“When the people of Old Sarum realised that there was an excellent hotel in the valley, they moved the Cathedral to be nearer it”.
Whilst this statement is clearly rubbish, like many stories, it does contain an element of truth. Originally the “White Bear Inn”, the building was constructed to house the draughtsmen working on the new Cathedral – (in fact Salisbury’s or Old Sarum’s third Cathedral building) when the churchmen of the time ‘fell out’ with the military garrison on the hilltop castle at Old Sarum. When the basic construction was finished in the late 13th Century, the White Bear continued to house visitors to the Cathedral and subsequently the ‘New City’ of Salisbury.
It is therefore probable that the hotel is possibly the longest running purpose built hotel in the country (perhaps the world?)
The earliest part of the building is the South Wing – a fact made obvious by the many beams and numerous examples of wattle and daub which have been exposed. The Open gallery of the upper storey that once looked down upon the Courtyard was sealed during the 19th Century.
Unfortunately very little documentary evidence survives from the Middle Ages, but we do know that the Ray family owned the hotel throughout the 17th Century. Outside the hotel ran one of the main watercourses for which Salisbury was famous. It was here that the ‘Cage and Ducking Stool’ was sited. It was a method of punishment for scalds, nagging women and short changing shop-keepers, who were ducked in what was no more than a deep smelly open sewer, no doubt to the delight of on-lookers who then returned to the Inn for refreshment.
In the early 1700’s the name was changed to the ‘Red Lion and Cross Keys’. Why this was we know not! This name remained in use until 30th January 1769 when the sign was altered to the ‘Red Lion’ only, by Daniel Safe, who bought the property following Ralph Musselwhite in 1766.
Ralph Musselwhite was not only a hotel keeper, but also an Excise Officer – the Excise Office kept by Mr. Musselwhite at the Red Lion was an important local government office which collected duty on home produced goods as well as auctioning off confiscated foreign goods.
When Daniel Pearce Safe, the Postmaster of Salisbury, took over the ownership of the Red Lion in 1766 he immediately transferred the Salisbury Post Office to the Hotel building. As a result the Red Lion became the main entrance for all mail coaches arriving in and leaving Salisbury. From the Red Lion mail coaches provided a useful postal service delivering letters to and bringing them back from London.
By 1775 the Red Lion ran a regular postal service to and from Cheapside in London. The hotel was also an important mailbag exchange centre for mail coaches from the Bell and Crown on Holborn, journeying from Plymouth and Exeter along the west road, and for mail coaches journeying from the Saracens Head in London to Barnstable. In 1777 the original ‘Salisbury Flying Machine’ was launched. This coach was based on a 1667 stage coach model, but was considerably improved and was more speedy and allowed a ‘better conveyance of passengers and parcels’. The ‘Flying Machine’ was ‘performed if God permit’ by Anthony and John Cook who offered travellers the chance to journey from the Red Lion (Salisbury) to the Bell Savage (London) and back again in less than one day! It also offered such a service every day of the week.
The hotel was one of the principal stopping places for the mail coaches that ran between the Belle Savage in Ludgate Hill to Exeter in 1810.
The Red Lion was the place ‘Salisbury Post Chaise’ and the ‘Light Salisbury’ mail coaches set off from on daily services to the capital during the early 19th Century. During the 1830’s the ‘Quick Silver’ mail coaches set off from the Red Lion on daily journeys to Davenport.
The Red Lion was extremely important to commercial travellers journeying along the route between London and Exeter during the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. A certificate of appreciation and commendation presented to the hotel by The United Commercial Traveller’s Association of Great Britain and Ireland can be seen in reception. The Hotel was used as the headquarters and ‘club house’ of the Salisbury Rugby Football Club after it was formed there in 1881.
The Red Lion has been used in the past by the military. In the late 1770’s much to the resentment of the hotel’s owner, troops were quartered upon it. The troops’ rowdy and unruly behaviour cost him money and deterred travellers from staying. Under different circumstances during the First World War Australian troops staying at nearby Codford used the hotel. However, their equally unruly behaviour resulted in the Red Lion losing a large double bed, which the Australians took home as a souvenir when they left Salisbury in 1918.
More importantly to the local community the Hotel offered farmers from rural villages an ideal place to stay whilst visiting Salisbury Cattle Market. It was also much used by traders visiting the nearby market which is still held on Tuesdays and Saturdays to this day in the Market Square.
For the past 80 years, the Hotel has been owned and managed by the Thomas and Maidment families, (the licence being given to the present owner’s grandfather, Charles Thomas, can be seen in the hotel bar). Elsie Thomas, Charles Thomas’ wife, was licensee for 60 years, during which time she neither smoked tobacco nor drank alcohol!
What has been the reason for the Red Lion’s long and continuing success as an Inn and as an Hotel? Apart form its central position in Salisbury, the main answer must be the friendly and co-operative attitude of the owners and staff and the high quality of service and fare which has been provided for some 770 years. Daniel Safe, who was the owner in 1766, summed this up saying –
“Daniel Safe, Post Master of the City, having taken the Red Lion and Cross Keys Inn in Milford Street . . . begs to aquaint all gentlemen and others who used the said Inn, that he hopes for the continuance of their favours, as also the favours of all other gentlemen who please to oblige him with their company and they may depend on the best accommodation and most obliging treatment from their most humble servant, D. Safe April 7th 1766.”
(For further information about the hotel since the First World War please obtain the book by Molly Maidment (Daughter of Charles and Elsie Thomas), who was born at the hotel and lived there for the early part of her life. It is called “Child of the Red Lion”, and is available from reception.