The Grand Hotel

The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne was well named. With a tremendous 400ft frontage looking out to the sea, guests today can enjoy the same stunning views, elegant interior and passion for music as when it was first built in 1877. Unlike most luxury historic properties, The Grand was always built with the intension of being a hotel; a dazzlingly beautiful hotel suitable for royalty and the upper classes who liked to take their long summer holidays by the sea.

History of The Grand Hotel

Eastbourne had been a popular place to holiday since King George III sent his son Prince Edward along with his sisters there for the summer of 1780. Now, with the opening of The Grand, visitors could enjoy spectacular music in the lounge, dance in the ballroom and have a chance of meeting their future husband or wife on the front lawn.

The real hero of The Grand Hotel wasn’t its owner, nor did he own a significant stake in the business.  Sam Eeley’s dedication and passion as General Manager from 1910 – 1939 built a glittering worldwide reputation for the hotel, attracting the most accomplished International musicians of the day to play there.

Sam’s protégé was Albert Sandler, a 19 year old from a Russian émigré family who had grown up in near poverty in the East End of London. Sam discovered Albert playing at a Lyons Tea Shop in London. Albert had been making money from his talent on the violin since he was 12, juggling an evening gig at a theatre orchestra with school. It wouldn’t have taken much to convince him to leave London for the idyllic seaside town of Eastbourne, where the acoustics at The Grand Hotel made him and the entire orchestra shine.

Albert became the Musical Director of The Grand Hotel before his 20th birthday, playing every day of the week except Wednesdays, wearing elegant evening attire which the musicians as well as guests were always obliged to do.

Not long after Albert’s arrival, Sam heard the BBC transmitting its first outside broadcast from a Bournemouth Hotel. Convinced that the acoustics and orchestra at The Grand was better than any other, he contacted the BBC who were intrigued enough to visit the hotel and test a recording in the lounge. True to Sam’s word, the acoustics were spectacular and the BBC went on to transmit from the Grand Hotel every Sunday night from 1924 – 1939.

The BBC transmissions made Albert an overnight star, known as the man with the singing violin, with weekly listeners from as far afield as Burma! Some of his most popular songs were ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Down in the Forest’.

The Grand was much more than a job for Sam Eeley, both he and his wife were great friends of the musicians and treated their guests and staff with the utmost respect. Every evening around 6pm, Mrs Eeley would visit every suite in the hotel to ensure her guests were as comfortable as they could possibly be and at Christmas every child of its staff received a gift.

The hotel was ahead of its time in almost every aspect. Guests were offered nannies to look after their children, a visit to the in-house hairdressing salon, masseur or chiropodist. Hydraulic lifts took them to their rooms which were warmed in the winter by hot water pipes. Every room had running water and some their very own bathrooms by the mid-1920s.

During this period, the visitor book at The Grand Hotel included signatures from Nellie Melba, Anna Pavlova, shipping magnates, aviation record breakers as well as musicians from around the world who were just as intrigued as Albert would have been upon his inaugural visit. High profile Lords, Lady’s and British royalty were regular guests, including Princess Beatrice, who upon first hearing Albert summoned him to appear before her, where she thanked him personally for his performance and invited him to play for the King and Queen.

Albert’s star rose quickly and offers soon began presenting themselves to him. After three fantastic years at The Grand he would have been eternally grateful to Sam for leading him on the path to success. He left on good terms to begin a stint at the Park Lane Hotel in London.

The BBC broadcasts continued with Tom Jones taking Albert’s place as lead for 7 years, followed by Leslie Jeffries in 1934 and Tom Jenkins in 1938 – who received fan mail from his very first performance. The Grand has become a significant step ladder to launch a musician’s career.

With the onset of War in 1939 not only was there an abrupt end to the music, the entire hotel was soon struggling. Sam Eeley, along with hotel Chairman Cecil Page made the decision, rather than to continue running at a loss, that it was wiser to close the hotel until the situation was more stable and guests were ready to return. Noting this end of an era, The Grand Hotel closed its doors with a farewell and retirement dinner for Sam, attended by all the staff. At this time many of the staff lived on-site, so this would have been an emotional goodbye for all of them, parting ways with their friends to find new accommodation and work.

Albert’s star meanwhile continued to rise as a regular fixture on the radio and regularly performing to new audiences on tour. Towards the end of the War, Albert was invited to lead the Palm Court Orchestra with the BBC. His fondness for The Grand Hotel clearly never waned as he insisted they broadcast from its stunning lounge. The Palm Court Orchestra performances became known as the BBC’s Grand Hotel broadcasts, which came to be one of the most popular programs on the radio during the post-war era.

Sadly Sam was not around to witness Albert’s return to The Grand, however the musical legacy that Sam built survives to this day with regular performances in its lounge – the live acoustics remain one of the best on offer in Britain.

Interesting facts about The Grand Hotel

  1. You can listen here to a recording of Albert Sandler on the violin with his orchestra, in 1935.
  2. Claude Debussy stayed at The Grand for several months in 1905, along with his mistress and singer Emma Bardac. At this time Van Lier was the lead in the hotel orchestra, but noted to his daughter that Claude was very quiet and was hardly ever seen in the public rooms. It seems there was good reason for this as while there, Claude completed one of his greatest symphony’s La Mer. It is also thought that Refets dans l’eau may have been inspired there.     
  3. William Earp commissioned the build of The Grand Hotel at a cost of around £50,000, with 200 bedrooms, a large dining hall, drawing room and ballroom. Furnished as a first-class establishment and completed in 1877.
  4. The Grand Hotel was designed by architect Robert Knott Blessley, reputed as the finest architect in Eastbourne, who had previously designed Leaf Hall, now an arts centre in Eastbourne.
  5. The first musician to lead the orchestra and put music on the map at The Grand was Dutch born Mr Jacques Van Lier. He used Herr Von Leer as his stage name as German’s were considered the best musicians of the time, however in 1914 he returned to using his original name.