THE HISTORICAL MILESTONES
European Royalty, an American President, a Scientist and Famous Authors - Brown’s Hotel has hosted many famous names, as well as events
London’s first hotel, Brown’s opened its doors in 1837 and in the centuries since has welcomed royalty and writers, Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winners, musicians and scientists, explorers and politicians. While Brown’s has a rich and illustrious history of its own, it has also played a part in history on a global scale, including being the site of the first telephone call in London made by its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Through it all Brown’s and its staff remained discrete, protecting the privacy of its guests, with some details of its history only recently coming to light.
For almost 200 years, it has been the hotel’s pleasure to welcome the world through its doors. Past, present, and future, Brown’s has a story worth telling.
Victorian Era: 1837-1901
The birth of Brown’s coincided with the birth of the Victorian era. The hotel opened in 1837, the same year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, aged 18, in the wake of William IV's death.
This was a period of great change for the nation, and for Brown’s itself. Opened initially in 23 Dover Street and known as “Brown Private Hotel”, the hotel expanded over time, with the owner John Brown buying the surrounding buildings; 22 Dover Street (1838), 24 Dover Street (1844) and 21 Dover Street (1845). The hotel was later sold to the Ford family in 1860, and the expansion continued, with St George’s hotel being purchased and incorporated in 1889.
Much like Brown’s, St George’s was known for its aristocratic and landed clientele; the most prominent of which were the members of the X Club. During the 1860s-1880s, this private scientific dining club met at the hotel. Comprised of nine eminent scientists including Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker, they were all followers of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and academic liberalism.
While the appearance and size of Brown’s changed dramatically in its first few decades, it set in place a dedication to its guests and a welcoming, inclusive attitude that continues to this day. For example, Brown’s was often referred to as a ‘family hotel’ in the 19th century; unlike many of the clubs in London at the time, women were welcome.
Its service and luxurious surroundings started to attract the attention of visiting royalty from the 1860s, including the Italian Prince Pignatelli d'Aragon (1886), German Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony (1886), the French Prince Henri de Bourbon (1886), and Charles Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak (1873).
In addition to visiting royalty, Brown’s was the hotel of choice for the American political elite. Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the hotel twice in 1886 (15 years before he became the 26th President of the United States); once to give a press interview, and again when he got married to Edith Carow, before they set off on honeymoon in Italy.
By the late 19th century, the clientele of the hotel had widened to include gentry, aristocracy, diplomats, politicians and writers. Leading figures of the day including the 4th Earl of Carnarvon (1865), Don Carlos (1876 and again in 1880), the Consul General of the United States, General E A Merritt (1883), the Viceroy of India (1884), and Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt (1885 and 1886) were all guests at Brown’s.
Furthermore, Alexander Graham Bell made the very first telephone call in London from Brown’s in 1876 He stayed at the hotel during his visit to London to tell the British government of his latest invention, the telephone.
Dawn of the 20th Century: 1901-1913
Brown’s expanded further at the start of the 20th century with the addition of the adjourning Eaton and Dean’s Hotels in 1905 and 29b Albemarle Street in 1906. But the hotel continued to maintain its prestige and acclaim throughout the alterations. The hotel was the subject of a Daily Mail article in 1906, which focussed on the happenings at the hotel, a subject of interest for many. W K Vanderbilt’s scandalous secret wedding during his stay in 1903 was mentioned, as well as many notable guests, such as King Alphonso, Napoleon III and Empress Eugene. Not to mention the fact that, at the time, Brown’s had a grand total of 14 staircases within its rapidly expanding walls.
The hotel prospectus in 1906 stated that Brown’s had “a unique reputation as the chief London House and the nobility and those who prefer quiet, style, and elegant comfort.' Indeed, royalty frequently stayed at the hotel during the first decade of the 20th century, with visits from the Queen Mother of the Netherlands and the German prince and princess Blücher Von Wahlstatt.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain, famously visited in 1907, appearing in his dressing gown and slippers to the staff. He called Brown’s "a placid, subdued, homelike, old-fashioned English inn… a blessed retreat of a sort now rare in England, and becoming rarer every year”. But, in reality, Brown's was not placid and subdued during his stay; as the London newspapers of the time reported, his arrival actually turned the hotel into not only a royal court, but also a post office.
