have some very tough rides, but he never worried: the only thing that you noticed was that he became very silent and the muscles at the back of his neck swelled right up.’

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
The coach Old Times was photographed outside the Metropole in around 1913 when Lord Leconfield had purchased it from Vanderbilt. Ted Fownes stands in the centre to the right of the notice.

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 brought the glory days of coaching to an abrupt end. It must have been a heart-breaking time for Vanderbilt because the Army commandeered all the horses from the Venture and the Old Times. Vanderbilt was very attached to all his horses and understood the temperament of each one.

But Vanderbilt was nothing if not generous and he came up with the idea of providing ambulances for use on the front line. He did not wish to delegate the task and intended to supervise the undertaking personally. On 1 May 1915 he set sail on the ill-fated Lusitania, which a German submarine torpedoed on 7 May.

When the Lusitania began to list badly, there was general panic aboard as people scrambled to get aboard the lifeboats. By contrast Vanderbilt appeared quite calm, dressed in a grey pin-stripe suit with a polka-dot tie as if he were going to Ascot. He instructed his valet to gather together all the children he could find and Vanderbilt was seen hurrying to the lifeboats with two children in his arms.

He died a hero’s death because although he could not swim, he insisted on giving his lifejacket to Alice Middleton, a young nurse who survived the disaster. Vandebilt’s body was never recovered although his family offered a reward of 5,000 dollars for its discovery. Altogether, 1,195 people were lost in the sinking of the Lusitania.

The Brighton Gazette had this to say:

‘It was with the greatest sorrow that Brightonians realise that Mr Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who has been for so many years such a well-known figure in the town, now is no more. His calmness under all circumstances was remarkable, and this was often shown by the manner in which he handled his horses at moments when calm judgement was the one thing that evaded a possible accident.’

 copyright © D.Sharp
A 1908 Brighton Season Magazine advert

A Bevy of Beauties

Many a Gaiety Girl swept into the Hotel Metropole at Brighton trailing expensive perfume and ardent admirers. Gaiety Girls were not ordinary show-girls or actresses. They really were the crème de la crème and the aristocracy did not hesitate to select brides from their ranks. George Edwardes, known in theatrical circles as ‘the Guv’nor’, hand-picked them all.

Once selected, a Gaiety Girl was put through a rigorous course of instruction from the best teachers; she learnt how to breathe properly, speak correctly and dance lightly. Some of them were even sent off to France to be given a little French polish as well as learn the language. A Gaiety Girl was obliged to live up to the perceived image and the Guv’nor advised her always to dine at Romano’s in the Strand because that was the smartest place to be seen in town. He also happened to have a special arrangement with the restaurant whereby a Gaiety Girl enjoyed a special tariff. Not of course that she was likely to be short of an escort. Indeed it gave a man enormous cachet to be seen about with a Gaiety Girl on his arm.

The Guv’nor also paid for the dresses the Gaiety Girls wore for the four days of Ascot. This was not a trifling gift when you consider that every stitch and tuck was done by hand. Edwardes must have regarded the expense as an investment because the Gaiety Girls were seen as leaders of fashion as well as stars of the stage and they were used to moving in the most exclusive circles.

Constance (Connie) Gilchrist (1864-1946) was a Gaiety Girl and Sir C.B. Cochrane remembered her at the Metropole not long after it opened. Cochrane had more than a passing interest in the hotel because as a bored sixteen-year old he worked in the surveyor’s office where the plans were drawn up. He had been obliged to leave Brighton Grammar School and the companionship of Aubrey Beardsley because his parents were financially embarrassed and he had to start earning his own living. All Cochrane was really interested in was the theatre and eventually he became a celebrated impresario.

Connie Gilchrist rose to fame by performing her skipping-rope dance routine. For this she was dressed in a costume with a short skirt, mauve tights and little black-laced boots. The artist Whistler immortalised her in his painting that started off with the title The Girl with the Skipping Rope but was later changed to The Girl in Gold. Connie was very popular and a name on everyone’s lips, except it seems the judiciary. The public loved the story of when Mr Justice Coleridge was presiding in court when the name of Connie Gilchrist was mentioned to illustrate a point. ‘And who’ intoned the learned judge ‘is Connie Gilchrist?’ It became a popular catchphrase. Miss Gilchrist was so successful in her career that she was able to hang up her skipping-rope at the age of 22 and on 19 July 1892 she married the 7th Earl of Orkney.

An equally stellar Gaiety Girl was Rosie Boote whose career was in way impeded by her inelegant surname. Anyway she soon changed it by marrying the Marquess of Headfort. She too visited the Metropole.

copyright © J.Middleton
The beautiful Gertie Millar came from
humble origins but rose to adorn the aristocracy.

