The Visitor Book of the Royal Bath Hotel, Bournemouth, which contains a treasure trove of signatures from the Victorian world including Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas.
Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, who founded the Museum, bought the Bath Hotel in 1876 and developed it as the Royal Bath Hotel to be one of the finest hotels in Britain, if not Europe, at the end of the 19th century. Their luxurious hotel was filled with paintings, sculpture and souvenirs from their world travels and was regularly reviewed as ‘a temple of art’. The rich and famous of the Victorian world beat a path to the hotel and the small and exclusive seaside resort of Bournemouth.
The Visitor Book covering 1889 to 1896 reveals exactly who was staying at the hotel. An initial survey has shown that Oscar Wilde stayed twice during this time, and signed in his lover Lord Alfred Douglas and two others, commenting that they were “all charmed with the beauty and comfort of the hotel”. Celebrated actor-manager Sir Henry Irving stayed regularly, once with his leading lady, Ellen Terry, with whom he was reputedly having an affair. Royalty including Prince Henry of Battenberg and the Duchess of Albany appear, as do artists such as Sir John Millais, PRA, and Sir Hubert von Herkomer, and musicians Charles Halle and Dame Nellie Melba.
The Russell-Cotes, a registered charity, raised the money to buy the Visitor Book in just three days after one of its supporters spotted it was up for auction. The final sale price was £8,500 plus costs, a sum the museum was able to pay only thanks to generous support from a private donor and the Friends of the National Libraries supplemented by donations from volunteers and the Friends of the Russell-Cotes.
The Visitors’ Book has been on display in the museum’s modern wing, but it will be removed for light conservation treatment shortly before a more appropriate permanent home in the historic house is found. A group of volunteers is eager to start research to explore the stories it contains. Consideration is being given to how and where to display the Visitor Book in the house, and associated interpretation so visitors can understand its significance and enjoy exploring its contents digitally or in facsimile.
The Visitors’ Book makes a valuable addition to our collections and will unlock many stories about who was visiting the hotel and Bournemouth during this period. The extraordinary success of the Hotel is a very important part of the Russell-Cotes story, which our visitors will now be able to understand through this one object. We are looking forward to working with our volunteers to transcribe the book and research the famous names – locally and nationally – as well as open up the social history of the upper middle classes and their lifestyle. We are very grateful for the support of the Friends of the National Libraries.