03 October 2016

Hotel Metropole, Brighton 1940-2016

Judy Middleton 1992 (revised 2016)

copyright © J.Middleton
This view incorporates the old Brighton coat of arms with heraldic dolphins and a Latin motto meaning 
In God we Trust.

The Second World War

The authorities requisitioned many of Brighton and Hove’s largest buildings, including hotels, schools, colleges and private houses and various units of the Army, Navy and Air Force moved in for the duration.

In 1941 the management of the Hotel Metropole, Brighton were given precisely three weeks in which to vacate the premises. It was a dreadful scramble to try and clear such a vast building in such a short time. Hannington’s undertook the task but there were just too many items to store even in their ample depository. Some items had to be sent to Hudson’s Depository in Queen’s Road, Abinger House in King’s Road and the former Westcombe School for girls in Dyke Road. Although the depositories were secure enough, many items were stolen from the two houses, particularly from Abinger House.

 copyright © J.Middleton
The Abinger House shown in this photograph was built in the 1950s and replaced the old Abinger House where some of the Metropole’s effects were stored for the duration.

In October 1941 the Metropole became an aircrew-holding unit for the RAF. Previously there had been a similar establishment in a block of flats at Regent’s Park but there was not enough space.

The first large contingent of RAF men marched to Victoria Station, on to the troop train and down to Brighton and the Metropole.

Airman Stanley Townsend lived in Brighton and although not officially in the first draft, he grabbed the chance of free travel to his home town for the weekend, and attached himself to the marching men. He was not detected.

Squadron Leader Brian Walker, then a young lad aged nineteen, was in the first draft. A couple of months after arriving at the Metropole he contracted chicken pox and was despatched to a small hotel at Black Rock that was being used as an isolation unit. There he spent his twentieth birthday. The Medical Officer was a gynaecologist in civilian life and as he was not too familiar with the symptoms of chicken pox, he called in his flight sergeant for a second opinion. The only other occupant of the isolation unit was suffering from mumps and so Walker promptly caught that as well.

  copyright © Brian Walker
These four young RAF lads were stationed at the Metropole in 1941. From left to right, Stan Townsend, Brian Walker, ‘Horse’ Roberts and ‘Cess’ Poole.

Brian Walker’s experiences at the Metropole were probably typical of many young airmen at the time. After his spell at the Metropole he was sent to the Elementary Flying Training School at Marshalls, Cambridge. Then it was back to the Metropole before leaving for more training in the southern United States of America under the Arnold Scheme.

Meanwhile, back at the Metropole, the men were kept busy drilling, going on route marches, and attending lectures on such subjects as meteorology, navigation and aircraft recognition.

Norman Wilkinson came up with a brilliant idea, which would regrettably prevent him and his helpers from doing all that excessive exercise. In civilian life Wilkinson had been a designer for Tootal, Broadhurst & Lee in Manchester, and his bright idea was to paint pictures of various aircraft to put up on the walls of the aircraft recognition room.

The scheme was accepted and every morning at 8 a.m. the flight sergeant would shout ‘Fall out the painters.’ While the rest of the men went off for drills, the painting party disappeared downstairs. Wilkinson did the actual work while the rest of the ‘painters’ provided moral support and endless cups of coffee. Wilkinson did not favour a boring, formal portrait of aircraft, instead he painted action pictures with titles such as Thames Estuary Raided, Libyan Encounter and Axis Convoy Raided.

There is an amusing sequence to this story because when the hotel was handed back after the war, the owners became quite excited when they saw the Wilkinson paintings. They mistook them for the work of another Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971) a well-known artist who held the rank of air commodore in the war and was inspector of camouflage. During the Normandy landings he was to be seen on deck, sketching furiously. He produced a set of 53 oil paintings of Naval incidents and also some involving Coastal Command Royal Air Force. When the distinguished artist was contacted he had to tell them that the Metropole paintings were not his work. Then they discovered the other Norman Wilkinson living peacefully in Cheshire with his wife and they were both invited to Brighton to declare the special exhibition open and at last civilian folk were given a chance to view his wartime creations.

Another RAF officer remembered being at the Metropole in 1942 and 1943. He was based at the hotel but as a married officer he had quarters elsewhere. He worked in the accounts office located on the third floor. One day looking out of the window he saw an old man being wheeled along the front and then left to soak up the sunshine. Suddenly, a Messerschmitt 109 appeared from the direction of Shoreham, flying low and firing rapidly. The convalescent was out of his bath chair in a trice and tried to dive under an adjacent seat.

Sergeant Thomas was still at the hotel when it began the next stage of its career. On 31 May 1943 the Royal Australian Air Force took over, becoming 11 PDRC (Personnel Dispatch and Reception Centre) the unit having been at Bournemouth since July 1941. Although Australians ran it, it was still part of RAF Brighton, with Wing Commander T.W. White in charge.

Dick Higgins, who was amongst the first batch of Australians at the hotel, remembered the unit was somewhat disorganised at first. After morning roll-call, the Aussies disappeared to the nearest pub where an education awaited them. When they ordered their first pint of beer, they were horrified to be presented with what looked like cold tea. But they soon grew used to English beer.

Favourite hostelries included the one run by Tommy Farr, the famous Welsh boxer, and the Hole in the Wall (later the Queensbury Arms) near the hotel.

