Historical Insider: Brown’s Hotel
06 January 2016
The early 1800’s marked an era of technological and industrial revolution in Britain. In the first half of the century alone, enormous leaps were made in terms of transport, power and tourism. At the forefront of this pioneering new era was our own Brown’s Hotel, London’s first. Opening its doors in 1837, Brown’s quickly became a city institution, attracting a discerning international clientele and leading the development of the hotel industry.
To this day, the establishment continues to be a cornerstone of society, past and present. A tour of Brown’s makes for a fascinating history lesson and references to the hotel’s many extraordinary feats can found throughout, if you know where to look. Join us as we reveal the secrets of this iconic London landmark.
The birth of Brown’s
It all started at number 23 Dover Street. In 1837, when Mayfair was little more than an up-and-coming residential parish, James Brown and Sarah Willis – a maid for the illustrious Lady Byron – acquired first one and then three townhouses on Dover Street, with a little help from the Baroness. The pair then transformed them into Brown’s Hotel, the first hotel in London.
In 1859, the business was taken over by James John Ford, who advanced the Browns family legacy by expanding the space to encompass 11 townhouses, and introducing a number of modern concepts such as the first ever restaurant inside a hotel, bringing dining out of private suites and into a social setting.
Over time, ownership changed again and in 2003 Brown’s Hotel was acquired by Rocco Forte Hotels, who brought it back into a family, and transformed it into the exceptional building that it is today.
As well as being London’s first hotel, Brown’s has also set the scene for a number of innovations that changed the course of history. Arguably the most important was in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, brought his contraption to the hotel in advance of his meeting with the British government. During his stay, he made world’s first phone call between the hotel and the Ford family’s London residence – a defining moment for the hotel and for communications.
But the history of Brown’s Hotel is not entirely scientific. The establishment has hosted some of the world’s most creative minds and inspired countless stories. Over a period of nearly five decades, Rudyard Kipling was a guest at the hotel, firstly on his honeymoon and subsequently on a series of writing retreats. It was on one of these such sojourns that his world-famous children’s story, The Jungle Book was born. Crime writer Agatha Christie was another esteemed guest and Brown’s will forever be encapsulated within the pages of her 1965 novel, At Bertram’s Hotel, based on the hotel. More recently, Stephen King visited to seek inspiration and found it sitting at Kipling’s desk – which is still present in the Dover Suite. He wrote the start of his psychological horror novel, Misery, in Kipling’s seat.
Over the years, Brown’s has welcomed an astonishing array of guests, from royals and presidents to politicians and musicians. The hotel was a particular favourite of the Roosevelt family. Both Theodore Roosevelt, the 27th President of the United States, and Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, visited before they were elected. Some might say that Brown’s was a lucky charm…
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Brown’s acted as a high-end safe-house for royalty, opening its doors to Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie when they fled France following the Franco-Prussian War; Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians during World War One; and King George II of Hellenes when he was exiled from Greece.
The hotel has also enjoyed a loyal following of prominent British patrons, such as Sir Winston Churchill, who was partial to stopping by for a tipple after a stressful day in office. Today, the Donovan Bar cocktail menu contains a number of special dedications to valued guests, including The Churchill Martini.
Entering Brown’s is like diving into a history book. Now that you know where to look, archival collectibles and historical references will appear at almost every corner, so keep your eyes peeled.
Discover this fascinating history for yourself by visiting Brown’s Hotel, London.