John Geddie, journalist and travel writer (1848 – 1937) was leader writer and Assistant Editor of The Scotsman, from 1889 to 1929. The book is divided into three sections – aspects of the history of Edinburgh, a subject of which Geddie was an acknowledged expert, secondly a description of the hotel and its facilities, finally North British services and places served. For a celebratory publication, it has to be said that it is a little dour and lifeless. The monochrome photographs of the grand public rooms have not a single person in them. There would obviously be a short lead time between decoration and furnishing being completed, and publication of the book, but I suspect that
a more publicity conscious railway like the Midland or the Great Central would have commissioned a few coloured illustrations from artists. For such a prestige book, it is a little surprising to find that there are 21 pages of advertising.
In recent years the NBR Board Room had been something of a snake pit, with rival parties of Directors, some of whom were not particularly honest, vying for control. It may be that his atmosphere affected the character of the publication. Normally when a Railway published something of this kind, there would be “ego massaging” portraits at least of the Chairman and General Manager, but these are absent.
In Edinburgh, work began on the North British Station Hotel in 1895, and was completed in1902. It took so long because, like an iceberg, it is bigger than it looks. Of ten storeys, only six are visible above Princes Street, the remaining four descend down to the platform level of Waverley Station.
The lower levels contained laundries, kitchens, wine cellars, etc. and at one time had a department producing a special blend of Scotch “NB”, in which William Whitelaw was said to be particularly interested.
When opened the hotel had 700 rooms. Over 300 of which were bedrooms. There were fifty-two bathrooms seventy lavatories and apartments available for permanent residents*. The clock tower rises 190 feet above street level. For many years the timepiece was kept three minutes fast to try and ensure passengers did not miss their trains.
It is getting on for 40 years since I last stayed there, (during the making of one of the first BBC “Great Railway Journeys – Confessions of a Train Spotter,” with Michael Palin. Film crews were never allowed to roam the network alone. They were accompanied by a member of the PR staff to assist with arrangements, and make sure that they did not do anything dangerous, or film anything which discredited British Rail). We arrived quite late in the evening, and were not looking forward to a stiff climb up to street level. We noticed a rather grubby set of lift doors, badly signed “HOTEL”. The lift itself had seen better days, bearing the scuffs and scars of many generations of luggage having been crushed in hurriedly Three floors up we were decanted into a rather austere
scantily furnished and completely deserted kind of foyer, with another set of lift doors in rather better condition, and ascending one more floor, the doors opened to reveal … Wow! The full Edwardian splendour of the pleasantly scented (polish and cigar smoke), and softly lit, main foyer. The bathroom in my en suite was also of Edwardian grandeur being considerably larger than the bedroom. Edinburgh, in those days went to sleep at 10-30pm, when all the pubs shut. Palin and I shared a taste for draught beer, and after a late dinner. he offered to take me on a tour of establishments where he and the rest of the Pythons had discovered, while performing at the Festival, that if one knew the right knocking code at a back door it was possible to get a “late taste of Nimmo’s”… But that is another story.
The North British and Caledonian Railways were fierce rivals, not only in the provision of train and steamer services, but also in striving to operate the best hotels in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. The North British were first off the mark in Glasgow, with the purchase of the Queens Hotel, dating from the 1780s, in 1877, renaming it the North British and subsequently modernising and extending it. The hotel is still open as the “Millennium”. The Caledonian countered in1885, with the Central Station Hotel, originally intended to be a block of offices. Still operating as the Grand Central Hotel There was a third railway owned hotel in Glasgow, the St. Enoch opened in 1879, operated by the Glasgow and South Western, but this closed in 1974 and was demolished in 1977.
At the opposite end of Edinburgh Princes Street to the NB stood the Caledonian Railway station of the same name, where that company had long planned to build a hotel, but was frustrated by lack of money. For several years only a range of premises on the ground floor existed, but no doubt stung by work beginning on the North British Station Hotel, construction started in 1899, and the 205 room hotel opened the following year to the NB. The name changed to the Caledonian Station Hotel, then simply to the Caledonian. It is still open as the “Hilton Hotel’s Waldorf Astoria” (Ugh!).
The North British, still glowers at its rival at the other end of Princes Street and remains open but renamed “The Balmoral”.
*Thomas F. Cameron, acting Divisional General Manager, LNER Scotland (vice Robert Inglis, away on Government service) occupied an apartment in the North British, (handy for the LNER offices in Waterloo Place) which he retained after his appointment as Chief Regional Officer, Scotland in the newly formed British Railways. The Scottish Region HQ was in Glasgow, and Cameron commuted daily from Edinburgh – by chauffeur driven motor car. When I worked at York HQ in the early 60s, TF’s son was York Goods Station Agent, a posting which hinted at a less than sparkling career as a Traffic Apprentice. He had a rather detached air, as if thinking on a different plane, which people who remembered his father working at York HQ in the 1930s, put down to the spectacle of TF taking his son out in a perambulator, towing the vehicle behind him using the crook of an umbrella or walking stick held under his arm.