Wally Brue had fond memories of the Hole in the Wall and he returned on a nostalgic trip in 1984. The man behind the bar told him he was by no means the first Australian to revisit his former haunts.

It seems the Metropole was ‘dry’ during most of the war years. There was a sergeants’ mess at Lion Mansions and an officers’ mess at nearby Abbott’s Hotel.

 copyright © J.Middleton
Abbott’s Hotel stood on the corner of Regency Square and can be clearly seen in this photograph with the Metropole nearby.

Frank Horley arrived at the Metropole at the end of 1943. He had crossed the Atlantic on the Isle de France and travelled from Greenock to Brighton by train. On arrival at Brighton he and his compatriots (some 1,200 of them) learned about blackout restrictions at first hand when they were obliged to march from the station to the Metropole in pitch darkness. Although the distance is comparatively short, it seemed a long haul to the exhausted men.

Ray Sayer was another 1943 arrival. He sailed with 5,000 other Australians aboard the Marisposa to San Francisco, from there they travelled across America by train. In New York they boarded the Queen Mary and sailed to Greenock. He arrived at Brighton in broad daylight and found his first glimpse of the Metropole most impressive.

Arthur Leebold was in a contingent of 300 aircrew and he arrived at the hotel in March 1944, having travelled the same roundabout route with the only difference being that they sailed aboard the Queen Elizabeth. When the Aussies claimed they had come half-way across the world to fight the Germans, it was no more than the truth.

How did the Hotel Metropole strike all those men from Down Under? Of course they were not seeing it under normal conditions but even so the sheer size of the building together with the quantity of marble and tall mirrors could not fail to impress. It was also a welcome change from the standard accommodation in a Nissan hut. The hotel was heated, the baths were large and the food was good but the lifts did not operate. It is not clear if this was for mechanical or safety reasons or to improve fitness in those billeted on the top floor.

It cannot have been peaceful with the frequent noise of enemy aircraft passing overhead on their way to bomb London. Malcolm King remembered that after D-Day   the sound of gunfire across the Channel could clearly be heard. Later on there were the eerie V2 rockets as well.

Some four or five Australians were billeted in a single bedroom; some slept in double bunks while one unfortunate had to make do with a mattress on the floor. Arthur Leebold shared a room with Doug, Jim, Tim and Peter but sadly he was the only one to survive the war. When he returned to visit Brighton in more peaceful times, he did not fail to drink a toast to his old comrades.

Vandalism was practically unknown but there was one prank the men were rather fond of; they would shout ‘Bombs away’ and fling a metal dustbin down the stairwell with a glorious clatter. But the authorities soon got wise to this practice and had nets hung across.

One regrettable incident by an RAAF officer (and not temporary gentleman either) occurred when he urinated over the balcony of one of the top floor rooms. It was said the CO’s wife was left with a damp hat and the event caused some excitement at the time.

Maurice Dunn recalled the scalding washing-up water in which each man to wash his eating utensils. It was great having such hot water but there was a problem if you accidentally dropped your knife in it. Men were only issued with one knife and no chance of a replacement and so many choice words were uttered when a knife had to be retrieved.

Dunn had a novel way of dealing with his detachable collars, which saved him time and money. He would wash the collar as best he could in the hand basin, squeeze it as dry as possible, and then stick it flat on the mirror. In the morning he would simply peel it off, fresh and ready to wear.

copyright © J.S. Otlowski
J.S. Otlowski was already a British Army veteran
 before he began training to join the RAF Polish Squadron.
There was a machine-gun post on the roof of the hotel, the idea being to pick off low-flying aircraft. Bob Hannay who was at the Metropole in early 1944 remembered the night a FW 100 did not appreciate the welcome he was given from the hotel’s gun, and wheeled about cannon blazing. A young greenhorn was manning the gun at the time and it was his first experience of being under fire. He joined his friends at a dance later on, ashen-faced.

J.S. Otlowski also recalled a FW 100 giving a virtuoso performance of low flying. The plane flew low over the sea, almost skimming the waves, pulled up sharply over the Metropole, dropped a bomb on a park and made off unscathed.

Otlowski served in the Polish Squadron of the RAF. He had already seen three years of active service with the 8th Army in the Western Desert, including the siege of Tobruk, before training to become a pilot. He arrived at Brighton in November 1943 and was posted to the Initial Training Wing at the Hotel Stratheden in Regency Square. As it was close to the Metropole it seemed sensible for the Poles to share messing facilities with the Australians there. The Stratheden dining room also saw service as an examination room and it was there that Otlowski sat his navigation exam (in Polish).

  copyright © J.Middleton
The Stratheden Hotel was located on the east side of Regency Square; this postcard view dates from 1908.

Both Poles and Australians attended the same Pay Parade held on the West Pier.

copyright © J.Middleton
Pay Parade for both Australian and Polish personnel was held on the West Pier.

In 1952 Otlowski emigrated to Australia where he encountered many ex-RAAF members. The first question was always ‘If you were in the UK during the war, you must remember the Metropole.’

In early 1944 United States Air Force bombers and their escorts assembled in the skies above Brighton. Otlowski recalled the scene as a magnificent sight; there was a cloudless blue sky peppered with around 1,000 aircraft. A Lockheed Lightning fighter got into difficulties and plunged into the sea a few hundred yards offshore opposite the Metropole. Royal Navy rescue boats put out at once but the pilot was never found.

