Railway hotels were a prominent feature of Victorian travel. Railway companies proudly erected them at termini or crucial connecting points.
The buildings varied in size and shape, from a few rooms within the station at Scarborough to magnificent 400 bed-roomed palatial establishments. In fact, railway companies started a tradition of hotel ownership, stretching for 132 years and embracing more than 150 properties.
The Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras; the Great Central Hotel Marylebone; the Great Western Hotel Paddington; and the Great Northern Hotel, King’s Cross are perhaps among the most spectacular examples.
Frequently pioneering, and at the forefront when it came to providing guest safety and comfort, railway hotels introduced many facilities and conveniences such as lifts, running water, private bathrooms and electric lighting – often before they were commonplace in other establishments.
Keeping in step with railway developments, Yorkshire eventually boasted a number of impressive railway hotels: the Victoria Hotel, Sheffield; Royal Station Hotel, York; Royal Station Hotel, Hull; and the Queens Hotel, Leeds.
On 16 August 1859, at a Midland Railway Company meeting, it was decided to construct a hotel on land belonging to the company in Leeds. The Midland’s railway line had reached the city from Derby via Rotherham in the 1840s and the site for the new hotel was near the company’s Wellington railway station, which had opened in 1846.
In 1861 the hotel was authorised by the Midland Railway Act of Parliament and it was to be the first “railway” hotel in Leeds.
On 29 March 1862 the MR advertised in the Leeds Intelligencer a new railway route between Leeds and Glasgow via Ingleton. Thus, a hotel in Leeds, half way between London and Scotland, was deemed to make sense, particularly if passengers wanted to take a break.
The Midland invited five eminent architects to submit designs for the new hotel. The winner was the l Leeds firm of Perkin & Blackhouse, and it was one of the partnership’s last jobs, having Armley Jail amongst their previous work. The presence of the “Goit” a tributary of the River Aire, added considerably to the difficulties when renowned local builder W. Nicholson & Son Ltd undertook the construction .
The Queens Hotel opened on January 10 1863 and was said to be “of a very ornate character, in the Italian style of architecture”. It was also noted for its dining room, lined in Burmantofts faience.
The wisdom of the Midland’s decision to build a hotel in Leeds was soon apparent, for in 1867 a new wing was added, and in 1898 another was necessary. The extensions were designed by Midland Railway architect C. T. Trubshaw, and W. Nicholson & Son once more carried out the construction work
In 1923 the Midland was absorbed into the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company and by 1935 they had decided to build a new Queens Hotel.
Called upon to produce plans for the new building were noted architects William Curtis Green and William Hamlyn.
The foundation stone was laid in October 1936 and the grand opening had Royalty in attendance. The Princess Royal, accompanied by Lord Harewood and Dorothy Yorke (lady-in-waiting), arrived by car at the new hotel at 1.15 pm on Friday November 12 1937, and were warmly greeted by a large cheering crowd.
Sir Josiah and Lady Stamp, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Leeds, and other members of the reception committee, met them at the main entrance. Lord Harewood received, from Josiah Stamp, a silver symbolic key and declared the hotel open.
When speaking at the lunch, following the opening, Lord Harewood neatly retorted to Sir Thomas Beecham’s recent criticism of hotel accommodation in the city. Sir Thomas, he said, had threatened to sleep in a park on his next visit if better hotel accommodation were not provided.
“If Thomas does not find the accommodation of this hotel satisfies him, I can only recommend him to take his rest in The Headrow Gardens.”
The Princess Royal, Lord Harewood and Miss Yorke left the hotel at 3.40pm. At 5pm it was open for business.
The Art Deco style of the building was considered to symbolise the transition of Leeds from a parochial Victorian city to a national centre.
The building also brought to Leeds standards of comfort and sophistication uncommon in 1930s Britain and redolent of American luxury.
A. E. Towler, controller of the LMS hotels, said they were trying, with their new hotel, to be the social focal point, not of Leeds alone, but of the West Riding.
Costing around £500,000, the Queens Hotel was the only one at the time that was air conditioned from basement to top storey. Built out of 50,000 tonnes of materials, these included 2m bricks and 40,000 cubic feet of Portland Stone, while there were also five miles of heating pipes laid.
The building’s north elevation is of Portland stone and faces City Square.
The hotel building formed the first part to be completed of an extensive scheme for improving railway amenities in Leeds.
The remainder of the programme, part of which was being carried out in conjunction with the London & North Eastern Railway, comprised the partial reconstruction of Leeds Wellington and Leeds New railway stations.
The scheme would enable the two stations to be worked jointly. The new combined station came to be known as Leeds City.
The Queens Hotel ended life under railway ownership when sold by British Rail in the 1980s. Grade II listing status was awarded to the building in March 1981.