The Royal Hotel
The Royal Hotel is a building of two parts, the older having a history dating back to 1688, with the remainder a 19th C. addition to the south of the original building.
The older section, later known as Colonial House, began life as the town house of the wealthy tobacco merchant, and former Mayor of Bideford, John Davie. Built in 1688, it still contains relics of that time, including a fine staircase and two superb plaster ceilings. Amongst the finest in Devon, they are thought to be the work of John Abbot of Frithelstock, as they resembling his other work in the Customs House at Exeter.
Davie’s monument (in the parish church at Buckland Brewer) suggests that the commercial success of Bideford paralleled that of Davie, who was undoubtedly wealthy (his will mentions extravagant items such as a portrait set with diamonds) and was, in his day, perhaps the most successful of Bideford’s merchants. Davie’s success had been achieved through not only through the incredibly lucrative import of tobacco, but also other merchant endeavours, such as involvement in the Newfoundland fishery. Davies stature perhaps accounts for Colonial House taking pride of place on a plan from c. 1717, the earliest known to depict Bideford’s quays in detail.
Four generations of Davies owned the house, Joseph Davie inheriting it 1710, his son John Davie inheriting in 1723, and a further John Davie inheriting in 1745. The last of these John Davies married the heir to Heaton Court (near Barnstaple). Their son, Joseph Davie Bassett, built Watermouth Castle and the families focus thereafter moved away from Bideford.
In 1748 the Colonial House was sold to John Wilcock, a merchant, dealing in wine and timber, and the second mayor of Bideford to reside there. Again the house functioned as a town residence, as Wilcock had a country residence at Woodtown. John leased the house to his son, John junr. in 1800, with the title to it then passing to this son, upon his father’s death, in 1807.
In 1815 Wilcock leased the property temporarily to Messrs Tardew & Co, for a year, then, after John Jnr’s death the house passed, in 1825, to a merchant named John Clifton. In 1828 Clifton conveyed it to Jane Willcock, along with an adjoining passageway. Jane then divide the residence and leased half out, whilst living in the other part herself.
In 1830 the Bideford Board of Guardians were looking for a property to use as a workhouse, so Jane Willcock leased them the Colonial House. This was possibly a stop-gap solution, as, by 1839, a new purpose-built workhouse had been built for them, by the builder Richard Heard.
In 1842 John Wood of Exeter drew up a plan of Bideford, his aim being to show the ownership of various premises. The scale of Wood’s cartography provides the earliest indication of the ground plan of Colonial House, which, marked as Old Workhouse, was clearly built around an enclosed courtyard, no doubt a useful feature whilst it was a workhouse.
In May 1830 Bideford’s Quarter Sessions had ordered a common gaol for the Borough and Manor, so, once the funds were raised, a gaol opened adjacent to the Workhouse. Making use of three strongrooms to function as the prison cells, this would remain Bideford’s gaol until the police station opened in 1897.
Richard Heard, the builder, bought up the vacant Colonial Buildings and set about converting them once more into a home fit for a merchant, for Richard branched out into other avenues of trade. When a blockade of the Baltic dried up supplies of timber for builders and shipwrights, he was one of those who pioneered a new avenue of trade, supplying Prince Edward Island, organising for ships to be built there, importing timber back into England, and, in Heard’s case, using the outward voyages to carry emigrants. Poor conditions in Devon, growing awareness of the opportunities in the colonies, and to some degree religious fervour, were leading many to seek a new life across the Atlantic. For most, the conditions on the crossing were pretty basic, but Heard catered for a somewhat higher class of emigration, his ships having a reputation for relative comfort and safety.
As befits a successful man, Heard is said to have had a notable library, including some old manuscripts that had been found in a cupboard concealed behind a panel. Heard’s documents are said to have been examined by the noted Victorian historian James Anthony Froude, then researching his History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, as well as by Froude’s wife’s brother-in-law Charles Kingsley, author of the blockbuster historical-novel Westward Ho!. Kingsley, in writing sections of his book, is said to have relied heavily upon Heard’s documents, but had to write on site, as Heard was unwilling to allow such valuable property off the premises.
Richard Heard’s son, William, managed the Canadian end of of the family’s operations, residing in Prince Edward Island, personally selecting the timber to be sent back, and leaving his mark upon the developing colony. Another son, George, eventually took over the Bideford end of the business, together trading as Heard Brothers.
The announcement of the route of the extension of the railway (to Great Torrington) could have come as quite a blow to Heard, as it was to run right past Colonial House, but instead he took it as a business opportunity. To provide access to the new station, the railway company had demolished a property adjacent to the Colonial House, the New London Inn. As they did not need all the land, Heard bought up the remainder (in 1873), then set about extending Colonial House onto that vacant plot and converting them into a superior quality hotel. This hotel was to boast a continental courtyard, its own pool room, and direct access to the railway platform, using which refreshments could be provided for railway travellers, and porters could meet the trains. To complement the hotel, Heard converted a timber wharf in Torrington Street into a massive stable block.
The hotel project proved to be a protracted one, during which Heard struggled to obtain and subsequently keep a license for the premises. Eventually, in 1889, it opened, its first proprietor, Stanley Heard, emphasising its salubrious nature as well as the availability of excursions to local beauty spots, and various forms of hunting and fishing. Also resident in those early days was the artist Percy Heard.
Unfortunately, the Heards had relied heavily on mortgages to fund their business growth and they must have struggled to repay these, as a trustee was appointed in 1907. In the next 25 years the Royal would change hands a total of seven times, a cycle of purchase, mortgage (presumably to fund re-branding), then sale (often prompted by difficulty funding a loan). In 1907 the Hotel was sold to Devon & General Assets Company Ltd, who set about buying up the remaining mortgages, then used it as their head office. By 1920, when the goodwill of the business was sold to Samuel Mc Clausland, a one storey building in Station Road had been added to the property (probably the building that newer residents tend to assume was the former station). In 1921 the Royal was acquired by A. W. Lister, but by 1922 he was forced to sell. C. E. Haylor picked up the reigns, and seems to have turned the business around to some degree. In 1926 he sold out to the Royal Devon Trust, who then sold to C.C.L. Adams in 1930. Adams defaulted on his mortgage payments, so, in 1833, the hotel was sold to Trust Houses Ltd.
Trust Houses Ltd brought some stability, but also saw the hotel through the difficult years of World War 2. At that time the hotel became a hub for officers involved in planning the D-day invasions, with their Green Room set aside for secret discussions and military conferences.
In 1968, the Royal became the first hotel in what went on to be the Brend group. The Brends earned it an extra AA star, but more than that, they went on to join a list of businesses that grew, from initial roots in East-the-Water, into major firms. In 2018 the group boasted 11 hotels and 18 restaurants, and they had recently been recognised as ‘Hotel Group of the Year' in the AA Hospitality Awards 2015-16.