The Metropole also served as a reception centre for Australian aircrew. Either they were fresh from Australia, or they had completed training under the Empire Air Training Scheme, or they were between postings. An idea of the size of the establishment can be gauged from the figures recorded on 16 June 1943 as follows:

20 officers on the permanent staff
25 NCOs
33 other ranks
947 aircrew
206 officers, passing through

Flight Lieutenant David Bayer, the unit’s chaplain, was an important member of the permanent staff. He had his work cut out because he was the only padre but he emphasised that he was happy to talk to men of any denomination. His small office was always crowded with men who might wish to discuss a problem, or peruse the Australian newspapers scattered around, or wanted to take part in some sport. Revd Bayer was a great sports organiser, arranging for men to take part in at least fourteen different sports, together with the relevant kit and transport. He also wrote hundreds of letters to parents in Australia, telling them he had seen their son and that he was well and happy. Although Church Parades were not compulsory, Revd Bayer was so popular that he had to allow extra time for the hundreds of men who wanted to attend.

By this time the unit was well organised with the issue of kit, hospitality, medical checks including a night vision test and training programmes all taken care of. Teeth were inspected at the hotel and Australians attended in squads of 50. The New Zealand Dental Corps were also located at the Metropole and members of the RNZAF stationed at the Grand Hotel (12 PDRC) used to pop around for their inspection.

A scheme called the Dominion and Allied Forces Hospitality League ensured men did not feel lonely on leave in a strange country. As soon as men arrived at the Metropole they were informed they could send a reply-paid telegram asking for hospitality on leave to Lady Frances Ryder or Miss Macdonald of the Isles. Lady Frances or one of her helpers used to welcome personally each batch of new arrivals. Ray Sayers was happy to recall meeting Lady Frances over a cup of tea at the Metropole; she introduced him to a very kind family with whom he spent no less than fourteen periods of leave. It was a great bonus for a rather weary young man.

In May 1944 the Australians left the Metropole briefly because of the run-up to D-Day. But they were back again by August of the same year.

On 12 July 1945 the Hotel Metropole took on a new role as a Red Cross centre for repatriating newly released prisoners of war. The men were physically examined and de-briefed by intelligence officers.

People like Frank Horley in the pay office tried to give the ex-prisoners sound advice about being cautious with their accumulated back pay and if possible to send it back to Australia to give them a good start once they were out of uniform. But of course there were some troubled souls who told the staff what to do with their advice and insisted on withdrawing the whole lot in one go.

Nobby Blundell had a marvellous reunion with John Dack on 31 May 1945. Dack had been in a Lancaster attacking Flushing when the plane was shot down on 23 October 1944. Four of the crew were killed but Dack and two others survived and were taken prisoner. Dack was taken to Stalagluft 3 at Sagan, Upper Silesia. This camp became famous because of Great Escape and the Wooden Horse. But those days were long over by the time Dack arrived. A cold winter in north Germany was especially hard for the Australians. Dack put on all the clothes he had but was still frozen; besides the prisoners were under-weight. On 20 April 1945 the German left the camp and the Russians arrived the next day. Dack arrived back in England on 26 May 1945 and the first stop was the Metropole where he enjoyed the luxury of a hot bath with real soap and a clean uniform to don afterwards. He was also greatly relieved to visit the RAAF dentist who rushed through a new set of dentures for him – he’d had no teeth since being shot down.

By the end of June 1945 some 937 Australian prisoners of war had passed through the Metropole.

Prisoners of war from New Zealand were also installed at the Metropole. Initially, they were under the care of Wing Commander Arthur Colville but when he was involved in a serious car accident, Squadron Leader M. Innes-Jones, his second-in-command, took over.

Innes-Jones commented on the appearance of newly arrived prisoners of war because they were nothing more than skin and bone. Some of them had been forced to take part in the horrific 800-mile tramp from Poland before the German front collapsed. Quantities of special food were imported from New Zealand for these prisoners including the luxury of tinned oysters. Although by then food in England was of the plainest and in short supply, it is pleasant to record that none of this special consignment was spirited away.

A band of local lady volunteers came into the hotel to make beds and arrange fresh flowers for the men. The men had been so starved of female company that the chaplain and Innes-Jones had difficulty in persuading them not to propose marriage to the first pretty face they encountered.

The Metropole also provided accommodation for aircrew and officers awaiting a berth for the journey home. Some stayed for a few weeks but Bob Hannay was fortunate in making a quick getaway. This was because he won a ticket on one of the first ships transporting military personnel back to Australia. In his case his success was tinged with sadness and he said it was the only lottery he did not want to win because it meant leaving behind his English sweetheart, a seventeen-year old WAAF.

 copyright © G.Cook
George Cook of the RAAF was stationed 
at the Metropole but this photo was taken 
when he was on leave in 1944.

George Cook found his six-week stay at the Metropole being extended to eight weeks. But he did not mind because he and some of his mates found jobs at the local brewery. They did not earn much money but there was plenty of free beer.

  copyright © D.Packwood
Flight Officer Darcy Packwood RNZAF 
was photographed near the top 
of the Metropole in August 1945.

