How did Bristol hotels get their name?
Why On Earth call a hotel Bristol? This question cropped up nearly twenty years ago when Sophie and I spent a few days away for the first time shortly after we had met. I still look back on that weekend at Le Bristol in Paris with fondness, in spite of the painful break-up a dozen years later. Sophie was French Swiss, bright, brown-eyed, efficient and kind, and to cement our romance we had chosen to spend a weekend in one of the most elegant and historic hotels in the city. Over breakfast on the first morning, as I reached out to dust a croissant crumb from her lower lip, I wondered aloud why such a sophisticated establishment as Le Bristol would want to call itself after a small and not very glamorous English port. In the endearing lilt that had attracted me from the start, Sophie replied that if it had been called Le Bognor or Le Basingstoke, we would probably have gone elsewhere. I am sure she was right.
Ickworth House in Suffolk, England, was built largely by the 4th Earl of Bristol, though he barely lived there, spending much of his time on the Continent amassing a collection of art and antiquities. Its distinctive rotunda was designed for an art gallery. The west wing (to the right) was never completed. The east wing is now a hotel and the whole estate is in the care of the National Trust
Sophie worked for an international public relations company and I was employed by an international finance house specialising in European Union tax laws, living on expense accounts and out of suitcases. We were on the way up our heady career ladders. After our Parisian break, I started to notice other hotels called Bristol and at every opportunity I checked them out. They spread beyond Europe, from Amman to Buenos Aires, Delhi to San Diego, Yalta to Melbourne, and ideas about how this might have come about started to emerge, too.
The Earl-Bishop, aged 60, with a view of Rome (detail) by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1790)
One of the most popular theories is that they are named after Frederick Augustus Hervey (pronounced Harvey, 1730–1803), the 4th Earl Bristol, who became Bishop of Derry, Ireland’s richest episcopal see. He was a worldly cleric from a family of scarlet women and outspoken and eccentric men of whom it was said, “There are men, women and Herveys”. A larger than life character, he embraced materialism and used his well paid position to dash about Europe collecting paintings and antiquities to fill the mansions he was building for himself. These were Downhill and Ballyscullion in Derry, neither of which survives, and Ickworth in Suffolk, which he built after inheriting the estate and lodge, along with his title, from his older brother at the age of forty-four. The Earl-Bishop spent little time in Derry and hardly any time in Suffolk but he managed to build and furnish these sumptuous homes. In his own parish he is remembered for putting spires on churches, building roads, draining bogs and supporting the Volunteers. In Suffolk, the house he built is on the tourist map.
Details of the Rotunda
Centred on a grand neo-classical rotunda designed to exhibit the continual consignments of art that Bristol dispatched from Europe, Ickworth today is a major attraction. Handsomely furnished, it has a number of family portraits, including several of the Earl-Bishop. One by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, painted when Bristol was sixty, shows a fresh-faced cleric with a high forehead and pale hair reaching the collar of his black tunic of office. He is seated in a fashionably romantic arbour overlooking the city of Rome. The house and gardens are run by the National Trust, to whom it was given by the 6th Marquess of Bristol in 1956. Part of it was opened as a 27-bedroom hotel in 2002, three years after the death of the 7th Marquess who had squandered much of what remained of the family fortune on drugs. The title subsequently passed to twenty-year-old Frederick William Augustus Hervey, who was studying architecture at Edinburgh University. Lady Victoria and Lady Isabelle Hervey, “It” Girl and Playboy bunny, are the 8th Marquess’s sisters.The Earl-Bishop spent a total of twenty years on the Continent, including the last eleven of his life. Restless, and always in search of new company and stimulating conversation, he was often on horseback, galloping towards the hospitality of a friend or acquaintance. Inns were chosen with care; he insisted on the best rooms and demanded top quality food and service. Sometimes his entourage included his own cook, and on at least one occasion two. Nothing could better recommend an inn or hostelry than to have it known that Lord Bristol had stayed there. Sometimes he travelled with a large party, particularly in the later years when he became bored with his travelling companion, his chaplain the Rev Trefusis Lovell. One witness noted: “With a rather numerous retinue he travelled by short stages, but his horses in this sort of caravan were wretched jades and his carriage resembled the cart of a quack-doctor. His cook, who always went in advance, prepared his lodgings. The Bishop used to say gaily, ‘I arrive provided with the appetite of a curé, but I find the dinner of a bishop.’”In a 1924 biography William Shakespeare Childe-Pemberton wrote, “So widely famed was the Bishop as a traveller, and so great his reputation as a connoisseur of all good things, that Lord Bristol’s Hotel – he was latterly known everywhere on the Continent as Lord Bristol – came to be the best known and regarded in every city or town where he sojourned and was thus the precursor of the Hotels Bristol to be found all over Europe.”
Bristol Harbour in 1787
Bristol made his first trip abroad in 1766 when hotels – or rather inns and hostels – were fairly primitive. This was the age of the Grand Tour, the lengthy excursion to places of antiquity popular with the sons (never the daughters) of the aristocracy in the restless years between university and marriage. The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars interrupted this pastime but Bristol continued to roam, dabbling in political intrigue in the courts of Prussia and Naples, and offering advice to Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, and anyone else who would listen.Bristol died before Napoleon was defeated, and before the railways brought ease of travel and increased accommodation. The grandest of the new hotels were built by and for the rising bourgeoisie to emulate the fashionable neo-classical aristocratic mansions that the Grand Tour had inspired. Some of these mansions became hotels, such as the Cavendishes’ London house in Burlington Gardens behind the Royal Academy, which in the late 19th century was converted into the Hotel Bristol with one of the most sought after restaurants in town. The French would have called the Cavendish townhouse an hôtel, but when the word became hijacked by the hospitality industry the owners of private townhouses distanced themselves from commercial establishments by calling their exclusive homes hôtels particuliers.
