Sampson Society

Sampson Society Appreciation Visit - 14 November 2013

Events leading up to the opening of the hotel.

The Victoria Hotel, designed by Sampson, was built between 1902 and 1904. It was built for the Sidmouth Hotel Company Ltd, a company which was established on 14 June 1902. The directors of the company were Col Balfour, lord of the manor, and William Hastings. Contemporary newspaper reports suggest that Col Balfour was the sole, or at least main shareholder. William Hastings, the manor agent, was appointed as company secretary. It was, in effect, a development by the Sidmouth Manor Estate, one of many designed to exploit the estate’s land holdings, whilst at the same time advance the reputation of Sidmouth as a resort.

The town first learned of the proposal for a new hotel on 25 June 1902, when the Sidmouth Observer reported that Mr Hastings had approached the Council, suggesting that the company would be prepared to give up land on the Peak Hill Road frontage for road widening, provided the Council carried out the works. Within a week the Council had established the cost of road widening (£159 11s 8d) and agreed to accept the land and carry out the works.

Construction work started on 20 October 1902. Mr Blake, from Plymouth, was appointed as builder and the contract sum was said to be £19,484. The Sidmouth Observer reported that over 100 men were engaged on the site.

On 6 January 1903, William Hastings applied for the licence. The application was heard by the Ottery Brewster Sessions on 3 February. The barrister acting for the company explained:

….It was to be an hotel of a very substantial and excellent description, and of a distinctly high-class order, fitted with all the best and most modern requirements, including the installation of electric light. Every precaution against fire would be taken, and there would be an excellent service of lifts, including a large lift for the use of invalids. The prices too would be high class - not less than 4 guineas - and there was no intention of having anything in the shape of a bar…

Mr Sampson gave evidence and explained that the building was now up to ground floor level. He indicated that the building was to be completed by the following October. After describing the features of the hotel in similar terms to the company’s barrister, he said that he had “..superintended the enlargement of every hotel in the town..” and from what hotel keepers had informed him, he should say that the new hotel was essential.

There was a brief discussion about provision against fire. Mr Sampson satisfied the bench by indicating that all the corridors in the hotel would connect with the main staircase, and steel rope ladders would be provided from the balconies. (A far cry from preset day measures to prevent the spread of fire and provide adequate means of escape.)

The bench concluded that the objectors to the scheme (the Temperance Party, licensed victuallers and a few individuals) had no case and therefore granted the licence. The matter was confirmed by the Devon Licensing Committee on 22 April 1903. It was explained at this session that the cost of the hotel would be £27,000, including furnishings.

On 29 April the Sidmouth Observer reported that the hotel was beginning to make an imposing show at the western end of the Parade, and that the hotel was to be named the ‘Victoria’.

In September 1903 the Council approved plans for a dwelling house. The house was probably designed as manager’s accommodation and appears to have been built at the same time as the hotel. It has survived in a radically changed form, and is now used as staff accommodation.

Despite the initial views that the hotel would open for business in October 1903, it was not until March in the following year that the hotel was ready to open.

The opening festivities took place over the first weekend of March and were attended by invited guests from all over the country. Many of the guests represented the medical profession, thus promoting Sidmouth, and the hotel, as a health resort. It was reported that something in the order of £30,000 had been expended by the proprietors in building and furnishing the hotel to the highest standards. In describing the accommodation available, the Sidmouth Observer commented :

A feature of the hotel is several complete suites of apartments on the first floor - sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom. The decoration of these is especially good, and the furnishing is of the choicest possible character, Messrs Shapland and Petter having executed their commission in a manner which challenges comparison with the very best that can be seen in any hotel. The drawing room is exquisitely furnished, the billiard room with its tables is very striking, the lounge is comfortable and commodious, and the dining room, arranged with a number of small tables, will provide for a hundred guests. The bedrooms are well upholstered, thickly carpeted, and have telephone communication. Major Balfour and the other directors of the hotel do not seem to have overlooked anything…..

The inaugural dinner took place on 5th March 1904. Of the many appreciative speeches made, Mr Hastings explained that the owners

…had been extremely fortunate in Mr Sampson, their architect, who had given his care, skill, taste and ability to not merely an architect’s work, but with the view of making the hotel a work of art.” The comments received great applause. The invited guests spent the weekend at the hotel, returning on the Monday to London and beyond on board a special train.