Although it was mostly the case that New Zealanders went to the Grand Hotel and Australians went to the Metropole, there was inevitably some overlap between the two. Thus Darcy Packwood of the RNZAF and some friends found themselves on the top floor of the Metropole in March 1945 and again in September of the same year before sailing home on the Andes.

Eventually, the Metorpole was empty and the authorities handed it back for civilian use in 1946. The long haul back to normality began.

Staff Recollections

 copyright © J.Middleton
Views of the Metropole looking west are more unusual. In this Edwardian scene you can see three invalid carriages but no other traffic. Note the hotel’s huge chimney-stack.

Imagine the scene in the 1920s. Inside the Metropole’s impressive entrance hall, there was a small bench on the right-hand side near the desk. On this bench sat six pageboys dressed in a smart maroon uniform with brass buttons and peaked cap. The pageboys took it in turns to run errands for the guests for a wage of 5/- a week.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
A 1923 advert from the Brighton Season Magazine

Joe Vinall became a pageboy in 1923 and it was the uniform that attracted him. He thought the boys looked as smart as paint. Vinall was the smallest pageboy and weighed under five stone but he became a great favourite with the guests and did very well with the tips. Out of his wages he gave his mother 3/- for his keep but he kept the rest of the money for himself because he was saving up to buy a bicycle, which in those days could be purchased for £3. But when the great day came and he had enough money, he found his small stature meant his feet could not reach the pedals. His father solved the problem by bolting pieces of wood on to the pedals and at last young Joe could cycle in comfort.

The staff took their meals in a hall situated below pavement level. But Joe Vinall did not like the food provided and he knew where to get something tastier to eat. Bill Grenyer was a good friend and he ran the hotel’s Turkish Bath. He was a war veteran whose injuries left him with a damaged leg. But as he had worked for the Metropole before the war, they gave him a job there afterwards. The management ensured good food was sent to him at lunchtime but as he lived a short distance away in Upper Russell Street, he sometimes went home for his meal and then young Joe would eat the food instead.

Joe Vinall’s friend Arthur Knight was also a pageboy and his father ran the Billiard Room; you could say there was almost a family feeling about the staff. Indeed it was Arthur’s father who told Joe there was a pageboy vacancy.

One of Joe’s favourite haunts was downstairs amongst all the machinery because it was akin to being in the engine room of a great ship. There were three huge Lancashire boilers, all measuring 20 feet in length and there was a team of full-time engineers and stokers to keep things going. Two of the boilers were kept working at any one time while the third was on stand-by. The hotel had its own dynamo for electricity and the lifts worked by hydraulic power.

On another floor of the hotel a professional dancer earned his living by teaching guests the mysteries of ballroom dancing. He used a wind-up gramophone to provide the music for his lessons and needless to say the pageboys enjoyed playing a record should the opportunity arise. Neither did the pageboys neglect their dancing education because when a tea dance was being held in the Winter Garden, they would peep through the windows and learn the steps. Then round the back they would go to practise their moves in time to the music of the band that could be heard quite clearly.

 copyright © Tony Mckendrick-Warden
This view shows the Winter Garden where once the Dancing Master held sway.

During Racing Fortnight the Metropole was especially busy. Many jockeys patronised the establishment in order to steam off a few surplus pounds in the Turkish Bath. Some of the racing fraternity such as Vic Gunn, the bookmaker, were also to be seen at the hotel.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
A 1920s advert from the Brighton Season Magazine

Jim Page was another pageboy who began working at the hotel in 1926. Jim too was a small lad and his parents thought becoming a jockey would be an ideal career for him. Off they went to Lewes to make enquiries but when they found out they would be expected to pay £3 a week for the privilege of being an apprentice jockey from the age of fourteen for seven years, they quickly abandoned the idea. There was no way they could afford the fees and so Jim became a pageboy instead.

Lady Sackville had a suite of rooms at the Metropole. The pageboys looked forward to her visits because she was known as a generous tipper and would sometimes give a boy 5/-. Little Jim was her favourite pageboy and she even wanted to adopt him but his parents would not allow it. When Jim went down with scarlet fever and was carted off to Bevendean Hospital, Lady Sackville sent him baskets of fruit, grapes and eggs to hasten his recovery.

Dorothy Bowden (later Mrs Sharp) started working at the Metropole in 1915. She was something of an innovation – the first lady working out front, as it were. The reason being that so many men had marched off to war that it was a case of employing females or nothing. Dorothy was sent to a tailor in Hove who made her a fetching navy blue suit to wear on duty. Then she took up her duties in reception near the revolving doors. She was only sixteen years old but she was put in charge of no less than 677 keys. She loved the work and all the interesting people she met including French actress Alice Delysia who paced up and down moaning ‘But where is my bagg-age?’ with the last word drawn out in her strong French accent.

On one occasion when Dorothy was busy working in the office she looked up and saw a small boy pointing a gun at her. ‘Hands up!’ he ordered. But she laughed and refused explaining she was too busy to play with him. Just then a distraught nursemaid rushed down the stairs and grabbed the boy. ‘Thank goodness I’ve found him’ she gasped ‘that gun belongs to his father and you know I’m afraid it’s loaded.’