The War Years: 1914-1945
While Europe was in the grip of two World Wars, Brown’s kept its doors open. During this period, numerous military and civilian wedding receptions took place at the hotel, including that of Sir Joseph Spearman (descendent of William Wilberforce and British attaché at the Vatican) and Carrie Eastwood in 1914.
Meanwhile, diplomats and dignitaries, from Sir Neville Meyrick Henderson (British Ambassador to Germany during the Munich Crisis) and the Dutch Prime Minister Dr P.S. Gerbrandy,to Mr and Mrs Anthony Eden (the future British Prime Minister 1955-1957) and David Lloyd George (Prime Minister 1916-1922) stayed at the hotel, and visited to attend events.
Indeed, the hotel was the site of numerous politically and globally significant moments during this period. For example, in 1922, senior conservative politicians met to discuss saving the coalition government by forcing the current Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to resign, and in 1941, the Dutch cabinet in exile met in room 36 at Brown’s when war was declared against Japan.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1938, the American aviator Charles Augustus Lindbergh stayed at the hotel with his wife. It was reported that she looked out of her hotel window and saw gasmasks being distributed. It was later, in 1941, that Brown’s advertised its bomb-proof facilities; it had the “latest design of air raid shelter, gas proof and fitted with bunks and seating”.
The hotel continued to attract leading figures of the day throughout the war and interwar years. The author Joseph Conrad was a guest in 1921 and wrote a letter on Brown’s headed paper during his stay. Sir Gerald Festus Kelly (later President of the Royal Academy) stayed with his wife in 1928, and the King of Greece visited repeatedly in 1925-1926 and again between 1929 and 1937. The exiled Haillie Sellasse also stayed at hotel in 1936.
Another notable visitor to the hotel in 1936 was Rudyard Kipling, who spent some of his final days at Brown’s before taking ill and subsequently being rushed to Middlesex hospital on the 12th January, where he died six days later. His son-in-law, Captain George Bambridge later returned to the hotel to plan Kipling’s funeral.
Brown’s itself changed ownership to the Bon Family (Suvretta Limited) in 1928. But while the owners may have changed, an article published in the same year shined a spotlight on the long-time service of the staff at Brown’s. 24 men and women employed at that time had an average of more than 31 years of employment at the hotel, meaning that their total years of service amounted to 753 years. The Hall Porter was quoted as saying: “The chief reason for our record is that nothing changes very much. We have the same guests coming year after year because they like our modern and comfortable way of being old fashioned. And when Royalty come, no one ever knows they are here.”
As Britain recovered and rebuilt after the World Wars, Brown’s became a hubbub of activity. It opened a new cocktail bar in 1947, helmed by the most famous cocktail maker of the age, Harry Craddock. The author of the Savoy Cocktail Book had been lured out of retirement in order to spearhead the new venture, making quite the splash on the London social scene. A year later, Trust Houses bought the hotel.
Brown’s was also the location of choice for celebrated authors, explorers and royalty in the 1950s particularly, with Princess Elizabeth herself visiting to take tea in 1951 (two years before she was crowned Queen). Later in the decade in 1957, a dinner was held in honour of Lord Denning, the most celebrated judge of the 20th century, and explorer Jacques Cousteau stayed at Brown's whilst giving a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in 1954.
Christopher Robin, the son of AA Milne, held his wedding reception at Brown’s in 1948, and in 1954 AA Milne himself returned to the hotel to throw a party for his friends and family, despite being in poor health. But he wasn’t the only notable author to set foot through the hotel’s doors. American writer and Nobel Prize laureate, William Faulkner was a guest a year later in 1955.
The hotel was also at the centre of many exciting developments in the arts throughout the post-war years. The first meeting of BAFTA took place at Brown’s in 1947, with Laurence Olivier, Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean, and more leading lights in attendance.
The publishers Weidenfield and Nicholson held their launch party at the hotel in 1949, which drew a laudable crowd. Somerset Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, George Orwell and Ben Nicholson were all in attendance, as well as aristocrats like Lady Cynthia Jebb (whose husband helped set up the United Nations and was acting Secretary General in 1945-1946) and Lady Violet Bonham Carter (daughter of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, friend of Winston Churchill, and Grandmother of Helena Bonham Carter).
