Knowle: from 4-star hotel to council offices

Knowle Hotel. Picture: Sidmouth Museum

Knowle Hotel. Picture: Sidmouth Museum - Credit: Archant

With the news that a decision on whether or not the district council offices at Knowle will be sold looming, Nostalgia takes a look back at the site’s 86 years as a popular hotel.

In a follow-up to last week’s piece, we pick up the story in 1882, with help from The Knowle, Sidmouth: A Stately Pleasure Dome by Christine and Rab Barnard.

In March, the 36-acre estate was purchased by the newly formed Sidmouth Knowle Hotel and Baths Company [Ltd] for £21,000 – roughly £2million today.

The new owners planned to convert the main building into a first-class 25-bedroom hotel and spent a further £2,000 on alterations and upgrades.

The first guests checked in on August 10, 1882. In the years that followed, Knowle attracted guests from across the country, with newspaper adverts boasting of the accommodation’s fine views, sea air and train link to Waterloo.

The hotel was even graced with a visit from royalty, with France’s Empress Eugenie – the wife of Napoleon III – spending a few weeks there in 1890.

But in its first decade of trading, the hotel never turned much of a profit, and the site was sold in 1891 after its owners were unable to pay the interest on the mortgage.

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The site was eventually bought by Kenneth Balfour - who had loaned much of the money for the original purchase – for £10,000.

He renovated the hotel, which at this point featured 36 bedrooms, then reopened it in Easter 1892.

Further alterations were made in 1903, which added a western wing with an additional 24 rooms.

The hotel remained open for the duration of the First World War, but felt the effect of the conflict when in August 1914, its German manager, Adolf Hoch, was arrested under the Aliens Registration Act.

In March 1916, Sidmouth’s police sergeant spotted two lights visible from the hotel while walking the beat on The Esplanade at night. He slapped the hotel’s new manager with a hefty fine of £5 – around £450 today.

Funded by the hotel’s success, further alterations were made in 1928 and 1931, and in the early days of the Second World War, Knowle had a brief spell as a convalescent home.

On the evening of January 21, 1942, a blaze in the engine house spread to the staff quarters, destroying both structures and causing some £5,000 worth of damage. Later that year, the war effort saw Knowle requisitioned by the Royal Air Force for use as training school for aircrew officers.

One night the hotel was sprayed with cannon shells from a Luftwaffe raider, but everyone inside escaped injury.

The building returned to use as a hotel after the end of the war, and was bought by Southern Railway in 1947.

The new owners enjoyed a successful few years, but decided to sell the hotel, which by then had 60 bedrooms, in 1951.

It was purchased by Mr R N Chard, a Sidmouth-based solicitor, and his family, who aimed to continue running the business.

In 1967, Sidmouth Urban District Council (UDC) revealed its plans to buy the hotel, with the intention of converting part of the site to new offices for the authority and part into dwellings.

In early 1968, after months of wrangling, and accusations that the council was trying to put the hotel out of business, the UDC agreed a price of £50,000 for the building, and its 13 acres of parkland.

The hotel closed its doors for the last time on September 28, 1968.