Dorothy left the Metropole in 1919; she could see which way the wind was blowing. Men were returning home from war and wanting their old jobs back. A wealthy tea-planter and his wife staying at the hotel on leave from India offered Dorothy a situation and she accepted. Her first task was to pack up the lady’s hats in 30 separate boxes scattered around the suite they occupied.

Beatrice Clissold was only aged fourteen when she began work as a chambermaid at the Metropole in 1925. The hours were long and the pay was poor. Work started at 6 a.m. and although the girls were given two hours off in the afternoon, the working day did not finish until 10 p.m. There was one half-day off a week from 3.30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the same hours off on a Sunday but only once a month.

Beatrice earned 12/6d a week but she had to give her mother 10/- and still had to pay for her uniform. This consisted of a blue dress with apron for morning wear and a black dress with white collar and cuffs plus a frilly apron for afternoon wear. A frilled white cap with black velvet bands completed the ensemble. She had to buy her black stockings and shoes as well and so there was hardly enough money left over for a trip to the cinema or a small bag of sweets. She lived in at the hotel, which should have been an advantage but the food provided for the staff was dreadful.

Although guests basked in the glow of electric lights, electricity did not extend to the top floor where the chambermaids had their bedrooms. The management issued them with two candles along with a small amount of tea, sugar and margarine.

The maids were obliged to use the back stairs at all times; no lifts for them. They all wore a chain around their waists to which the room keys were attached. Once Beatrice came down at 6 a.m. as usual but the housekeeper noticed she had forgotten her keys. It took her a good ten minutes to climb back to the top of the hotel and naturally the time lost was deducted from her wages. Beatrice also remembered the ‘blue girls’ who worked in the kitchens; so called from the blue and white dresses they wore with blue tricorn-shaped hats.

Ken Amiet started off at the Metropole as a pageboy in 1934 at the age of thirteen. The wages were still 5/- for a 72-hour week but the tips were good. At the time his father was head wine waiter, having worked his way up from being a commis waiter in 1912. Ken graduated to being a porter and stayed at the Metropole for his entire working life, retiring at the age of 66 in 1987.

He remembered that in the early days there were 100 full-time residents who lived in the hotel permanently paying 28 guineas a week for full board. It was good value because they enjoyed a huge breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and a seven-course dinner to round off the day.

There was also a sea-captain who enjoyed the comfort of the Metropole between voyages. His pet parrot always accompanied him, a clever bird able to recite poetry.

One of the guests Ken looked after in 1947 was Winston Churchill who insisted on having the cream off full-fat milk to pour over his porridge. Other favourites were the actor Ralph Richardson and the politician Jim Callaghan, popularly called Sunny Jim with whom Ken chatted about football. Ken also enjoyed seeing at close quarters stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Joan Collins and Barry Manilow.

One man who seemed to be the perfect gentleman but turned out to be nothing of the sort was John George Haigh, the acid bath murderer. In February 1948 Archie and Rose Henderson stayed at the Metropole. On 16 February Haigh turned up at the hotel, paid the Hendersons’ bill, explaining the couple had been called away urgently and producing a forged letter of authority from Archie Henderson. He asked that their luggage, including two golf bags, should be loaded into his car. Haigh was so charming and plausible that Ken had no hesitation in complying with his wishes,

It was not long afterwards that Haigh’s urbane, smiling face was plastered all over the newspapers. He had taken the Hendersons, one at a time, to his store room in Leopold Road, Crawley, shot them dead and dissolved their bodies in a bath full of acid. On 6 August 1949 Haigh was hanged for the murder of Mrs Durand Deacon, one victim of the acid bath who did not disintegrate completely.

Frank Knight started work as a porter at the Metropole in the 1930s and stayed for many years. When he started in 1933 he worked a 13-hour day, six days a week. His duties included hauling up buckets of coal for the fires and buckets of sea water in which guests could immerse their gouty feet and it cost them six pence a time.

Frank remembered the time when Marlene Dietrich stayed at the hotel and put the staff in something of a spin. At 3.30 p.m. she demanded a steak but the restaurant staff had gone and thus it fell to Harold Lay, administration manager, to roll up his sleeves and do the cooking.

Frank also had an experience of the criminal fraternity but nothing as dramatic as Haigh. In the 1960s two men and a girl were staying at the hotel and when they left, Frank carried their luggage down for them. He thought at the time that the cases were rather heavy. At 1 a.m. the police phoned; it appears the cases contained the proceeds of a bank robbery at Leeds but the gang were later caught.

German-born Stanley vom-Berg started work as a waiter at the Metropole in 1934. He recalled the time King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia stayed at the hotel but refused to be served by any of the Italian waiters because his country had just been invaded by Italy.

Stanley and his brother Walter found themselves on the opposite sides of the fence, as it were, in the Second World War. Walter remained in Germany and served in the German Army. After being captured, he was sent to Scotland as a prisoner of war. Meanwhile Stanley served in the British Army. He too ended up in Scotland when he was sent there to act as interpreter to German prisoners of war. After the war Stanley returned to civilian life and resumed work at the Metropole where, as it happened, his future wife Elizabeth was working as a chambermaid. But they did not meet for the first time in the hotel but at the ice-rink at the foot of West Street. In March 1989 the couple celebrated their Golden Wedding.

