The Royal Hotel in the 1880s, a simple two storey structure.
The Royal Hotel in the 1880s, a simple two storey structure.

How the Royal won its crown

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published May 1, 2021

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Durban - The Royal Hotel has stood at the centre of Durban for more than 175 years and has been an integral part of the city throughout its long and colourful history.

Opening up as the first hostelry in Durban in 1845, built on land bought by the brother of a British sea captain, the original building was a far cry from the elegant hotel of today, but it served its purpose of providing hospitality and shelter to travellers.

On December 12, 1845, Durban’s first hotel announced itself open as McDonald’s Commercial Hotel. It was subsequently renamed the Masonic.

The Royal Hotel in the early twentieth century.

In the late 1830’s Scottish sea captain Hugh McDonald arrived at the Port of Natal and was impressed by its prospects. His brother, Charles McDonald, bought the Market Square property - on which part of the Royal stands - in 1843, for the sum of £40. He erected a wattle-and-daub, thatch-roofed trading store and began selling essential items such as sugar, tea, tobacco, wine and brandy.

Charles moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1845 and his brother leased the property to John Edwards, the first proprietor of the hotel, and then, in February 1846, Hugh gave up his life at sea to take over the hotel. He bought the property from his brother and the adjoining plot for £40 each.

DURBAN’S Royal Hotel in the 1930s.

Between January 1849 and June 1952, almost 5 000 British immigrants arrived in Natal, and McDonald was quick to take advantage of the influx of people requiring temporary accommodation. He consolidated his property by selling off two bayside portions of his brother Charles’s original property and erected a new, double-storey building on his undeveloped property adjacent to the original hotel.

Following Hugh McDonald’s death in June 1853, his widow, Ann, managed the property until it was sold in 1857 to Henry Stainbank, who leased the ‘new’ hotel with its stables and outbuildings to George Winder for 21 years. In March 1859, Winder sold the lease of the Masonic to William Wood, formerly owner of the Crown Hotel in Pietermaritzburg.

It was Wood who gave the hotel its Royal title. In 1860, Queen Victoria’s young son, Prince Alfred, dined at the hotel and he gave permission to use the term “Royal”. Wood wasted no time in renaming the hotel and his advertisement soon carried the words ‘Wood’s Royal Hotel (by Special Appointment)’ as well as displaying the Royal Coat of Arms.

The Royal was purchased in 1881 by wealthy businessman FL Jonsson, who ran it successfully until his death in 1899 at the age of 63.

The Royal Hotel today from the City Hall steps. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad African News Agency (ANA)

In May 1902 the Jonsson family sold the Royal to the Royal Hotel and Estate Company, which had been specially formed for this purpose, while in 1927 a scheme to amalgamate the Royal and Marine hotels saw the formation of Durban Hotels Ltd, with the Royal’s Vernon Hooper and the Marine’s Levin Joel as major shareholders.

In 2012 The Royal Hotel as well as Durban Hotels Ltd was bought by property guru Moses Motsa, who resides in Swaziland. Today the multi-storey Royal Hotel consists of 206 rooms, many with spectacular views of Durban Bay. Shelley Kjonstad’s picture taken this month shows a much developed hotel.

Notable guests over the years have included Cecil John Rhodes, Rider Haggard, HG Wells, Marlene Dietrich, Mark Twain, Prince Alfred, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

On the Facebook Page readers remember many fun moments spent at the hotel over the years. Reminiscences include the famed cocktail and dining establishment the Top of the Royal, the top class curries many would lunch on at the Ulundi Room, and the elegant tea and scones served in the coffee shop or on its verandahs. One reader recalls being offered a tie when dining at the Royal Grill, because he wasn’t wearing one. Another recalls Equinox performing in the Royal Tavern at the height of their fame in the late 70s. And many have fond memories of the Omelette Bar downstairs, where an omelette and a bread roll cost you the princely sum of 50c.

The Independent on Saturday

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