Eighty years of Morecambe’s Midland hotel

An elegant postcard of the Midland Hotel.
An elegant postcard of the Midland Hotel.
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GREG LAMBERT traces the ups and downs of the Midland hotel throughout its colourful 80-year history.

The Midland hotel was greeted with great excitement when it opened on Wednesday, July 12 1933.

Built at a cost of just over £72,000, the gleaming curved art deco structure, designed by architect Oliver Hill, was lauded as the most up-to-the-minute seaside hotel in the whole of Europe.

The Visitor even proclaimed it ‘Morecambe’s White Hope’.

Others hailed its outstanding and unique features, such as the Eric Gill stone relief of Nausicaa greeting Odysseus, the magnificent spiral staircase and the Eric Gill ceiling medallion of Neptune and nymphs.

On opening day, guests enjoyed a menu of aperitifs, Morecambe Bay shrimps, iced melon, cold soup, salmon or lamb, strawberries, ice cream and coffee.

The new Midland had replaced an earlier hotel, the North Western, built by the railway company of the same name circa 1847/8.

The old building had become tired and business was in decline during the 1920s.

But according to Midland historian Barry Guise: “When the (new) Midland hotel opened it rapidly became the place to stay, attracting the wealthy middle classes and bright young things from across the north of England.”

Wool magnates, jewellers, company directors, celebrities such as George Formby and Joe Loss, they all clamoured to stay there.

The Midland’s honeymoon period was abruptly halted by the outbreak of war in 1939.

The hotel became an RAF hospital during the war years and when peace time came, renovation was required.

After five weeks of work, the hotel reopened on July 22 1948

Four years later, British Railways sold the Midland to Mr and Mrs Lewis Hodgson for £60,000.

The Midland’s glory years ensued in the 1950s and ‘60s as Morecambe itself enjoyed a boom period.

More stars of stage and screen stayed, including singers David Whitfield, Frankie Vaughan, Shirley Bassey and Alma Cogan, comedians Abbott and Costello, and actors Trevor Howard and Laurence Olivier.

Even the former Russian Premier, Georgy Malenkov, paid a surprise visit to the Midland in March 1956 while on a tour of Britain’s power plants.

In 1960 the Hodgsons sold the Midland to Scottish Brewers Ltd (later Scottish and Newcastle Breweries) for £100,000

In the 1960s the Midland hosted formal dinners for the town’s two main events, the Miss Great Britain bathing beauty contests and the Illuminations switch-on.

Celebrities switching on the lights who stayed at the hotel included racing driver Stirling Moss, musician Acker Bilk, the now-disgraced Jimmy Savile, Morecambe and Wise, and Roger Moore, who was besieged by screaming autograph-hunters when he stayed in 1965.

Pop stars Adam Faith, Dusty Springfield and The Rolling Stones were also amongst the Midland’s swelling guest list.

But by the early 70s, the rise of the cheap package holiday abroad caused the Midland’s, and indeed Morecambe’s, fortunes to fall.

By the mid-70s the hotel was on the market once again. In 1976 it was bought by the Hutchinson Leisure Group.

In 1977 the hotel was listed as a Grade II* building, but by the 1980s some of the interior decor looked more like a working men’s club than a pristine art deco paradise.

When Family Hotels bought the hotel for £895,000 in February 1989, they resolved to give the Midland back some of its 1930s pomp.

An episode of hit ITV show ‘Poirot’ was filmed at the hotel in September that year and shown on February 11 1990.

But national TV exposure just papered over the cracks. By now the hotel was looking rough around the edges.

In April 1999 the Friends of the Midland Hotel was formed. This came soon after the end of the chaotic stewardship of Les Whittingham (see The Visitor’s Looking Back page this week for the full story).

Then in 2000, the Midland closed after the kitchen was condemned by environmental health, then the hotel’s heating system broke down.

There was brief hope for Morecambe’s White Hope the following year when rich businessmen Jared Brook and Lincoln Fraser bought the hotel and revealed ambitious refurbishment plans.

But by 2002 Brook and Fraser were under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office as their company collapsed owing £150m.

That year the hotel was a sad sight, boarded up and derelict. Some councillors even called for demolition.

Then came a lifeline. In January 2003 award-winning design company Urban Splash bought the Midland.

They planned a full restoration combining the hotel’s original art deco features with a modern makeover to attract the 21st century customer.

Restoration work began in June 2005 and then in June 2008, the Midland finally reopened looking as good as ever.

There were early teething troubles and guest complaints as Urban Splash proved to be far better at designing than they were at running a hotel.

But today, now owned by the Lancaster Foundation charity and run day-to-day by English Lakes Hotels, the Midland is back to its very best and in great demand.

Just like when it first opened 80 years ago, the Midland is acclaimed far and wide as one of Europe’s most interesting and characterful hotels. And Morecambe is lucky to have it.

Our thanks to Barry Guise and his book ‘The Midland: Morecambe’s White Hope’.