In 1916 Gertie Millar (1879-1952) was spotted sipping tea at the Metropole. She was a graceful dancer as well as being beautiful. Her father was a Bradford mill worker and she went on the stage at the age of thirteen. In 1924 she retired from the stage and married the 2nd Earl of Dudley in the same year.

copyright © J.Middleton
Gabrielle Ray
once received an exotic gift – a whole grapevine.

Another Metropole visitor was petite Gabrielle Ray who received the ultimate in stage door gifts. Gaiety Girls were accustomed to being showered with expensive presents and Guards officers jostled with the likes of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. In Gabrielle’s case her gift was a complete grapevine trained in a half-hoop over a basket that had taken eight years to grow. The grapevine yielded 20 bunches of black grapes and four strong men were required to lift it.

 copyright © J.Middleton
Lily Elsie enjoyed great success as Sonia in  
The Merry Widow. King Edward VII was a fan.

Lily Elsie also visited the Metropole. She was an enchanting principal boy in The New Aladdin but her greatest success was as Sonia in The Merry Widow, which ran for 778 performances. The first performance took place on 17 June 1907 and Edward VII was such a fan he saw the show four times.

Ladies rushed to copy Elsie’s large cartwheel-style hats. No doubt the hats were highly fashionable but it was hard luck on anybody seated behind a woman wearing such a creation. Ladies did not normally remove their hats inside a theatre. The management of the Theatre Royal, Brighton used to insert a request inside their programmes asking ladies and gentlemen to remove their hats but ladies often chose to ignore it.

copyright © J.Middleton
Zena Dare played the part of Peter in Barrie’s Peter Pan. The sisters Phyllis and Zena Dare sometimes appeared on the stage together

Other Metropole-visiting stars of the stage were Julia James plus Zena Dare (1887-1975) and her sister Phyllis Dare (1890-1975). Julia James was a leading star at the Gaiety and had wonderful red hair that attracted admiring glances wherever she went. Zena Dare was well-known for playing Peter in Barrie’s Peter Pan.

copyright © Tony McKendrick-Warden
Sunday afternoon tea at the Metropole was a society event.

In 1916 the great social occasion at the Metropole was Sunday afternoon tea. Society and theatrical stars came in great numbers, including Blanche Tolmin who appeared as Cleopatra at the Shaftesbury later in the year, and Mademoiselle Alice Delysia (1889-1979) the French actress and singer who Cochrane managed for many years.

copyright © J.Middleton
In this male attire, Vesta Tilley sang Six Days’ Leave, one of her most successful Great War songs. In fact it was second only in popularity to The Army of Today’s All Right., and Vesta Tilley in feminine mode.

Among the brightest stars was Vesta Tilley who also took tea at the Metropole in May 1916. She first appeared on the stage at the age of three and toured the country with her father Harry Ball, the tramp musician; he also owned a wonderful performing dog called Fathead. Vesta Tilley became a noted male impersonator and, ironically, a leader of men’s fashions in the 1890s. She spent her final years at Hove in St Aubyn’s Mansions by which time she had become Lady de Frece. She died at the age of 88 in 1952 and a blue plaque has recently been unveiled to her memory there.

It is remarkable how many of these stars lived to a grand old age.

 copyright © D.Sharp
A 1910 Brighton Season Magazine advert for the Winter Garden and afternoon teas

Another lady who greatly enjoyed Sunday teatime at the Metropole was Countess Poulett. In February 1916 she was gowned in deep sapphire velvet, sables across her shoulders, a long rope of pearls, diamond ornaments and a high black toque. Two months later the Countess wore a lace dress over a satin underskirt and a couple of weeks after that she was seen in a rose-pink dress veiled in flounced black net while the swathed corsage was arranged with a rose-pink sash and fastened with a rope of diamonds and pearls.

The Countess started life as plain Sylvia Storey, daughter of Fred Storey, actor and dancer. Like other theatrical beauties Sylvia used her career as a Gaiety Girl to climb the social ladder. She became Countess Poulett in the greatest secrecy and when news of the marriage leaked out it caused a sensation. But perhaps these great ladies of the theatre could play the aristocratic role better than those born with blue blood in their veins.

copyright © J.Middleton
Lillie Langtry
was known as the Jersey Lily after her famous portrait.

Although Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) was never a Gaiety Girl, her name eclipsed the other bright stars because of her royal associations. By the time she stayed at the Metropole her days of greatest fame were over because the eyes of the Prince of Wales had wandered elsewhere.

Lillie first met the prince on 24 May 1877 and although an acknowledged beauty she seemed an unlikely candidate for a prince’s amour; she was the daughter of the Dean of Jersey and a respectable married woman of three years standing. When her friendship with the Prince of Wales became public knowledge, people were terribly anxious to catch a glimpse of her. Whenever she went shopping or riding in the park, people would follow her and stare. Some were even bold enough to lift up her sunshade in order to have a good look at her face. Even great ladies such as Lady Cadogan were known to climb onto iron chairs in the park as Lillie went by for a better view. Her soubriquet ‘The Jersey Lily’ arose because it was the title of the portrait Millais painted of her; they both shared a Jersey background.

