Yarmouth has the distinction of being the oldest town and seaport in the Isle of Wight. Constructed in the early years of the 12th century by the Norman Lord of the Island, the town has had an illustrious if somewhat turbulent history. It was burned down by the French at least twice, and was subject to all the fluctuations in fortune of an important port. Having survived these years, it has mellowed into a charming little town. Through the centuries The George, situated as it is close to the harbour, has been pre-eminent.
Use the timeline below to find out more about the history of The George. Just click on a date.
1206 - 1214
Though it did not become an inn until 1764 there has in fact been a building of importance on this site since the very earliest days. On May 28th 1206 King John stayed in Yarmouth before sailing on June 1st to France with an invasion fleet; he visited the town again for a similar purpose from February 3rd to 9th 1214. On each occasion he is believed to have lodged in a house in Quay Street, which later became known as 'The King's House'.
King John was not the only monarch to have invasions in mind. The French too, frequently cast covetous eyes across the Channel, and the accessibility of Yarmouth caused it to be the target for many raids. Perhaps the most devastating occurred in August 1377 when a combined French and Castillian fleet sacked the town. This raid followed hard on the heels of a serious outbreak of the Black Death, and it took Yarmouth a very long time to recover from the combined effects of these two tragedies.
Indeed, it was not until Elizabethan Times that the town really began to prosper. In 1584 the Queen increased the town's representation in Parliament from one seat to two. Two members continued to be sent to Westminster until the Reform Bill of 1832 drastically changed the situation.
In 1668 a new and energetic Governor was appointed to the Isle of Wight: Admiral Sir Robert Holmes, and he immediately decided not to live in his official residence, Carisbrooke Castle, but to transfer the seat of power to Yarmouth. The old 'King's House' in Quay Street (which at that time was known as The Alleyway), or the building that may have replaced it, was by this time in a poor condition. However, Sir Robert decided this was to be his home and he proceeded to build himself a handsome house on the site. His reason for wishing to live in the house, which is now the George Hotel, was a simple one, namely its proximity to the sea. Sir Robert was a sailor, and an intrepid one at that: he also happened to be a bit of a rascal. One of the perquisites of his Governorship was that he was entitled to keep two thirds of the value of any ship and her cargo (belonging either to an enemy of England or to a pretended neutral) that he was able to capture in the Isle of Wight Waters.
From his house in Yarmouth he conducted for the next twenty years a very flourishing business that amounted to piracy, for his interpretation of the phrase: 'A Pretended Neutral' was a very wide one and included almost any non-English ship. By this means he was able to add to his already considerable wealth.
The architectural style, which distinguishes The George and makes it one of Yarmouth's outstanding buildings owes much to Sir Christopher Wren, and the return to a classical form which was becoming popular towards the end of the 17th century. Basically, it comprised a symmetrical front to a square or rectangular building, with a hipped roof and cornice; when there was a third storey the windows were allowed to break through the roof as dormers. There are several elegant houses of this type in the West Wight, all believed to have been built by a builder named Stephens who lived in Yarmouth. It is possible that the house Sir Robert built may have preceded this style, for it has certainly been subsequently altered and enlarged. However, the principle features of the house he built still remain, including the four abreast staircase, which is one of the finest in the Island.
Sir Robert Holmes had a love-hate relationship with both King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York (later James II). The King visited him in his fine new house on three occasions. They had similar tastes, were both hard drinkers and also susceptible to a pretty face---there is no doubt that the house could tell many an interesting tale.
It was not until 1764 that the Holmes family ceased to live in Yarmouth. The last resident in the house was Thomas, Lord Holmes, whose name is remembered if only through the plaque on the front of the Town Hall, which he rebuilt in 1763. In 1764 he built a grand new house out in the country at Westover, and his Yarmouth home became the George Inn, named in honour of the King, George III, who had been on the throne for four years.
The first Licensee was John Wilson, who prospered as a publican and established the George as one of the most popular inns in the town. He died in 1780 and his widow Margaret took over the licence and went from strength to strength. In 1792 she was courted by a John Smetham, the skipper of a Collier Brig who made regular visits to the port with cargoes of coal. On March 16th that year they were married in the parish Church, and it is recorded that Margaret was driven to church in her own carriage, an eloquent testimony to the prosperity of the George.
Typical of the success of the George Inn is that it became the accepted rendezvous of the Corporation (the men who controlled the town) and after Council meetings it was to the George that they repaired for refreshment. Once a year they held an official dinner (of course at the town's expense) and at least one of these dinners achieved notoriety.
In 1784, under Mrs. Wilson's benign influence, the Guest of Honour at the annual dinner was Lieutenant Charles Cunningham Crook of H.M.S.Expedition, which was lying in Yarmouth Roads. This must have been quite a party for the town accounts show that out of a total expenditure for the year of £13-18-6d Mrs Wilson was paid £10-13-6d for the dinner. When it was over Lieutenant Crook staggered back to his ship taking with him the box containing the official town records, in the mistaken belief that it contained further bottles for his enjoyment. On discovering his mistake, he threw the box overboard and the records were lost.
In 1840 a Tithe Award Survey was carried out and a map drawn up. This survey showed that the premises and surroundings still belonged to the Holmes family, in the person of the Hon. William a'Court Holmes, and that the occupier and licensee of the George - now called The George Hotel - was Philip Bright. He operated the Hotel itself, the lawns, coach house, stabling, harness room, barn and yard. The western end of the property was now known as the George Tap and Maria Bright who was ten years older than Philip and was possibly his sister was running this. Philip Bright and his wife Hester had seven children living with them, and employed four servants who also lived on the premises. The Census of 1851 showed an addition of one more child, and in this Census Philip is also listed as being the Receiver of Admiralty Droits.
The George continued to thrive and an interesting newspaper account of June 1873 is typical of many. This records the celebrations following the re-opening of the Church after alterations.
"Afterwards the Bishop (of Winchester) and clergy, with numerous other friends, were entertained to a sumptuous luncheon at the George Hotel, given by the unbounded liberality of the Mayor, James Blake Esq., who occupied the chair, supported on his right by the Bishop and Mayor of Newport, and on his left by the Archdeacon of the Island and Rector of the Parish."
In 1894 the houses occupying what is now Pier Square were demolished, thus opening up a view of the Pier and the delightful gardens of the Hotel. Three years later, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the name of the George was changed to the Pier Hotel. This proved unpopular both with local residents and visitors, and in the late 1920's it was changed back to The George to their mutual satisfaction.
The George continues to play a leading part in the life of this age-old town, which is now approaching its 900th birthday. The building is a splendid example of the best type of early 18th century architecture, and has great dignity and character. It provides a continual reminder of the town's history and heritage.