There cannot be too many hoteliers who turned down a request from The Beatles to book rooms at their establishment. And there cannot be too many who have told a gang of Hells Angels to leave the premises while Edward Heath, later to become Prime Minister, was an onlooker.
But Pamela Bailey was no ordinary hotelier. Shortly after the Second World War she and her late husband Lionel embarked on a career that changed the face of hotels here on the Island. Lionel had his demob suit, and the couple had just £150 between them.
But it was a partnership that left its mark not only until Lionel’s untimely death in 1975, but to this very day, with Pamela still assuming the matriarch’s role at the Royal Hotel in Ventnor, which her son William has owned and run since 1995.
“Oh, no I am not the matriarch,” laughed Pamela, a sprightly lady, and mother of three, grandmother of nine and great grandmother of five. “Oh, yes you are,” said her daughter Nicky, who with husband Nick owned and ran the Seaview Hotel for 25 years.
So I was eager to hear more from this interesting and highly successful business woman. “I was born in Crouch End, London in 1926, and the family left London in 1945,” said Pamela, as if almost trying to forget some of the tougher times of her informative years. In fact she was evacuated to Cornwall with her two younger sisters and brother Jim during the war, but later returned to London to witness countless German air raids. The atrocities of the war clearly remain vivid memories, which she prefers not to talk about.
“Eventually I think my father had had enough, so we decided to move to the Isle of Wight. Father was a great collector of cars and airplanes, and when we moved here there were three or four aerodromes so he brought two planes with us, and kept them at Cowes,” Pamela revealed.
Having left school at 13, and worked briefly in London, Pamela’s first job on the Island was as a receptionist at the Metropole Hotel in Ventnor. She said: “I loved it there, and I stayed there until after I met my husband. We were married in 1947. That was when we started off with his pin-striped demob suit and £150 gratuity, and I am quite proud of what happened from those beginnings.”
Pamela and Lionel moved to the 17-bedroom London Hotel, Ryde in 1948, as tenant-managers for Sunshine Hotels Ltd, and after elder daughter Annie was born they also took on the Crown Hotel in Ryde, where second daughter Nicky was born, as well as having a spell at the Vine Inn Hotel.
“We were actually managers of the bars, but tenants of the hotels, so the hotel side was our own business. We had a fantastic clientele, but because it was just after the war there was still rationing so all meals had to be accounted for. The main food was Dutch pork chops, whale meat, supplied by a Ryde butcher, and powdered eggs, and we had to hold the ration books for the guests, and take the food coupons for the Food Office,” recalled Pamela.
Lionel attended Portsmouth Catering College to become a qualified chef, while Pamela’s brother Jim worked at the hotels. Then in 1954 came another major step when Pamela and Lionel bought the Royal Esplanade Hotel, Ryde, with Jim assuming the role of manager, and playing a vital part in its rejuvenation until he left to run his own business some 20 years later.
Pamela continued: “We decided to go totally on our own, so deposited £2,000 and bought the Royal Esplanade which was very run down. We managed to raise the money, and although my car was one of the sacrifices, it was a very important sacrifice.
“I think one of the reasons we made a success of running the hotel over the years was because of the help we received from family and friends, including my sister Julie, and Julia and Barry Roberts, as well as Jim. We worked through hard times, like the polio epidemic, several outbreaks of foot and mouth, and of course major recessions, so today’s problems are nothing new.”
In fact times were so hard that for a while Pamela and Lionel served spirits from the optics, but the other ‘display bottles’ were full of coloured water, standing there to make the bar look well stocked. But with the help of former customers who drummed up support for the new venture, the Royal Esplanade gradually began coming back to life.
Pamela continued: “We had a local head chef, and his wife was head chambermaid. Our waiters were Italian, and we were doing anything up to 150 breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day. Sometimes you forget how really hard it was. But we did get into business at a very young age, and were blessed with being successful at a young age. However, it did mean working six days a week, and sometimes seven.”
Following one visit to St Tropez, Pamela came back with the idea of installing a cellar bar in the Royal Esplanade Hotel. “I went into a little restaurant called Whisky-A-Go-Go where they were serving chicken in the basket, and I thought what a novel idea. It was a cellar bar, so when I returned I told Lionel I had this wonderful idea…!”
So Le Bar Cellier was born, and subsequently became one of the main focal points of Ryde in the 1960s. It is still talked about today by those who frequented it as having a wonderful atmosphere, with live music, a juke box and a coffee machine that sold Cappuccino. There were invariably long queues to get into the popular haunt.
During that era the Beatles – paying a visit to the Island – asked for rooms at the Royal Esplanade. They were refused, with Pamela explaining: “I had visions of people climbing up the drain pipes, or whatever, trying to get into the hotel, so I refused them. I just knew what it would amount to, but my children have never forgiven me!”
However, she did allow one room to be used by the Vice Squad – so they could keep a look out for whoever arrived on the Island via the ferries and the pier!
Things were swinging along in the sixties – well almost! There was the time when a hot dog van parked outside the hotel. She said: “The hotel looked lovely outside, and suddenly there was this awful smell right outside coming from the food on the van. I phoned the police who said they could do nothing, and I became so irate I threw water into the van and over its owners. I was lucky that I didn’t hurt someone.” As a result she made the national press with a headline that read: Pam Pours Anger on Hot Dog Van!
“The van came back a few days later, and parked near the bar entrance. Some of our men went out and poured Jeyes Fluid all around it. I think the owners thought it was petrol, so they soon departed, and as a result the law was changed so vans had to have a pitch rather than just park anywhere,” smiled Pamela.
When 50 Hells Angels walked into the bar where keen yachtsman Edward Heath, later to become the country’s Parliamentary leader, was drinking, Pamela politely told them it was for residents only and asked them to leave. One suggested the sign outside said ‘open to non-residents’ to which Pamela responded: “Well, the sign is wrong!” They left without further delay.
“After what we had been through I wasn’t going to let a hot dog van or a few Hells Angels spoil what we had built. I am not an aggressive person, but if someone invades my patch then I suppose I become a bit of a fighter,” she added.
After Lionel died Pamela continued the business with her close-knit team that later included son William, who was born at the Royal Esplanade and returned there having trained at catering college. After spending time working with his mother at the Royal Esplanade, William negotiated for the purchase of Ventnor’s Royal Hotel, which he acquired in 1995 from Trust House Forte, and which he and the family still own.
Like the Royal Esplanade, The Royal had also become run down, but William, the major shareholder and managing director, embarked on major refurbishment with Pamela helping with interior design before her daughter Annie took over that role. She reflected: “I am very proud of what he has done, and simply love it as soon as I walk inside. It gave me a new lease of life, but it’s all down to William, nothing to do with me.”
Pamela remained at The Royal Esplanade with the valued assistance of Dottie Carey, head receptionist for 50 years, and Eileen Wilkins who worked with her for 40 years. There was also Sheila, housekeeper at the Royal Esplanade, who continues to look after Pamela. The treasured Royal Esplanade was eventually sold after Pamela received an offer she said she simply couldn’t refuse.
William, a big supporter of the IW Youth Trust’s rehab programme for young addicts and kids with alcohol problems, also has other businesses, including the Royal Café in the Botanic Gardens and Royal Catering, along with the Chalet Royal in France, which Pamela still visits just to ensure its smooth running. She concluded: “I have had an incredible and exciting career, but you cannot get anywhere in business unless you have an amazing family and good, loyal staff.”