It is a remarkable fact that from 1890 to 1982 the Metropole had its own printing plant and employed a full-time printer. It was necessary because until 1975 daily menu cards were printed; then there were invitation cards, dinner dance programmes, conference luncheons, Masonic functions, weddings and bar-mitzvahs.

Denis Russell was the last printer and he started at the hotel in 1953. He had the pleasure of printing invitations to special guests allowing them to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II on the hotel’s own television set (admittance by invitation only).

When Denis started work at the Metropole the printing equipment was old-fashioned consisting of a hand-fed machine, known in the trade as a ‘cropper’, and a dozen cases of type. But by the time of his retirement, the equipment was all up to date.

One bonus gained from his daily scrutiny of menus was an excellent knowledge of phrases used in French cuisine. André Simon, a famous writer on the subject of food and wine, was so impressed by the Metropole’s perfectly printed menu that he sent a letter of congratulation to Denis.

The hours worked as a printer were somewhat elastic and so Denis was sometimes called upon to do other duties. He particularly enjoyed dressing up as Father Christmas for children’s parties and as Old father Time for parties on New Year’s Eve.

Ken Lyon’s musical connection with the Metropole went back a long way and during the 1930s he used to perform in the Winter Garden. He gained experience by playing in other bands in the evenings such as Jack Barnett’s and Emilio Colombo’s, while his day job was working in an office. He did not turn professional until 1937. During the Second World War he served in the RAF and formed a double act with Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson.

In 1946 Ken Lyon was demobbed and used his gratuity to set up his own band, which in those days usually consisted of five members; a pianist, a double bass, drums, a violinist who could double on the saxophone, and a saxophonist who could double on the clarinet. Versatility was the keyword and Ken was a vocalist too, crooning Bing Crosby-style.

The band members always wore evening dress when performing in hotels but if they were booked for the West Pier, they wore dark, lounge suits. Ken Lyon’s music was in the best tradition of the Palm Court Orchestra. When he started out there were plenty of others doing the same but by the 1980s he felt he was practically the last of a species. By the 1980s his trio consisted of himself (often playing his 100-year old double bass nicknamed Alphonse) a pianist and violinist.

The trio performed in the Pavilion Gardens on summer afternoons while the Metropole always booked them to play for a couple of hours on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. On one occasion he even appeared before the Queen in the Royal Pavilion.

Ken Lyon and his wife suffered a tragedy when their son Keith was murdered in May 1967. Keith was a bright, handsome lad aged twelve when he was knifed on the Downs near Ovingdean. The crime was never solved although it has been re-investigated in recent years. Ken Lyon died in January 1991.

Recent Times

After the Second World War Stanley Till became the new general manager with John Brand as his assistant. They found the building needed a complete overhaul but it was still a time of austerity and it was very difficult to obtain materials. However, a start was made with a complete re-wiring taking place and Ashley Horner of London undertook as much re-decoration as possible.

In 1959 AVP Industries purchased the Metropole from Gordon Hotels. Then the rumours started. People were saying the hotel would be demolished and Brighton would lose one of its famous landmarks. Although for years the red-brick structure had been criticised as being too brash, the prospect of losing it for good instantly put a different complexion on the case. Now it was seen as a grand reminder of the Victorian heyday.

In the event the rumours proved to be groundless and the Metropole was not pulled down. However, it was not considered viable in its current state and an ambitious re-modelling was planned costing in the region of £500,000. Bringing the hotel up to modern day standards can be summaries by the fact that in 1959 there were only 50 bathrooms in the establishment whereas under the new scheme each of the 275 bedrooms would have its own en suite bathroom. Michael Poster supervised the building operations and he was described as the youthful resident assistant to the managing director of AVP Ltd.

Although the reconstruction was said to be necessary from an economic viewpoint, several important features were deemed to be expendable. One of them was the famous skyline that was lovely hallmark of the hotel. The charming little turrets and central spire were removed and two new storeys were added to the building. The construction posed a tricky building problem, which was solved by the insertion of bridging beams at the 5th storey.

  copyright © J.Middleton
This view was taken in March 2009 and the new roof-line can be clearly seen.

The conversion was a typically Sixties exercise when a disregard for Victorian architecture was endemic. Thus the Metropole lost much of its original décor; intricate coving and high ceilings were obscured when new lower ceilings were installed. The handsome marble chimney-piece created by Queen Victoria’s nephew was dispensed with and the delightful cast iron and glass canopy over the entrance was removed. The Winter Garden was destroyed and with it went romantic memories of young couples whispering sweet nothings to each other in front of large cages full of budgerigars.
  copyright © J.Middleton
The towering block of flats was part of the Metropole
 re-development scheme. On the left is the new 
Abbott’s built on the site of the historic Abbott’s Hotel.

An analogy may be drawn with another local Waterhouse building, namely Hove Town Hall. This structure was badly damaged by fire in 1966. If the will had been there it might have been re-constructed and saved. But recognition of the many fine qualities in Victorian architecture was at its lowest ebb in the Sixties and so demolition became the order of the day.

A major part of the Metropole’s new scheme was the provision of a new exhibition hall behind the hotel and the creation of a 24-storey tower block containing 120 flats rising to a height of 336 feet. Tower blocks were also an obsession of the Sixties and something that came to be regretted in many cases. The brutalism of such a structure in an area of historic and small-scale housing was not considered. Old housing in Cannon Street and Queensbury Mews were demolished, the Italian Garden was obliterated and the beautiful church of St Margaret pulled down. C.A. Busby was the architect who designed St Margaret’s in the Greek Revival style. Busby was a very important local architect responsible for the creation of Brunswick Town.