Lillie was obviously a lady of wit as well as beauty. Bernard Falk, reporter and author, and later Hove resident, remembered how she kept everyone amused on a voyage to the United States. When presented with an immigration questionnaire, she answered as follows:

Distinguishing body marks: a pair of big blue eyes
Colour of hair: a matter of opinion
Complexion; troublesome

In contrast to the Gaiety Girls who often retired from the stage once they entered society, Lillie trod the boards for the first time in 1881 making her debut in She Stoops to Conquer. She was never a great success as an actress but her name still attracted an audience. She appeared at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in 1892; the local Press did not comment on her acting skills but did record how the audience was startled at her wealth of diamonds. Lillie was again in Brighton in December 1896, only this time she appeared at the Royal Pavilion in the role of narrator. Tepid applause greeted her and reviews were unkind ‘her efforts as an actress can scarcely be said to have ever put her in the front rank’. Poor Lillie.

The Great War

It is true to say that while appalling losses were being suffered on the other side of the English Channel, social life and the tinkling of tea cups continued as usual at the Hotel Metropole. Guests were free to come and go and if there was a sprinkling of military and naval uniforms that only served to heighten the atmosphere.

Some officers were home on leave while others were recuperating from wounds. There was a large military camp at Shoreham and officers were frequently invited to the Metropole.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
Lady Barrett-Lennard's 1916  charity concert in aid of
wounded Canadian soldiers (Brighton Season Magazine)
At the New Year celebrations in 1916 held in the hotel’s ballroom, Mrs Archibald Reith was resplendent in a gown of jasmine yellow charmeuse; her husband was in command of the 9th Buffs at Shoreham. The ballroom was packed with people and a large bell hung on the platform to usher in the New Year with loud clangs. There was a moment’s silence, then the lights blazed forth, three cheers were given for the king and then the company trooped off for supper. One wonders how young Lady Wheler, a bride of a few weeks, felt because her husband Sir Trevor Wheler expected to leave for the front shortly.

In March 1916 a Mrs Barnes motored over from Eastbourne for Sunday afternoon tea at the Metropole and amongst her party were members of the Royal Flying Corps (the RAF was not formed until 1918).

Another lady doing her bit for the war effort was Lady Barrett-Lennard who arranged a matinée in the Clarence Rooms in aid of a fund providing entertainment for wounded Canadian soldiers. Tickets cost 5/- and tea was included.

As far as fashion went in 1916, it seems the ladies who frequented the Metropole were vying with each other to appear in the most expensive furs. It can only be the prestige involved because the hotel was well heated and together with the press of company, there was no need to go around dripping with furs.

Imagine the scene in January 1916 when Mrs Woolley wore a long coat of musquash trimmed with skunk, Mrs Styan was clad in her Russian furs, Mrs Seager P. Hunt from Boston, U.S.A. sported her wonderful sables, and Mrs Finch was wrapped in rich white fox furs. Then there was novelist Miss Winifred Graham in a coat of real pony skin and actress Miss Blanche Tolmin in a velvet suit trimmed with grey opossum fur.

By 1918 conditions on the home front had become more difficult. There were lighting restrictions and the use of petrol for frivolous journeys was frowned upon. There were food shortages and ‘meatless’ days. In these circumstances a local reporter was shocked to find a Brighton lady giving a large party for her female friends at the Metropole although it would have been acceptable had there been wounded officers present.

Princess Louise (1848-1939)

Of course not even a Gaiety Girl could acquire the prestige inherent in a genuine member of the royal family. Such a personage was Princess Louise who stayed at the Hotel Metropole, Brighton for ten days in August 1917.
 copyright © J.Middleton
This charming study of Princess Louise is not 
as unaffected as might be supposed. 
Is the solid piece of furniture on which her arms 
rest to keep the subject still while the shutter slowly 
clicks, or does it serve to disguise a fuller figure?

Princess Louise was the sixth child and fourth daughter born to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Queen Victoria quite expected this child to be different because she was born in the tumultuous year of 1848, the year of revolutions. Princess Louise turned out to be the most beautiful of the daughters as well as the most talented and with an independent mind of her own. She became a fine sculptor and studied under experts to acquire her skills. It must have been galling for her when critics and the public in general assumed her sculptures relied heavily on the skills of her teachers or assistants in her studio. Perhaps they did not think a member of the royal family could become a true artist. Her most famous work is a full-size sculpture of her mother as a young queen in white Carrara marble, which stands outside Kensington Palace.

