The glorious history of Exeter’s Royal Clarence Hotel (by Jamie Ransom)
When it comes to local history we sometimes don’t realise exactly what we had until it is gone. In some cases, we can even become witnesses ourselves to a significant part of the history of a particular location or building. This is certainly the case in Exeter with a building credited as the oldest hotel in England.
This is a building that was a firm and loved fixture of the cityscape and a building with a story of splendour and enjoyment, but also tragedy and great loss. In this blog, I pay tribute to the amazing Royal Clarence Hotel and share with you a snippet of its fascinating story.
The Grade II Listed Royal Clarence was said to have been the earliest in England to hold the status of a hotel. Opening its doors in 1769, the hotel boasted one of the best views in the city from its location in Cathedral Close, where it overlooks the magnificent Exeter Cathedral. During it’s time the hotel has been known under a variety of names such as ‘The Clarence & Thompson Hotel’ – ‘The Hotel’ – and it was most recently branded as ‘Abode’. Many people from around the world have visited, fallen in love with it, and returned to the hotel many times including some quite famous celebrity names!
The Royal Clarence has been – for many – a place of enjoyment, relaxation, fine dining and important life events, as well as a place of work. But do you know that some very interesting and locally important events have also taken place there? One that springs to mind – that I once read about – was in 1815 when a meeting was held at the hotel to discuss bringing a new invention to Exeter to light the streets of the city. That new invention was gas lamps and Exeter was one of the first to adopt it. Amazing!
Of course, over the years the hotel has had to endure along with the rest of Exeter and in some cases the world. An example of this was during World War 2 when the devastation caused by the relentless Blitz left much of the city in rubble only meters from the hotel’s location. This saviour, in part, may be due to being located so close to Exeter Cathedral (which was hit by a bomb) protecting it from the worst destruction.
This couldn’t keep the Royal Clarence down though and in 1939 the hotel offered Exeter’s very first cocktail bar called the ‘Zodiac’. What was on offer you might ask? Well, how about these for a few of the 50+ cocktails that were available; The Kentucky Colonel… How about a Tugboat Annie? Perhaps you might try ‘The Corpse Reviver’ or the award-winning ‘Gloom Chaser’ ….Goodness! The emphasis was firmly on customer comfort and this was a pedigree set to continue.
The hotel underwent a major multi-million pound refurbishment and a number of changes over time but retained many historically important and architecturally important aspects. These changes on occasion would incorporate other nearby important properties and in essence, represented hundreds of years of change leading to many of the buildings in Cathedral Yard/Close being granted a listed status. The Royal Clarence was also well known for housing a great number of antiques through various decades and history was firmly in its roots.
Although The Royal Clarence was loved by those from far and wide I think it is safe to say that no one adored the hotel more than the people of Exeter. You do not have to go far to find someone who has a story from being in the hotel including business meetings, large events, a special meal, catching up with a friend over a glass of champagne “Cin-Cin” – and of course the stories created over the years from the dedicated staff. It is for this reason that the entire city was in a state of complete shock, sadness and utter disbelief when a fire broke out in an adjoining building on the morning of the 28th of October 2016.
The fire began in a nearby property and quickly began to spread. Chilling footage was caught on CCTV by Exeter City Council as burning embers rained down and evacuations began. At one time it was thought that the fire may have been contained, but a ruptured gas main fuelled the flames and an inferno ensued requiring the enormous efforts of many firefighters and crews around the clock. The people of Exeter including myself watched on helpless as the hotel was gutted by the flames. Everyone was connected by the same helplessness. By the time the fire was contained and subsequently extinguished the Royal Clarence Hotel was a shell of its former self. This had an immense effect on nearby businesses and the lives of many people – especially the hotel staff whose exceptional actions prevented anyone from being hurt. The unfolding events were soon shared throughout the country on national news channels.
At this point, I must point out that the tragedy of the fire strongly demonstrated the coming together of local people in support of the emergency services with a great number supplying refreshments, food, water and all that they could to help. Nearby hotels offered to cater for evacuated guests and Exeter City Council were incredibly quick to assist in necessary changes at the same time as keeping everyone updated at each step.
Now we all look forward to a more positive future for the hotel with the memories of what once was. The reconstruction of The Royal Clarence Hotel has been underway from the earliest point that it was possible and already there are very noticeable changes to the façade – This is another stitch in the hotel’s historical tapestry and we all look forward to the day that the great hotel opens its doors for business once again.
Photographs (the 1950’s) by Exeter In Old Photographs by Peter Thomas
Royal Clarence ‘After Fire’ Photographs by Steve Stewart
Cathedral Green Photograph Property of Ransoms Residential
All Other Photographs by Jamie Ransom
About the author
Jamie Ransom is Exeter born and bred, with a Devon family that spans generations. He loves all things property, history and heritage, especially in his hometown Exeter; “I love Exeter for its amazing growth, but also how it has remained so relaxed with great access to the coast and rugged moors. I am an avid lifetime Titanic enthusiast and researcher” … He also runs his own Exeter based Devon property management company; Ransoms Residential. Jamie is our very own history buff and will be uncovering the fascinating history of places around the city for Exploring Exeter.
Tags: Exeter, Exeter fire, history, Royal Clarence Hotel, world war two