The Weekly Machen
Over two years before traveling to Brighton by Pullman, Arthur Machen visited the seaside resort for a discussion with hotel-keepers on the woes of their current economic state. Rare for Machen articles, it is told almost entirely through an interview format. Most interestingly, the conversation drifts into the nineteenth-century via literature and documentary evidence. Following Machen’s conclusion, I append a strong response from a reader to the Evening News under the handle “Cosmopolitan.”
Does the Seaside Hotel Pay?
February 27, 1913
There is a great chapter in Rabelais entitled, in the admirable English version, “How they chirrupped over their cups.” I was reminded of it yesterday, down at Brighton, as I listened to the tale of the Brighton hotel-keepers and drank their venerable Cognac of 1848.
Only, they did not chirrup. They comforted me with flagons, but from their talk I gathered that they were sick of hotel-keeping. To begin with, they murmured against Mr. George’s Excise Duty and his ways with a License. And then, they abhorred the path of them that go on the Lightning Strike.
“Let me give you an instance of what I mean,” said to me a certain vintner. “Here in Brighton, just over the way there, we have Manager’s Private Hotel and Boarding House. It isn’t a big concern; they charge inclusive terms amounting to about three guineas a week, and there aren’t two harder-working people in the town than Mr. and Mrs. Manager. They get up early and go to bed late; they slave all the day long; and perhaps they make a profit of from three to five hundred, a year. It isn’t much, is it, in return for the capital and the work; but the Excise has hit them hard, and the Lightning Strikers will finish them off.”
“Then,” I said, “it comes to this; that the bad conditions of the present, and the worse conditions threatened for the future, will work out the small man of the South Coast resort altogether?”
“Yes, he will go.”
“And the big hotels will remain and prosper?”
They looked at me sadly. “I think,” said one, “that the largest hotel company of the South Coast pays 3 per cent., doesn’t it?”
“Yes; 3 per cent.,” said the Blue Lion; “formerly 10 per cent. And the effect of the day’s holiday a week of the Lightning Strikers will be to reduce the dividend to 2 per cent.”
“Then how is it that people put their money into such a bad business?”
“They don’t. They used to; but they don’t.”
Another innkeeper nodded assent. “If I were to try to get rid of my hotel,” he said, “I should lose very largely.”
In the Days of Dickens
Here we had an antiquarian interlude. I think it is well to suit oneself to one’s company—the other night I was disputing with Hebrews in the East End about the pointing of the Great Name—so I spoke to the hotelkeepers of the hotel bills of the ‘fifties, as recorded by Dickens. I quoted from memory, but, I find, pretty accurately, a breakfast bill of 1856.
Breakfast . . . 2s. 6d. Broiled ham . . . 2s. Eggs . . . 1s. Watercresses . . . . 1s. Shrimps . . . 1s.
The Brighton hotelkeepers listened, as men listen to tales of the Golden Age; and then one of them, not to be outdone, caused a waiter to bring a bill of more ancient savour than the one that I had cited.
It was dated from Vauxhall Gardens in 1824, and it showed the way of a man with a maid in that far-off year; when George the Fourth was King.
In one of those famous boxes, perhaps in that very box in which Lady Caroline Petersham minced seven chickens into a China dish, and “took up the whole attention of the Gardens,” did a lad treat his lass to a plate of beef, salad, porter, port, bread, and cheese. The bill was just over eight shillings; I noticed that they did not touch that terrible Arrack Punch—it was on the list—which caused Josh to call Becky his diddle-diddle-darling so I hope that the course of their love ran smoothly.
But we returned to our more practical talk. “At Brighton, you see,” said one of them, “and at the other South Coast resorts, trade is much more fluctuating than in London. London caters largely for necessity; we are for luxury, for people who have money to spend, and wish to spend it pleasantly! We depend a good deal on the weather; though I must say that we were very full at Easter.”
“Yes,” said another, “the fact is that the bad weather sent people to Brighton who would have gone farther afield if it had been warmer.”