Princess Louise was close to her eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, and indeed it seems she shared something of his temperament as regards having an eye for the opposite sex. But what was cheerfully overlooked in a prince was considered scandalous in a princess. There were rumours of affairs and perhaps even an illegitimate baby. Proof that there must be some basis for these stories rests on the fact that papers relating to Princess Louise are firmly locked away in the Royal Archives and cannot be accessed by researchers despite the good lady having been dead these past 77 years.

On 21 March 1871 Princess Louise married the Marquess of Lorne, later 9th Duke of Argyll. The publicity stated it was a true love match but it was more probably a case of the princess being leant on by those in authority. There were no children of the marriage.

Princess Louise was very popular with the public and she often made public appearances when Queen Victoria was unwilling or unable to do so. Princess Louise moved in artistic circles and she had become accustomed to talking with all sorts of people. She had the common touch and was able to relate to ordinary folk and talk to them in a friendly way. She was widowed in 1914 and she became tireless in her visits to the wounded in hospitals up and down the country, She even sold some of her own possessions to raise funds for the war effort.

It was for the purpose of bringing comfort to wounded soldiers that Princess Louise visited Brighton in 1917 where she stayed at the Metropole with two ladies-in-waiting Mrs Holden and Miss Styles.

Princess Louise visited wounded soldiers at the Royal Pavilion. It was not her first visit because she had also visited in January 1916 when it was still in use as an Indian Military Hospital. But from April 1916 the place had become the Pavilion Military Hospital for Limbless Soldiers. The Brighton Herald reported on her 1917 visit thus: ‘with the wounded men – all of whom had lost a limb, in some cases alas two! – the Princess showed the tenderest sympathy, and she chatted to many of them in that friendly, unaffected way, which at once put them at their ease.’

 copyright © J.Middleton
Princess Louise visited wounded Indian soldiers in the Royal Pavilion.

Princess Louise also visited York Place Hospital. This occupied former school buildings and was in use as an Indian Military Hospital too for a while and later, like the Royal Pavilion, was designated for ordinary British troops.

copyright © J.Middleton

A nostalgic glimpse of the Metropole with the sun setting behind the West Pier

See page "Hotel Metropole, Brighton 1940-2016"


Thanks to the following people allowing me to reproduce their photographs:

Brighton & Hove City Libraries
George Cook
Robert Jeeves (Step Back in Time 36 Queen’s Road Brighton)
Tony McKendrick-Warden)
J.S. Otlowski
Darcy Packwood
Brian Walker

Thanks are also due to many people who kindly provided me with help and valuable information. Amongst them are the following:

Harold Lay and Ken Amiet, Beatrice Clissold, James W. Collins, Arthur Knight, Ken Lyon, Jim Park
Denis Russell, Dorothy Sharp, Joe Vinall


Attwick, W.H. Jubilee of Brighton Corporation (1904)
Betjeman, J. & Gray, J.S. Victorian and Edwardian Brighton in Old Photographs (1972)
Bingham, M. Earls and Girls (1980)
Clunn, H The Capital by the Sea (1953)
Clunn, H. Famous South Coast Pleasure Resorts (1929)
Cochran, C.B. Cock-a-Doddle-do (1941)
Cochran, C.B. Secrets of a Showman (1925)
Cochran, C.B. A Showman Looks On (1945)
Falk, Bernard He Laughed in Fleet Street (1933
Gilbert, E.M. Brighton, Old Ocean’s Bauble (1954)
Hawksley, Lucinda The Mystery of Princess Louise (2013)
Hickey, Des & Smith, Gus Seven Days to Disaster; The Sinking of the Lusitania (1981)
Hotel Metropole: Sussex Pamphlets box 97 Jubilee Library Local History Section
Hunt, Dick Bygones (1948)
Jackson, A. Jaffer, A. with Ahlawat, D. Maharaja; the Splendour of Indian Royal Courts (2009)
La Bern, A. Haigh, Mind of a Murderer (1973)
Macqueen-Pope, W. Gaiety (1949)
Middleton, J. The Brighton Metropole (1992)
Middleton, J. Yesterday in Brighton & Hove (2010)
Montagu, Lord, of Beaulieu The Brighton Run (1990)
Musgrave, C. Life in Brighton (revised 1981)
Roberts, H.D. Book of Brighton (N.D.)
Stone, L. Road to Divorce, England 1530-1987 (1991)


Brighton Gazette

5/1/1888, 4/10/1888, 11/10/188, 1/11/1888, 10/1/1889, 25/4/1889, 24/10/1889, 5/12/1889, 6/5/1908
9/7/1913, 12/5/1915, 15/5/1915.

Brighton Herald

12/4/1890, 26/7/1890, 9/8/1890, 4/10/1890, 14/11/1896, 11/8/1917.

Brighton Society

1890, 1891, 1892, 1900, 1916, 1917, 1918.

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp