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Ilfracombe Hotel from the front 1880s
The  Ilfracombe Hotel in 1870


Ilfracombe's first purpose-built luxury hotel opened on May 15th 1867. It occupied a prime site bordering the sea, overlooking the Capstone and Wildersmouth . It offered every comfort to the discerning tourist including cheaper rooms in the attics to accommodate their own personal servants to make them feel thoroughly at home. By the 1880s there had been considerable expansion - with its 210 rooms, it was considered to be one of the finest establishments of its kind in the country. A large indoor heated seawater bathing pool opened in 1880 and by 1903, electricity had been installed throughout the hotel and the grounds were lit at night by powerful lights on columns - an impressive sight for many who still used gas lights or candles at home.

The architect was M. C. W. Horne who designed the building in what was then called "the French Gothic style". Bricks of varying colours were used to create patterns on the exterior walls and the roof was surmounted by letters bearing the name of the hotel, visible from  the other side of the bay.


The Ilfracombe Hotel
The Ilfracombe Hotel seen from the other side


With hindsight, it can be seen that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 signalled the beginning of the end for the Ilfracombe. Before the war Steam and paddle steamers had brought thousands of tourists to the town in its heyday with the railway bringing even more. But in 1915  not a single steamer arrived at the pier. It looked as though things were going to get back to normal in 1919, the year after the war ended with the Ilfracombe experiencing a bumper season but in truth, times had changed for ever.
An advertisement for the Ilfracombe Hotel 1894

This advertisement appeared in 1894 guide books

Tarrif of Ilfracombe Hotels 1929
A far wider social class of visitors began to visit the town and the local boarding houses and small private hotels responding with reasonable charges and simplified service - a visitor could stay at a very respectable establishment for a whole weekend for just 21 shillings - including all meals. This attracted an influx of visitors whose presence actually deterred the kind of visitor who formerly had stayed at the Ilfracombe and they began to drift away in droves.

The tariff for Ilfracombe's main hotels in 1929


By the 1920s, the Ilfracombe Hotel was more than 50 years old and badly needed refurbishment. in 1928, the local authority had decided to try to buy out the owners, the Ilfracombe Hotel and Esplanade Company but their offer was turned down. Instead the Council took a lease on part of the hotel, its tennis courts, swimming pool and part of its promenade and refurbished that part of the building as Council Offices. In 1932, they also took over separate buildings, which formerly housed the hotel's laundry, to house a new museum for the town. The end of an era was heralded by the outbreak of War in 1939 when the hotel (which had continued to run on a greatly reduced scale during its last few years of life) was requisitioned by The Royal Army Pay Corps who took over every inch of space for offices and accommodation for their staff and  used the tennis court as a parade ground.

When the Pay Corps finally left after the war, the Council spent three years discussing what to do with what had become a white elephant. In 1950 they let the building to a brewery who renamed it "The Holiday Inn" and used just the lower floors for cheap accommodation with bars on the ground floor. the upper floors remained unoccupied and completely neglected so that ultimately, dereliction set in. When the brewery relinquished its lease, a survey revealed that the entire building was desperately in need of a complete and expensive refurbishment. The town was divided between those who were sentimentally attached to a famous Victorian  landmark now over 100 years old and those who saw a different future for its site - there was even a public enquiry. In the end , it had to go and in the autumn of 1976, bulldozers rumbled onto the site to commence their work.

Ilfracombe Mueum, formerly the hotel laundry

All that remains of the Ilfracombe Hotel - its former laundry now Ilfracombe's Museum. The logo of the Ilfracombe Hotel Company and date of the building's construction still survive on the gable

© Richard J. Brine


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