Historian Andy Williamson has a passion for storied hotels, so it was a dream job to write “Brown’s Hotel: A family affair”. The author became a detective, challenging hearsay and delving deep into the city’s archives to find out all about our London landmark, Brown’s Hotel. He discovered that sometimes the truth is more fascinating than fiction.
What's the most interesting fact that you discovered about the history of the hotel and how did you unearth it?
“There are two pillars on which the whole history of Brown’s Hotel was built: James Brown founded the hotel; and he did so in 1837. But I discovered that the hotel opened in 1832, and that James Brown was in fact not the James Brown we thought he was.
Looking through various archives, I found that a James Brown was paying taxes for the hotel before 1837. I traced his real identity through his marriage to Sarah Creswell. Then I found the smoking gun that proved that the hotel was opened in 1832 – an advertisement in The Morning Post that said:
“James Brown begs to inform [you] that he has just fitted up the House, 23, Dover-street, Piccadilly, where he is confident every convenience and comfort will be found.”
There are rumours around a connection to Lord Byron – what’s the truth?
“Sarah Brown, James’ wife, certainly seems to have worked for Lady Byron. It’s also possible that James worked for Lord Byron, but I’ve yet to uncover any concrete proof. We do know that when the Byrons’ daughter, Ada Lovelace, dubbed the first computer programmer, died very young, Lady Byron came to Brown’s to be alone, away from the public eye, and to grieve – because she knew she’d be looked after by Sarah and James.
What makes Brown's unique?
“Undoubtedly its history. We already knew that Brown's history is illustrious – Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in Britain here, it featured as a character in an Agatha Christie novel – but writing this book has shown that it's even greater, even more fascinating and multidimensional than we thought. It really is remarkable.
Brown’s has an illustrious guest list, what can you tell us about them?
“Many stories have been made up about Brown’s but its cast of characters is far more interesting than the fiction. An incredible revolving door of actors, journalists, spies, war criminals, heroines, heroes, explorers, diplomats, bureaucrats, aristocrats.
It's been home to exiled rulers including King George of Greece, Haile Selassie – former Emperor of Ethiopia – and King Zog I of Albania. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands stayed as a teenager in 1895 and then her prime minister, Pieter Gerbrandy, set up base at Brown’s during World War II. It was in his sitting room that the Dutch government declared war on Japan – just extraordinary.
The hotel has always been popular with writers: Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Joseph Conrad, the list goes on. Actors like Mia Farrow, Robert Redford, Peter Cushing – he was so fond of the hotel that he had it written into his contracts that when he was filming in and around London he would be put up at Brown’s.
Why was Brown's a key meeting place in political circles?
“Not just political but literary and royal circles as well. First built as a family residence, it’s a very private, homely place. You can see it in the domestic staircases and the stunning stained glass windows.
King George II of Greece loved Brown’s because he could just be an ordinary English gentleman. And I think for many people, it was a refuge. Brown’s has that very lovely feeling, almost like you're going into somebody's home.
Brown’s Donovan Bar is famous for its cocktails, what is your favourite?
“Donovan’s is the pinnacle of cocktail theatre. Not so much in its history but what it’s doing today. The cocktail I like most is called the Big Smoke – it’s a wonderful bit of theatre, something very different.
Which of Brown’s notable guests would you like to meet?
“When I was writing the book, I came up with this game called ‘Fantasy Five’ where you select five of our historic guests to join you for dinner at Charlie’s. My guest list changes constantly but my current favourites are: Sarah Brown to tell the inside story; Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands for royalty; Mark Twain, whose eccentric antics at Brown’s were reported in The New York Times; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who stayed at Brown’s on his honeymoon; and Orson Welles to spice things up.”
Write your own history when you stay at Brown’s Hotel. See which characters you’ll meet in the hotel, Donovan Bar and at Charlie’s. You could even encounter royalty or a famous author in a bathrobe and slippers in the hotel’s lobby.
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