On the whole, I found my company by no means inclined to despond of Brighton.
“Has motoring changed things?” I asked.
“No, except for the better; it has brought business to the town. In the old days a family might spend a week at Brighton. They mayn’t do that now; but instead they spend half-a-dozen week-ends here. So it comes to the same thing.”
“Yes,” said another host, “and at the same time there are plenty of people from London, the Midlands, and the North who still make a long stay here. There’s the Hotel X, with ninety beds; they have had thirty-eight visitors who have been there continuously from January 1. Our air is as good as it ever was; nothing can alter that.”
Waiter’s Average Earnings
But the whole company of hotelkeepers was quite positive that the “Lightning Strikers” would make hotel-keeping impossible, if they formulated their rumoured demands.
“You may take it from me,” said mine host, “that if they get all they want dividends will disappear altogether; the business won’t stand it.”
“What is the average pay of a waiter down here?”
“Well, at the hotel with ninety beds I mentioned before the junior waiters get on an average £1 13s. a week in tips, their wages, their board, and their lodging. Compare that with the earnings of a junior clerk in the City. And the two head waiters get 50 per cent. more on the tips. The average weekly bill of the visitors to this hotel is £3 3s. per week.”
“And as to the hours of work,” said one of them, “my hotel is purely residential; there are no casual people coming in for a meal. So waiters have to be on duty all the time, in case the bell rings, but five afternoons out of six, the ‘duty’ consists of smoking and playing chess in a comfortable room: they are rarely summoned. People ought to remember this when they speak of a waiter’s ‘hours.’”
“You make a very large profit on wine, don’t you?” I asked.
“We expect to make at least 50 per per cent.?’’
“Yes, and my wine bill has gone down from £1,000 per annum to £400 in the last seven years.”
“Wouldn’t it pay you if you took 25 per cent. profit?”
“Not a bit of it.”
They know their business, doubtless; still, I think that there is something in the common human heart which abhors paying fifteen shillings for a bottle of seven shilling champagne.
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2 thoughts on “Does the Seaside Hotel Pay?”
No doubt Machen had to please his journalistic employers, but it’s not just the mention of Dickens’s name that suggests to me that Machen had the Inimitable Boz in back of his mind often when writing his reports. Get hold of the Penguin selection of his journalism, with “Uncommercial Traveller” material etc. & see what you think.
I hunted around in online texts of Dickens’s journalism and failed to find the menu that Machen quotes from memory, but perhaps, as Micawber would say, “something will turn up” yet & we’ll identify Machen’s source.
Lively and intriguing – I wish I’d ever managed to visit Brighton (though I did at least delight in Llandudno)!
In Chapter 12 of Nicholas Nickleby it seems he earned five pounds a year (but in what year was that…)? If so, that breakfast bill at 7/6 would mean his year’s wages would be gone before he ate a fortnight’s 1856 hotel breakfasts!
I’m afraid I do not ‘get’ the Lady Caroline Petersham reference. (Wikipedia elsewhere tells me that Lady Caroline Anne Stanhope (20 November 1791 – 25 November 1853), daughter of the erstwhile Viscount Petersham, who was however Earl of Harrington by the time she was born, married Edward Ayshford Sanford on 21 June 1841, but that does not seem illuminating, either.)
I notice that the answer to “What is the average pay of a waiter down here?” is merely avoided – though “£1 13s. a week in tips” in season would add up to a lot more than five pounds per annum!
I’m not having much luck checking the history of “Lightning Strike” (etc.) – the New English Dictionary I checked had nothing helpful under “lightning” – and more than 31 columns of entries for “strike”!
Would the Easter of the propitious weather have been Easter 1912 (7 April)? 27 February 1913 would have been Thursday after the Third Sunday of Lent… though it seems odd that the strong response by Cosmopolitan would then be dated as late as April 11 (Friday after the Second Sunday after Easter 1913).
In any case, I would be fascinated to know more about Machen “disputing with Hebrews in the East End about the pointing of the Great Name”!