Motel #1, 1953

A 1950s car parks in a garage.

This isn’t about pubs, or maybe it is: in June 1953 Britain gained its first American-style motel, The Royal Oak, at Newingreen outside Dover, Kent.

The Royal Oak was, as the name suggests, an old inn, apparently established in 1560 and rebuilt in the 18th century. It was around this core that the new motel was constructed by entrepreneur Graham Lyon.

Lyon was born in London in 1889 and worked with early automobiles as a youth. In the 1920s he was a pioneer of coach trips to the Continent, driving tourists around in a 10-seater Ford Model T charabanc. After World War II he entered the hotel business, starting with The White Cliffs in Dover. Something of an Americophile, his dealings with Americans during and after the war gave him the idea that Britain was deficient in hotels designed specifically for motorists and so, in 1952, approaching pensionable age, he set off to tour the US visiting more than 2,000 motels on an epic road-trip. He picked the brains of American moteliers and came back ready to implement his own take in the British market.

Aerial view of the Inn and Motel.

Each room in The Royal Oak motel had its own private garage and en suite bathroom. The larger suites had their own sitting rooms. For between 21s and 27s 6d per person (about £30 in today’s money) you got a Continental breakfast, a radio, a tea-making machine, telephone, a water dispenser, and your car washed and valeted.

Sitting room at the motel.

Unloading a car outside the motel. The motel bar.

The Royal Oak was the first of a chain intended to be 12-strong but by the time Lyon died in 1963 there were still only five, with the others being at Southampton, Epping, Exeter and Frome. The partnership he founded with Watney’s in 1961, Watney Lyon hotels, carried on after his death and eventually opened quite a few more, as did other firms such as Trusthouse Forte.

An advert for Watney Lyon motels showing nine locations in southern England.
SOURCE: Illustrated London News, 31 July 1965.

Writing for the Illustrated London News on 31 July 1965 Roger Elliot reckoned there were about 62 in 1965 with another 80 on the way. He also points out, though, that many of these didn’t call themselves motels and were really just new hotels that happened to be out-of-town with car parks, rather than in towns near train stations like the old ones built for Victorian commercial travellers.

All this might seem tangential to our interest in pubs except that the motel is clearly a development of the idea of the inn — somewhere you stopped to eat, drink and sleep on your way from one place to another — and that the major brewing firms came to invest so much in this new industry. Sixty-odd years on Whitbread does no brewing whatsoever but does own a lot of Premier Inn hotels, sometimes attached to old inns, or sometimes with brand new pubs specially built to serve them.

And when we’re thinking about the decline of the pub, as with the more general decline of shopping centres, surely we’ve got to take into account the general drift of commerce to the outskirts of towns — to those spaces beyond the ring-road, near the motorway junction, which can seem soulless and rather desolate, but where we’ve all ended up for sheer convenience at one time or another.

The Royal Oak motel itself? It closed in 1989 and the building became offices.

Other Sources
  • The House of Whitbread, Summer 1954
  • The Red Barrel: the story of Watney Mann, Hurford Janes, 1963

10 thoughts on “Motel #1, 1953”

  1. The motel in Oxford that is mentioned on the newspaper image is still open. It has had numerous names and owners over the last thirty-odd years, and is now a Jury’s Inn.
    The URL is too long to post here, but ‘Jury’s Inn Oxford” finds it on Google.

  2. “surely we’ve got to take into account the general drift of commerce to the outskirts of towns”

    Which, of course, is the scene of a lot of present-day investment in licensed premises in the form of the much-maligned “family dining pub”.

  3. I remember driving past the Royal Oak at Newington, as a child with my parents. It all seemed very modern and “go-ahead” to me, but I don’t think my mother and father were impressed.

    It wasn’t that far from where we lived in East Kent, so the chances of us staying there were pretty minimal.

  4. And of courses the Devon Motel/ Hotel is going strong and now next to a large business estate. Popular with lunchtime workers and visiting Reps

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