The festivities continued on the Monday afternoon, when the directors of the hotel gave a reception to which a large number of local residents were invited. The hotel finally opened for business on Tuesday 8th March 1904.

The Sidmouth Herald of the time always listed the names of residents and visitors to the town. By the time the Herald went to press in that first week, the Victoria appeared to have only 6 guests. There were many more the following week. The numbers rose significantly in the following weeks such that the amount of accommodation available was regarded as inadequate. As a result, in September 1906 work started on extensions; these were completed the following year.

Design of the Hotel

Sampson was obviously instructed to design an imposing building, an hotel in the grand style. The main materials consist of a semi-engineering red brick and slate roof. There is extensive use of stone mullions and surrounds to all the windows on the principal elevations. Sampson incorporated projecting bays at each of the corners of the main elevations. These form particularly striking features, being semi-circular in form, cantilevered outwards at first floor level, and topped by cupola styled roofing in lead work. A series of balconies serve the bedrooms and suites at first and second floor level. The steeply sloping roof is punctuated by numerous dormer windows which provide accommodation at the third floor level.

The 1906 extension is designed in a similar, but slightly simpler, vein and incorporates elaborate rainwater hoppers bearing the date 1907, matching those dated 1903 on the original building. Somewhat oddly, the rainwater hoppers at the back of the extension bear the date 1906. These are simpler in design and were presumably bought off the shelf when building commenced.

A carriage portico, built in stonework, provides a feature at the main entrance. As with all Sampson buildings, the passage of sunlight and daylight to the heart of the structure was of critical importance. The main lounge (originally just the panelled area housing the main staircase) was provided with large floor to ceiling south facing windows. A glazed veranda ran along this south elevation in the area now occupied by the modern (lower level) lounge. The veranda was later enclosed with a structure of small pained windows akin to a Victorian conservatory. Light continued to penetrate the main lounge, not only through the conservatory, but also through high level windows placed above the veranda roof.

Internally, the public rooms have retained much of Sampson’s detailing. The entrance area features an interesting barrel vaulted ceiling and in the residents lounge the ornate ceiling plasterwork has survived. It is possible that the main lounge and present bar area originally had similar ceilings in this grand style, but if that was the case, this detailing has now been lost.

The most noteworthy internal detail of the building is the original lounge area. The oak panelling sets the scene for the grand staircase, which in true Sampson fashion has a large window at the half landing level. Some of the original effect has obviously been lost as the room now flows outwards into the modern extension, but the focal point, the fireplace, remains. The stone fireplace with its oak surround would have been specified by Sampson, and it’s no coincidence that it is very similar to the one at Trow Hall, which was designed by Sampson about the same time as the Victoria.

Notwithstanding the internal detailing, it is externally that the building has most impact. The whole effect externally is in marked contrast to Sampson’s other work. Built to impress, the hotel has a harsh, almost urban feel, and is reminiscent of the railway hotels of the time. It could be argued that it does little to reflect the character of Sidmouth with its regency buildings, and is certainly very different to Sampson’s arts and crafts designs of the time. The Fortfield Hotel, now unfortunately demolished but which was built at exactly the same time, reflected more closely the typical work of Sampson.

There have been some alterations to the building over the years. The chimneys have all been removed and many of the original dormers have been combined, thus loosing their form. The original veranda and subsequent conservatory detailing has disappeared and been replaced with a projecting ground floor extension with large plate glass windows. The steeply sloping roof of the house at the rear has been removed and replaced with an additional floor, such that the building is now a flat roofed 3 storey staff accommodation block. Some of these changes have been unfortunate, although it has to be said that the building generally remains as Sampson intended.

Whatever one may think of the resulting building, the design of the hotel was obviously greatly influenced by the requirements of Sampson’s client. It does serve to demonstrate Sampson’s ability to design a building of virtually any character and architectural style. It is certainly very much a landmark, both in physical terms, and in the development of Sidmouth as a resort in the Edwardian era.

Martin Mallinson November 2013