The Starlit Room was created on the 7th floor of the Metropole and opened for business in October 1961. Diners could enjoy splendid views, which in fine weather extended from Rottingdean to Worthing. This is now known as the Chartwell Room and can be reserved for private meetings or dinners.

The refurbishment was finally finished in 1965.

A Casino

In 1962 the Metropole Casino opened with a flourish. Not only was it the first one in Brighton, it was also the first in Britain too. The entrance to the casino was at the back of the main hall and up a newly built twin staircase decorated with wrought ironwork.

Peter Harrison, who was secretary at the time, recalled that around 800 people all wearing evening dress used to patronise the casino every night. The number included celebrities such as heavyweight boxer Billy Walker, blonde singing star Kathy Kirby, Ambrose, the band-leader, and Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. Peter Harrison said, ‘I can remember Fleming quite distinctly. He was a very nice man. He always walked about with a black cigarette holder in his mouth.’

Peter Harrison’s brother Kenneth Harrison was croupier on opening night. He had an anecdote about film star Diana Dors who was once turned away from the casino because she was wearing trousers. He remarked, ‘She said she would take them off but we did not let her.’

A great deal of money was won and lost at the Metropole Casino in the gold-leafed splendour of the Clarence Room. But two events hastened its closure. In the 1970s new legislation was introduced that based the licence fee on the rateable value of the premises, which for the Clarence Room came to an incredible £45,000.

In 1982 the Metropole organisation opened the International Casino Club in Preston Street. The Metropole Casino closed in 1985 and two years later the Brent Walker Group purchased the casino division.

Further Extension

Harold Poster, by now chairman of AVP Industries, was not going to allow the hotel to rest on its laurels for long. When he purchased the hotel in 1959 he realised the important new hotel trade was going to be conference booking because the days of the beau monde were long past. In order to attract such conference bookings, plenty of facilities were necessary and preferably they needed to be under one roof.

Thus in June 1970 the next phase of modernisation began. The idea was to expand the exhibition halls to double their previous size and the scheme involved three levels facing Cannon Place. Tony Webb, general manager, said he hoped everything would be ready in time for the Toy Fair to be held in January 1972.

At the same time the kitchens were gutted to make way for modern ones. While this work was being done, temporary kitchens were set up in the east wing formerly home to Maple’s furniture store. Once the new kitchens were in full swing, the part vacated in the east wing was to be converted into a restaurant.

Health Hydro

In September 1970 the Health Hydro was unveiled. The well-known Forest Mere Hydro ran the establishment and it cost £250,000. Not content with one celebrity cutting the ribbon the management decided to invite no less that 120 show-biz stars to the opening. This number included Alan Whicker, Hermione Baddeley, Millicent Martin and Derek Nimmo.

It was stated that that ideally a treatment should last for ten days (at a cost of 60 guineas a week) but ‘out-patients’ were welcome too and there was a special all-day session for women costing six guineas. Some 56 qualified staff catered for all needs and included five state-registered nurses, dieticians and masseurs.

Harold Poster

Harold Poster was enormously proud of the modernised Metropole. ‘I’m not modest about it’ he said, ‘I want it clearly understood that Harold Poster was the very first man to bring 100,000 square feet of conference space to the town. And it was me who made Brighton Festival possible. I personally underwrote the Festival.’

These were the proud words of a self-made man. He grew up in poor circumstances in the 1920s near Stepney’s Brick Lane and he was the second youngest of eleven children.

Another cause of pride came in May 1977 when ‘Tiny’ Rowland’s Lonrho Group made a £25 million bid for AVP Industries, which in 1957 only had a market value of £100,000. Mr Poster advised shareholders to accept the offer because he felt he had enjoyed a good innings.

The Cannon

The next milestone in the Metropole’s history was the creation of the Cannon, a pub on the south-east corner of the building. Raymond Schomberg designed it and he was responsible for all the Metropole Group’s hotel interiors. Above the pub a new extension provided yet more conference space and bedrooms.

The pub’s name derives from the fact that the West Battery was once situated nearby, in fact south of the site now occupied by the Grand Hotel. The cannons arrived in 1793 and there were five of them, all muzzle-loaders, pointing towards France. They were capable of firing a heavy missile weighing around 40lbs. The cannon balls were kept in two decorative pyramids behind the guns. The Battery was removed in 1858 when the seafront road was widened.

An eye-catching feature of the Cannon pub was the open veranda with white balustrades and decorative ironwork; it was a deliberate attempt to reflect the style of Regency Brighton.

The Cannon was opened on Maundy Thursday 1981 to the noise of a cannon fired on the stroke of noon by gunners of the Sussex Yeomanry. At the same time the band of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Regiment marched along the seafront.

The Metro

Fred Hutchings, general manager, had long been thinking of establishing a nightclub at the Metropole and in September 1983 the Metro was born. It was a fitting name because you have to venture underground to reach it. It was built beneath the Cannon but had a separate entrance.

