05th June 2023
For the weary traveller: hotels past and present, west of the Ouse
Ian Tempest recently gave us a fascinating perspective on tourism in York. He started off by reminding us that tourism is very much a key element of our economy, with around 8.4 million visitors a year in 2018, spending £765 million and supporting 24,000 jobs. More than half of this expenditure was from staying visitors, and the history of hotels in York was the subject of his talk.
He highlighted many examples from our neighbourhood, covering a variety of types of hotel. From the 18th century the major coaching inns were in Coney St, on the other side of the river, but we did have a few on our side. For example the Elephant and Castle in Skeldergate was one of York’s most important inns, with 30-40 stables. In 1760 it was the terminus for a public coach between York and Leeds that left the inn twice a week, on Mondays at 6am and on Thursdays at 5am. In an interesting 20th century development, Syd Heppell told the York Oral History Society that when they had circuses at the Empire (the Grand Opera House) they used to keep the circus animals in the stables behind the Elephant and Castle. All the animals, the ponies, the camels, the zebra, and the small elephant would parade from there along Skeldergate, over the Ouse Bridge, through Nessgate and back down King Street to the back door of the Empire. This inn was demolished long ago and is now the site of Centurion Square.
The Windmill Inn on Blossom Street dates from the late 17th century, when it was constructed as two cottages. It was first recorded as an inn in 1735, and when it was sold in 1867, it was advertised as one of the oldest in the city, with stabling for 65 horses. By 1902 it still had 16 letting bedrooms, and began catering for car drivers and cyclists. In the 1970s it became part of the then well-remembered Berni Inn steakhouse chain. Food still remains a major feature, and it is now owned by Greene King. Since 1968, the building has been grade II listed. The sharp-eyed will notice the buildings to the right of the Windmill, which were demolished with the widening of Queen St in the early 20th century, to make way for electric trams.
Once the railway came to York in 1839, it attracted a number of railway hotels in the area around the old station (now West Offices), a substantial change to the previous Coney St centre of gravity. First was George Britten’s Railway Hotel, opened October 1841 and sold to Sarah Scawin in 1842 and then known by her name for the next 50 years. Others included Winn’s George Hotel in Tanner Row, the Royal Station Hotel and the Grand.
Some of our old hotels were ‘commercial hotels’, for business people (nearly always men), such as the Adelphi on the corner of Micklegate and George Hudson St (now the Pop World nightclub), the Great Northern Hotel on the corner of Tanner Row (now Club Salvation) and the Cromwell Hotel at 31 Micklegate (where the FortyFive Vinyl Café is now). In most cases when you look up at these buildings you can spot some of their original features.
Interestingly while these and many other hotels eventually closed and changed to other commercial uses, one well-known hotel in York has modified a group of historic buildings into a hotel in modern times. Middleton’s Hotel on Skeldergate opened in the 1970s, and includes 56 individual hotel rooms spread across six different historic buildings, all Grade II or Grade II* listed buildings: Lady Anne House, Cromwell House, Chaplin House, Sir Joseph Terry Cottages, No.56 Skeldergate and The Organ Factory.
Ian highlighted the striking rise in the number of hotel bedrooms in our area between 1963, when there were around 214 rooms, and now in 2023 there are nearly 1100 rooms available. There have been structural changes of course. The mainstay of tourism in the mid-20th century was the guesthouse, but when overseas tourism took off in the 1960s, British holidaymakers started to demand ensuite facilities, which smaller guesthouses could not accommodate. In the 21st century the rise of competition from AirBnB for example has led to the closure of many more guesthouses.
Lastly Ian encouraged us to go and visit some of our local hotels, as these have interesting historic features in their rooms, so it’s worth going along for a coffee there.
Recordings of this and other past talks are available to members. For details contact firstname.lastname@example.org