The House That Became a Palace

The Strand Palace Hotel dates back to 1909, but it didn’t begin its life as a hotel. In fact, the original premises were constructed in the 1500s, when the Strand was just a speck on the London landscape and Shakespeare was entertaining the growing crowds that flocked to the capital.

Burghley and Exeter House
In 1571, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, built his house on the Strand. Cecil was a highly influential figure, twice Treasurer of State and Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I who he entertained at Burghley House, which he affectionately referred to as his, “rude new cottage.” He remained in the property right up until his death in 1598 when his son Thomas took ownership.

Politically minded like his father, Thomas Cecil was soon appointed Earl of Exeter and the building was renamed Exeter House. After the Earl’s death in 1623, the building was converted into a marketplace known as the Exeter Exchange.

Exeter Exchange
The Exchange had an arcade covering the front and a large collection of shops located at the rear, but over time, shops replaced the traders on the ground floor, and the upper rooms were used for storage.

From 1773, the upper rooms were let to a series of impresarios, namely Gilbert Pidcock and Stephani Polito, who operated a menagerie to rival the renowned Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. They housed many dangerous, exotic animals during the winter months, charging their countless visitors up to 2s6d to visit the caged beasts.

Many artists, poets and celebrities went to see the animals and some even included them in their work. English poet, Lord Byron was among those who visited the indoor zoo. In November of 1813 he wrote in his diary, “There was a ‘hippopotamus’ like Lord Liverpool in the face; and the ‘Ursine Sloth’ hath the very voice and manner of my valet – but the tiger talked too much.” Of the star attraction, an eleven-foot tall Indian Elephant called Chunee, Byron wrote, “The elephant took and gave me my money again – took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler.”

Strand Palace Hotel Old Entrance

Lord Byron may have believed the elephant to be well behaved, but in fact Chunee was prone to fits of rage, attacking and killing his keeper in 1826, and was subsequently publicly executed. Three years later, the Exeter Exchange was demolished.

Exeter Hall
In 1831, Exeter Hall rose from the rubble to serve as a religious centre. Whilst it fulfilled this role, it soon became the place to hold weekly society meetings too, the most famous and influential being the Anti-Slavery Society. Campaigners frequently met to give speeches on the subject of oppressed nationalities. Just two years after the erection of Exeter Hall, slavery was abolished in the UK.

The hall also housed some of the finest composers of the age, such as Berlioz, Spohr and Mendelssohn, and became the place to be seen. Unfortunately, Exeter Hall fell to the Exeter curse and was torn down in 1907.

The Strand Palace Hotel
Soon after, J. Lyons & Co. bought the site and two years later opened the Strand Palace Hotel breaking the curse for good. The hotel was established for those who wanted, “the maximum of luxury and comfort with the minimum of expense.” At that time, a single room with breakfast would have set you back 5s6d- a whopping 27p in today’s money!

The hotel was a hub of activity where the best and brightest of London’s social scene went to show off their dancing skills with displays of the Charleston and Tango. Despite the passing of time, the hotel has remained a popular venue and continues to offer comfortable accommodation at affordable prices right in the heart of London’s beating heart

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