The secret history of a London hotel

Throughout London there are many modern-looking buildings. And although they may not appear to be very interesting in themselves, the same cannot be said of the sites they are built on. In fact, many of them have an interesting history. It is also likely that the current structures may have little similarity to the ones that went before. One of these is in the Strand in Central London and is now home to the Strand Palace Hotel.

Strand Palace Hotel today

    But for hundreds of years it was the site of Exeter House. However, the first large building on the site was called Burghley House and was built for William Cecil who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. It was said to be three storeys high with turrets on each corner. The gardens were so large that they were reported to have extended into Covent Garden.

    After his death, his son, Thomas Cecil, renamed the property Exeter House. He died in 1623 and in 1676 it was demolished to make way for a new building called the Exeter Exchange. It consisted of a large arcade with the lower floors being used by traders whilst the upper ones were occupied by impresarios of one sort or another.

    Two of the latter, Gilbert Pidcock and Stephani Polito, installed a menagerie inside the building which featured many exotic and wild animals. It was open to the public who were charged the equivalent of twelve and a half pence for the privilege. But it became the cause of many problems. The noises coming from the wild animals spooked many of the horses pulling carriages up and down the Strand. And on one occasion, an elephant escaped and the local militia had to be called out to shoot the poor animal. The menagerie closed in 1826 and the majority of the animals were rehoused in the newly opened London Zoo still located in Regents Park.

    The next building to be built on the site was called the Exeter Hall and was home to a number of religious based organisations including the Anti-Slavery Society. Other rooms were occupied by music composers including Berlioz and Mendelsohn.

    This building was demolished in 1907 and the land acquired by J Lyons & Company who owned and ran the Lyons Tea Houses. These were amazing “cafes” and deserve their own article in the future on this blog. But it was their company who built the Strand Palace Hotel which still exists and is still a hotel today.

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