Bristol city’s coat of arms, which has found its way on to the logo of the Bristol in Vienna
The word hôtel also has its roots in hospitals and hostals, places of accommodation for university students and for pilgrims and other travellers. In France, the destruction of religious houses during the Revolution meant that many of these lodging houses fell into secular hands and it was around this time that privately run hôtels began to appear – a circumflex in French being the sign of a missing “s”. In North America Samuel Blodget Jr, the merchant son of a Boston innkeeper, was the first to attempt to open a hotel, building the four-storey Union Public Hotel in Washington in 1793, when the Revolution in France was well under way. Money was raised by public subscription but the hotel was never completed. It was not until the following spring that the first hotel in the United States opened its doors, the 137-room, five-storey City Hotel in New York, which joined the elite mansions on Broadway, on the site of the former City Tavern.
John Cabot took the name of Bristol to North America. There are now more than 30 places named Bristol in Canada and the US
There are, however, a number of people who are against the idea that any hotel bearing the name Bristol might have anything at all to do with the Earl-Bishop, and many who can’t see why a hotel should be called Bristol at all. When a new grand hotel was being built in Warsaw in 1901, the newspaper Dziennik dla Wszystkich complained about the decision by the owners to call it the Bristol. Unable to find out why a foreign name had been chosen, it ran a competition: “Anyone who solves this puzzle will be given as a reward a fragment of one of the bricks from the new Hotel Bristol being erected by Mr Paderewski on Krakowskie Przedmiesce.” But the name went ahead, and no reason was found, though it was suggested that many Polish names may be unpronounceable to foreign visitors. Michael Goerdt, who was general manager of the same Warsaw Bristol when it reopened after a major refurbishment in 1993, believes that the name Bristol became widespread simply because, like Astoria, it is a word that can be pronounced in any language, and is easy on the tongue even when transliterated into Cyrillic.Going further, Andreas Augustin, author of handsome hotel books and president of The Most Famous Hotels in the World, refutes the Earl-Bishop theory entirely, insisting this was simply a “bad PR gag”. It is the English city of Bristol, he maintains, that gives the hotels their names, pointing to the Vienna Bristol’s logo bearing the English city’s coat of arms. When the Bristol in Rome opened in 1870, it, too employed this coat of arms, and he believes that this was the first hotel in the world to be named Bristol.
In the 1920s and 30s it was the name of one of New York’s smartest hotels
In the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the Capsis family run the elegant Bristol Hotel in what was a post office in Ottoman times. The English port, says their website, is “where the concept of modern hotels was born when, for the first time, an inn separated customers from their horses and created rooms for customers and special spaces for horses”. It goes on to say that tradition insists that every town is allowed to host only one Bristol, though I have found this is not always the case. The West Country maritime city is not an obvious candidate for such fame. The slave trade that helped it to prosper is nothing to crow about, and though it achieved acclaim when John Cabot set out from there in 1497 to explore North America, where more than thirty towns took Bristol’s name, it is far less glamorous than, say, Marseilles or Barcelona. And yet, one way and another, the name has spread.
A Bristol Bulldog, 1927. With a string of famous planes, beginning in World War I and including Concorde, Bristol Aviation spread the name across the world
In the twentieth century the name of Bristol was romanticised and scattered to the four winds by the city’s aviation company. Its famous Boxkite carried the first airmail letters in Britain and took them around the world. Bristol Aviation built cargo carriers and fighter planes that became household names in both World Wars and its Britannia airlines took passengers on transatlantic and colonial routes in the 1950s. Concorde became airborne with its participation. The Bristol company made road vehicles, too, and although the commercial vehicle manufacturers was subsumed into British Leyland in the 1970s, you can still see the Bristol logo on buses in South Africa and on open-top tourist buses crossing New York’s Times Square. Bristol Cars Ltd is the last remaining British luxury car maker and their hand-make sports cars are among the most expensive in the world.
A Bristol cars emblem with the city’s coat of arms. Bristol Cars are Britain’s last independent motor manufacturers, and their fans include the rich and famous
There may be more mundane reasons for choosing the name Bristol. The handsome clapboard Hotel Bristol in downtown Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for instance, takes its name from Police Chief Everett Bristol, who built the place in 1948. Occasionally, the name goes out of fashion, especially in moments of anti-British feeling, such as the 20th century’s World Wars when all Bristols disappeared in Germany. But by and large the name has endured remarkably well, adapting to the markets of its times. True, many of them have been lost, but hotels continue to open under the tried-and-tested Bristol name.
The Bristol logo that adorned aeroplanes, trucks and buses
Every hotel has a score of stories. And as I booked in and out of a succession of hotels Bristol, collecting souvenir labels, pens, toiletries, towels and dressing gowns that filled our bathroom and drove Sophie crazy, my own life became a part of theirs. In the end I decided to set down these tales, anecdotes and histories in a book, with each hotel providing a chapter, a complete episode that would take no longer to read than you would want in the time from falling into bed and getting settled before switching out the light. It would be the ideal bedside reader for any hotel, no matter what its name.
The name Bristol is still being taken up in such smart hotels as the cool Bristol in Frankfurt
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