A Hub of Literature and Film: 1960s and 1970s
During the 1960s and 1970s, Brown’s hosted a huge variety of stars of the page, stage and screen. In 1960, Orson Welles stayed at the hotel to audition actors for a Shakespeare tour, and in 1964 Evelyn Waugh had dinner at the hotel with Elizabeth Jane Howard and Christopher Burstall.
The hotel was also a popular choice for press events. Tom Wolfe and Kingsley Amis both held press events at Brown’s in 1969, as did Pete Townsend in 1972 when promoting The Who’s upcoming tour. Beverly Whipple held interviews about her book on the G spot in 1975, and Kurt Vonnegut held interviews a year later about his book, Slapstick.
If you were in the hotel in 1967 or 1976, you might have spotted the actor Robert Redford having a drink with actress and model Mia Farrow. Or Jorge Luis Borges in 1971, JRR Tolkien and his family or William Golding in 1973, all of whom were guests at the hotel.
Many events and meetings of political significance also took place at Brown’s during these decades. For example, International Monetary Fund officials stayed at Brown's hotel during negotiations with the British government in 1977. Chilean opposition leaders chose Brown’s to be the site of their meeting in 1975, as did Barbara Castle, Minister of State for Employment and Head of Trade Unions, who held a meeting at Brown’s a few years earlier in 1969 to discuss the unions.
Events large and small marked and made history at the hotel, from Ethel Roosevelt presenting a commemorative bust of Teddy Roosevelt in 1965 and Tony Benn having lunch with editor of The Times William Rees Mogg in 1966, to former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaking at Brown’s in 1975 and Margaret Thatcher attending an official dinner in 1979.
1980s and 1990s
More British royalty visited Brown’s in the 1980s and 1990s, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who each visited to attend the American Correspondents’ dinner. Another dinner of significance during this period took place in 1983 to mark the opening of the Georg Baselitz exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. A year later, an exhibition entitled “Brown’s Hotel and Other Works” opened at the Tate Gallery by A. R. Penck (aka Ralf Winkler), which was named after the Brown's dinner that took place.
The hotel continued to be a popular choice for press events, with Maggie Smith, Peter Cushing, and John Hurt all hosting such events at Brown’s between 1984 and 1986. But they’re not the only ones; Elmore Leonard (1988), Jay McInerney (1988), John Fowles (1986), Ian McEwan (1986), William Golding (1986), Arthur C Clarke (1986), Ben Okri (1986), Ray Bradbury (1984), and Tom Stoppard (1984) all held popular events for the press at the hotel.
As the 1990s rolled in, more luminaries visited Brown’s, from Kurt Vonnegut (again) and Norman Mailer to British Prime Minister John Major and author and commentator Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a letter to The Guardian newspaper on Brown's headed paper.
A year later in 1998, it was acclaim of a culinary kind that made the headlines. Brown’s opened the restaurant 1837 to great reviews; The Guardian said it offered 'Haute Cuisine with Effortless Grace’. The star chef de cuisine at 1837, Gregory Nicholson, aged 28, later won an Acorn Award from The Caterer; an award known affectionately in the industry as the top 30 under 30 awards.
A New Era for Brown’s: 2000s
Brown’s was purchased by Rocco Forte Hotels in 2003 and closed in 2004 for a multi-million pound refurbishment. It was reopened in December 2005 by Margaret Thatcher and quickly went on to celebrate numerous milestones and awards, in particular commemorating 175 years of superlative service and achievement in 2012-2013.
The hotel won two 2016-17 U.S. News & World Reports awards for Best London Hotels and Best England Hotels. It was also chosen as one of the top London hotels at Condé Nast Traveller Readers' Choice Awards 2016, and the 13th Best Business Hotel in the UK in the 2017 edition of the same awards.
In 2016, the hotel opened the The Kipling Suite (now the largest space available to guests at Brown’s), dedicated to the author who wrote The Jungle Book during one of his many stays here and designed by the talented, Olga Polizzi.