Inside the iconic Victorian Ilfracombe hotel bulldozed 45 years ago
Although it seems totally incomprehensible to many of us today, around 40 years ago Devon was home to one of the most iconic hotels in the country that allowed you to bring your own servants.
The magnificent Ilfracombe Hotel – which was built during the city’s Victorian tourist heyday – was the first purpose-built luxury hotel.
Overlooking Capstone Hill and Wildersmouth Beach, the Ilfracombe Hotel opened to the public on May 15, 1867.
During the 1880s a large indoor seawater swimming pool was opened, as well as the hotel undergoing a major expansion to create a total of 210 rooms, leading many to believe it was one one of the best establishments of its kind in the country.
And by 1903, electricity had been installed throughout the hotel, and the gardens were lit up at night by powerful lights on columns – an awe-inspiring sight for many who still used gas lamps or candles at home. .
According to Devon Heritage, the hotel offered “every comfort to the discerning tourist, including cheaper rooms in the attics to accommodate their own servants so that they really feel at home”.
The architect was MCW Horne who designed the building in what was then called “the French Gothic style”.
The Devon Heritage website explains: âBricks of various colors were used to create patterns on the exterior walls and the roof was topped with letters bearing the hotel’s name, visible across the bay.
âWith hindsight, we can see that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 marked the beginning of the end for Ilfracombe. Before the war, steamboats and paddle steamers had brought thousands of tourists to the city in its heyday, with the railroad bringing Continued.
âBut in 1915 not a single steamboat arrived at the pier. It looked like things would get back to normal in 1919, the year after the war ended with the Ilfracombe having a bumper season, but in truth times had changed forever.
“A much wider social class of visitors began to visit the city and local guesthouses and small private hotels responding with reasonable fees and streamlined service – a visitor could stay at a very respectable establishment for an entire weekend for only 21 shillings – including all meals.
“This drew in an influx of visitors whose presence actually deterred the type of visitor who had once stayed at the Ilfracombe and they started to walk away in droves.”
In the 1920s, the Ilfracombe Hotel was over 50 years old and in dire need of a refurbishment.
In 1928, local authorities decided to try to buy out the owners, the Ilfracombe Hotel and Esplanade Company, but their offer was rejected.
Instead, the council took a lease on part of the hotel, its tennis courts, swimming pool and part of its promenade and renovated that part of the building as council offices.
In 1932, they also took over separate buildings, which once housed the hotel’s laundry, to house a new museum for the city.
Devon Heritage says: “The end of an era was heralded with the outbreak of war in 1939 when the hotel (which had continued to operate on a greatly reduced scale during its last years of life) was requisitioned by the Royal Army Pay Corps who took over every inch of space for offices and accommodation for their staff and used the tennis court as a parade ground.
âWhen the Pay Corps finally left after the war, the council spent three years discussing what to do with what had become a white elephant.
In 1950 they rented the building to a brewery which renamed it “The Holiday Inn” and only used the lower floors for inexpensive accommodation with bars on the ground floor.
âThe upper floors were left unoccupied and completely neglected, so that ultimately abandonment set in.
âWhen the brewery gave up its lease, an investigation revealed that the entire building was in desperate need of a complete and expensive renovation.
âThe city was divided between those who were sentimentally attached to a famous Victorian monument – now over 100 years old – and those who saw a different future for its site – there was even a public inquiry.
“In the end, we had to go and in the fall of 1976 bulldozers rumbled across the site to begin their work.”
Today the site is home to the Runnymeade Gardens and, of course, the striking design of the Landmark Theater.