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Apex Waterloo: a history

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Edinburgh’s first purpose built hotel

Edinburgh's Waterloo Hotel is looking its very best again. Not since its opening, as the first large scale hotel in Edinburgh in 1819, has the building appeared so elegant. A complete redevelopment in 2009 removed the wear and tear of the last two centuries - but none of its charm and history.

"an establishment where strangers can see the manners of the people and mix with the society of the place"

This advertising slogan is still as relevant today as it was back in 1819 when it was used in the brief by the original architect Archibald Elliot for the Waterloo Hotel, Tavern and Coffee House. In Edinburgh, at this time, hotels of modest size were normally adapted from existing houses but the Waterloo Hotel was the exception as the very first large scale purpose built hotel in Edinburgh with large public rooms and bedrooms that could accommodate up to 50 guests. Through its doors came Princes, Earls, writers, actors, artists, entertainers, singers, dancers and many other travellers and tourists from far and wide.

Image from Waterloo Hotel menu February 1895

The original Grand Design - 1815

James Gillespie, Richard Crichton and Archibald Elliot had all submitted designs for the bridge and buildings for Waterloo Place in November 1815 and Elliot was then chosen to be architect for the scheme.

Elliot wanted the bedrooms to "speak for themselves, as affording the most complete bedroom accommodation that the country can present".

A great dining room with a balcony for music parties, three dining rooms, with sliding doors that could be thrown into one to accommodate supper parties, balls or private dancing parties "it will be seen that this house also affords ample opportunity for entertaining companies of any number in the most elegant manner" "This splendid room will have a Cupola in order to appropriate it to such exhibitions as require a management, or particular distribution of light and shade". Sadly this great room no longer exists. Part of the building was demolished in the 1970's to accommodate an extension. However, the spectacular Cupola, that would have originally flooded the great room with natural light has been saved and can be seen on the 8th floor of the hotel.

A Royal Opening

The Waterloo Hotel opened on Saturday 21st August 1819 to commemorate the visit of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. He was in the first carriage to travel down Waterloo Place.

Great Expectations!

Charles Dickens was another famous Waterloo Hotel guest who stayed several times during 1861 at the time he was writing Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

Freedom of the City

Charles Grey 2nd Earl, (1764-1845) was given the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh on 26th August 1834 at a ceremony that took place at the Waterloo Hotel. An interesting character, with a long political career, Charles Grey succeeded the Duke of Wellington to take up the position of British Prime Minister (1830-1834). Earl Grey’s most remarkable achievements were the Reform Act of 1832, which resulted in a gradual process of electoral change and sowed the seeds of the system we recognise today and in 1933 the Act that abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. One of Grey’s other legacies is the blend of tea known as Earl Grey. He reputedly received a gift of tea that was flavoured with bergamot oil. It became so popular that Grey asked British tea merchants to recreate it.

The Society of the Place

During the 19th century Edinburgh became a favourite destination for both education and for residence, known as the second city in the empire for learning and science. The social life of Edinburgh flourished in theatre, concert, supper party, ball and club. Formal dinners with interminable rounds of formal toasts were long and fashionable. It is clear to see, through the research we have conducted, that the Waterloo Hotel was a most popular venue for all manner of entertainment. The commodious coffee room, the splendid ball room 80ft by 40ft lighted by crystal chandeliers and dining rooms of all sizes, the hotel was to be the centre of entertainment in Edinburgh throughout its life as a hotel establishment. In the latter part of the 19th century the Great Room was to become the Prince of Wales Operetta House, attracting many actors, performers and singers from across the country to entertain the gentry of the time.

Tough Justice in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century, the justice system was very different from today. Trials in court were often very quick and prosecutors, judges and jurors had more power and choice. The prosecutor was normally the victim of the crime, and he or she would accuse the defendant. The defendant was expected to explain away the evidence against them and, thus, prove their innocence. During our research, we uncovered several cases of theft that took place at the Waterloo Hotel:

In 1824 Thomas Litster a waiter at the hotel, was caught stealing silver spoons. In 1831 Alexander Smith, a 13 year brass founder stole a silk handkerchief in the lobby of Waterloo Hotel and a John Smith, who worked as a Boots at the hotel was caught breaking into lockfast places and stealing money. All were found guilty and transported to the colonies for 7 years. It is unknown if they ever returned.

Changing Times

In 1898 the Waterloo Hotel ceased trading and was sold to the North British Railway company for their new offices. In 1912 it was remodelled when sold to the Edinburgh and Leith Corporation Gas Commissioners. The 1912 alterations included the extension on the east elevation, a link to new offices on Calton Hill and the installation of a lift in the main stairwell. The present door piece was also added at this time. This Grade A listed building was purchased by Apex Hotels in December 2006. Apex appointed Ian Springford Architects to redesign and refurbish the building. With an investment of over £30 million this magnificent historic building has now been returned to hotel trading after 120 years.

We would like to think that the original architect, Archibald Elliot would be pleased with the redesign and that his original vision for "a suitable house, affording every accommodation that can be desired" is as true today as it was when the Waterloo Hotel first opened in 1819.


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