A History of Principal York Hotel

The hotel’s roots lie firmly embedded in the great “Railway Age”, when iron roads were criss-crossing the country.

By July 1840, the York & North Midlands Railway linked up with a chain of lines running to London and York to London in a day was possible but it took an uncomfortable and tedious 14 hours.

In 1853 the Station Hotel opened at York.  It had 15 reception rooms and 55 bedrooms (inside the City Walls).  On 14th September 1854, Queen Victoria honoured it with her presence when she stopped there for lunch on her way to Scotland.  The hotel’s owners then felt quite justified in adding the prefix “Royal” to its name.  They continued the practice when the new hotel was built.  The original station and hotel can still be seen, near Tanner Row, where they are used as offices by the Eastern Region headquarters of British Rail.

By 1865 it was recognised that York station had outgrown its purpose.  The North Eastern Railway Company – formed in 1853 as an amalgamation of three railways – decided to build a new station outside the city walls.  It was designed together with a hotel as an integral part of the project.

The coming of the railways heralded the birth of the hotel age and the station was designed together with a hotel as an integral part of the project.  The railway companies began to vie with each other to produce bigger and better hotels recognising the increase in rail travel and the architect, William Peachey of the North Eastern Railway, designed the hotel as an integral part of the new station and also as the North Eastern Railway Company’s flagship hotel, built to accommodate the aristocracy of the North, as well as the wealthy Yorkshire industrialists.

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The station finally opened on 25th June 1877 and the following year in May 1878 The Royal Station Hotel (now The Principal York) opened, built to feature elegant, high-ceilinged banqueting rooms for social functions and 100 large, well-appointed bedrooms for anyone who could afford 14 shillings a night, at this time the hotel was managed directly by the railway company.  

There were three entrances: the East End or town one, the west or garden one and the handsomely tiled octagonal entrance.  As most of the hotel’s patrons arrived by rail, this last was the main way in to the hotel, providing access both to the station and its forecourt.

The west entrance disappeared in 1896 when a new 27-bedroom west wing was added.  Taller than the rest of the building, the wing is known as “The Klondyke”; it was built in the year of the Gold Rush in America.  Nowadays most visitors use a garden entrance dating back to 1939, which leads out to the drive and car park.

The splendid ironwork construction of the main staircase is a much-admired feature of the hotel.  Supported on one side only, it forms three upper galleries and provides a fascinating perspective of the stairwell viewed from above or below.

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The coffee-room had a magnificent view of York Minster and the hotel grounds which, in those days, extended right down to the River Ouse.  The room has since been enlarged and is now the new Garden Room.

The only part of the hotel protected by a conservation order is the conference room in the “Klondyke” wing.  Its magnificent carved oak panelling used to create a club-like atmosphere for guests when it was a reading room.  The wooden reading racks still exist (this is now known as The Oak Room).

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For the best part of 40 years, the hotel remained largely unchanged until 1939 when a new wing with its own entrance was built, at this time art deco lighting and furnishings replaced many Victorian features in the original hotel, and chimney places were adapted for gas fires.  This is today the site of the Events Centre which was added in 1999.

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The Station and Hotel in 1955

In 1948 the hotel was nationalised along with the railways and remained so until privatisation in 1982, since when its owners have included Distinguished Hotels, Simplon Orient Express, The Principal Hotel Company, whose multi-million pound investment in 2015 with luxurious designs by award-winning architects Goddard Littlefairhas restored the Grade II listed building to magnificent glory and renamed the hotel The Principal York on 1st November 2016. 

Interesting fact!

Tradition says that the local horse trainers used to make their jockeys run up and down the hotel’s 100 yard long corridor which extends from East to West to lose weight, while the trainers retired to the comfortable chairs in the bar with glasses of brandy.

Beneath the hotel ground level runs a maze of passages and stairways and tunnels which used to link the station to the hotel including a subway from the main building under the gardens to the building build in 1939 (now the Sidings).  A printer worked there from 1906 where elaborate menus and wine lists were produced to supply the hotel and train restaurant cards … the trains would pull in and a runner would dash along the subway to the printer with a quick change in the menu and in the short time the train waited in the Station the menu had to be reprinted.