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. Indeed it is The Vine. The motel sec­tion was rede­vel­oped into a Pre­mier Inn a num­ber of years ago.

  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. It was known as “The Moat House” pri­or to becom­ing a Jury’s about two or three years ago.

  3. 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”.

  4. 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.

  5. 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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