South Western House has been an unmistakable Southampton landmark since it opened as a grand hotel in 1897. At this time, it was called the Imperial Hotel, but the original developer quickly went bankrupt and so the London and South Western Railway purchased the property and applied the finishing touches, before changing its name to the South Western Hotel.
The railway company had a vested interest in the hotel anwyay, since they also owned the railway station serving Southampton Docks which the hotel was built on to the side of. That railway station is now a casino, situated at the bottom of Oxford Street. Guests could now get the train from London to Southampton, depart at the station, and be in their hotel room in a matter of minutes. Southampton was known as ‘the gateway to the world’, and the hotel was perfect for the ever growing number of people using the port.
The building was grand, impressive and stylish, slightly imposing and catered for the upper class who were used to the high level of service they would receive there. On the night before the Titanic departed Southampton in 1912, the hotel welcomed many of the ship’s first class passengers, including Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line, and Titanic’s head designer, Thomas Andrews. It was outside the South Western Hotel where the Slade brothers got held up by a passing train, meaning they missed boarding the Titanic, a delay that probably saved their lives. You can read about them here in another of my posts: The Slade Brothers’ Lucky Escape.
It continued to be used as a hotel through the first half of the twentieth century and it was known the world over, playing host to celebrities and royalty alike. It is known that the Queen stayed here, and danced in the hotel’s elegant ballroom. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum to the Horse and Groom pub which was situated on East Street, known by sailors the world over as a place of drunken debauchery, the South Western Hotel was known for its elegance and was a focal point for high society in the town.
During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitoned by the military due to its close proximity to the docks and was used as the HQ for Combined Operations during the planning for D-Day. A lot of the plans that went in to effect on the 6th of June 1944 were dreamt up in this building, with Churchill and Eisenhower allegedly meeting here at least once to discuss important invasion matters.
After the War, the hotel did not reopen. From 1961 until 1991 the building was owned by the BBC, who used it to broadcast their ‘South Today’ programme. It then lay empty for seven years until 1998 when it was purchased by a development company who transformed it in to over seventy apartments.
I’m jealous of those who get to live in this grand building, a building of such importance, and one that is full of history.