Swimming Pool

After the Metro, Mr Hutchings obviously felt that more of the basement could be utilised for other amenities. A swimming pool was the in-thing as Brighton hotels rushed to provide what Bournemouth hotels had already built. In September 1986 the Metropole opened its new swimming pool measuring 50 feet by 30 feet.

The pool has an interesting shape because it was constructed in the space formerly occupied by two rooms. Weight-bearing walls had to be taken account of and thus there are two massive pillars on either side halfway down the pool. It makes it look rather distinguished, like swimming in the ruins of a submerged city.


More money was poured into the refurbishment of the interior. It is perhaps ironic that the décor of the dining room should be an opulent echo of Victorian style because there are wedding-cake style decorations and magnificent long mirrors opposite the windows to add to the feeling of space and light.

The drawing room has emerged closer to its 1890s style although it had seen service previously as the Buttery. The new colour scheme was soft pink and blue to provide a tranquil interior as a contrast to the strident light of the seafront.

Seventy bedrooms were re-designed too. Those at the front of the hotel were in soft blue while those at the back were given warmer tones.

By the close of 1991 another part of the refurbishment had been completed. An interesting find was the discovery of the splendid terracotta curved main entrance, which had been hidden behind marble since the 1960s and forgotten. It was painstakingly restored. The management was delighted and so was Geoff Bennett, Brighton Council Planning Conversation Officer, who put the hotel forward for a national Civic Trust award as well as the council’s own design award.

The revolving doors of steel were replaced by new old-style revolving doors in dark wood with brass fittings and bevelled-edged glass panels.

The next step was to demolish the hideous squat entrance canopy put up in the 1960s, with something more sympathetic to the Victorian era. Plans envisaged airy glass domes resting on cast-iron supports.

  copyright © J.Middleton
In this photograph taken in February 2009 the delightful new entrance canopy can be seen.

Meanwhile, the entrance hall and much of the ground floor was decorated in a light lemon-patterned wallpaper with dark wood wainscoting. It was felt that the original black and white tiles were somewhat funereal and they were replaced with warm rose/brown tiles instead. There is also a carved marble fireplace in the same warm tones, which was especially commissioned and made in Italy.

  copyright © J.Middleton
A bustling crowd enjoys the sun and seafront on 23 May 2010.

It is pleasant to note the tradition of employing artists to decorate the public spaces has been revived. At the back of the entrance hall a circular ceiling panel depicts a blue sky with seagulls within a border of swirling yellow ribbons. Patrick O’Sullivan and Laura Boyer were the artists employed on this project and they worked for the firm of Davies, Keeling & Trowbridge. It was the same firm that was responsible for the entrance hall and the marble fireplace just mentioned.

In the Ambassador Room there is another circular painting depicting a classical scene. Downstairs the swimming pool area is greatly enhanced by a mural of the West Pier and the sea. The firm Treasure Goughton were responsible for these two paintings on behalf of interior designers Richmond Inston.

  copyright © J.Middleton
There are still small boats to be seen on Brighton’s famous pebbly beach with the Metropole and the Grand Hotel as a backdrop.


In 2016 the establishment is known as the Hilton Metropole Brighton. Many people will be having a fresh look at it thanks to the opening of Brighton’s newest attraction the i360 viewing tower, which is sited near at hand.

On 22 September 2016 the hotel’s general manager, Sascha Koehler, called on local graffiti artists, preferably Sussex-based, to get in touch with him with their ideas about how to decorate the huge white space on top of the hotel. It would provide something interesting for customers taking a flight in the pod to look at.

Hove Councillor Robert Needham has already commented on the boring aspect of flat roofs from the pod. He thinks that with some imagination there could be roof gardens or even suitable places to site beehives. After all, if beehives can prosper high up in New York, why not try it at Brighton? In short, the i360 opens up new prospects in more ways than one.

The idea of a piece of artwork to decorate the flat white Metropole roof was quickly taken up. By 6 October 2016 the Argus was able to report that part of the roof had already received attention from graffiti artist Aroe MSK (real name Paul Barlow) and his 18-year old daughter Solveig Maseyk. It is interesting to note that several flights had to be made aboard the i360 pod to make sure the perspective was correct.

Mr Barlow said he loved the city and hoped his work would make people smile. He said ‘it’s almost like a secret public gallery from the roofs’. 

Sascha Koehler, the Metropole’s general manager, was enthusiastic, commenting ‘I just love the fact there is something different on our roof. It’s something a bit cool and hip for one of the city’s oldest hotels.’

  copyright © D. Sharp
The i360 viewing tower with the Hilton Metropole and the Grand Hotel to the right. (October 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

Concerning the Second World War, I am grateful for letters received from the Antipodes.

From Australia

Squadron Leader P.A. Davidson, Nobby Blundell, Wally Brue, George Cook, John Dack, Maurice Dunn, John L. Francis, Bob Hannay, Dick Higgins, F.C. Horley, Malcolm King, Arthur Leebold, Keith J. Oates P.J. O’Connor, J.S. Otlowski (Polish Squadron RAF), Roy Powell, Jock Ross, Ray Sayer, Robert Smith, 
Glyn Thomas (RAF), Brian Walker.

From New Zealand

Squadron Leader M. Innes-Jones, Margaret McCann, Darcy Packwood, Doug Palmer, George Parry, Ian Simpson.


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page layout by D.Sharp