WHEATCROFT CLIFF

A Victorian country house you’ve most likely never heard of… except you did know it – and twenty-five years ago it fell into the sea

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In 1879, when George Alderson-Smith decided to build a new house on a clifftop above Scarborough, he chose not to listen to those people who thought it ill-advised. It was common knowledge that there was a history of cliff collapses in the area, but the house called Wheatcroft Cliff was built anyway. He died here in 1931, reaching the grand old age of 96, still declaring the property ‘safe as houses’.

114 years later, his words were little comfort to Barry and Joan Turner who had bought the property in 1988. In June 1993, after a period of heavy rainfall, the world watched as the now-named Holbeck Hall Hotel fell into the sea, the victim of a rotational landslip. It seemed that the Victorian doom-mongers had been correct after all.

It was a tragic end for the former ‘country house by the sea’. It had to be demolished completely after the incident, and twenty-five years on, there are few traces of its existence.

George Alderson-Smith (1834-1931), a native of Leeds, was the son of Mr John Smith, J.P., of Burley House and Belvedere in Harrogate, a partner in the firm of Beckett and Co. He had lived in Scarborough for nearly half a century, the whole time connected with the fishing industry. He was one of the town’s biggest steam trawler owners, amassing a small fortune and a reputation to match. This wealth allowed him to build Wheatcroft Cliff looking over Scarborough’s picturesque South Bay.

Holbeck Gardens - Stories from Scarborough

In time, Alderson-Smith became chairman of the Grand Hotel Company, chairman of the South Cliff Tramway Company and a director of the Scarborough Spa Company. His standing in the community also allowed him to become a J.P. for the North Riding of Yorkshire and eventually Deputy Lieutenant of the same county. Two of his mischievous sons, Hubert and Alder, had caused significant embarrassment when they appeared before Scarborough Police Court in 1889 after throwing five public seats over a cliff.

Alderson-Smith’s fishing business didn’t end well, his last three trawlers – the Seal, the Otter and Dalhousie – were sunk by First World War enemy submarines somewhere off Aberdeen, but by this time he was well into retirement. When Alderson-Smith died in 1931 he left gross estate to the value of £107,736 (net £93,812).

Wheatcroft Cliff was described as ‘standing in six acres of secluded grounds at the extremity of the South Cliff, from where it overlooked Holbeck Gardens and the coast, north and south’.  The contents of Wheatcroft Cliff were quickly sold at auction. The important collections included antique furniture, oriental porcelain of the Ming and Chinese dynasties, fine old English silver, oil paintings, watercolours, arms and armour and a fine library of books.

In June 1932, Wheatcroft Cliff was bought by Messrs Laughton, the proprietors of the Pavilion Hotel in Scarborough, who announced that the mansion was going to be converted into a first-class hotel. Mr Robert Thomas Laughton was the brother of Charles Laughton, the actor, and whose family had been operating hotels in Scarborough for 30 years. He told the Leeds Mercury that they had been searching for some years through various parts of the country for an estate suitable for an hotel to stand in its own grounds, which he considered to be a feature of the most successful first-class holiday hotels.

All the architectural features of Wheatcroft Cliff were preserved, but a new wing was built to accommodate its new services. Once the conversion was completed it had cost nearly £40,000.

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Scarborough was actor Charles Laughton’s boyhood home, where he had his first experience of acting as a member of Scarborough Amateur Players. “I found him in holiday mood, strolling in the beautiful grounds of Holbeck Hall Hotel, which his mother and two brothers recently opened.” From the Leeds Mercury. 3 September 1935. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

“Charles Laughton is once again in the news. I can hardly pick up a paper without seeing some review of his new film ‘Vessel of Wrath’. Though I will admit to being one of his fans, there is something which appeals to me far more, and that is the Laughton Hotels at Scarborough – the Pavilion, the Royal and Holbeck Hall. Now, the Laughton Hotels at Scarborough are a family concern. Although Charles is a director, it is his mother and his two brothers, Tom and Fred, who are in active control. In nearly every town you will find a local name, and I believe I am correct in saying that the Laughtons have been associated with hotel keeping in Scarborough since the first one was opened. Perhaps my favourite of the Laughton hotels is Holbeck Hall – the hotel with a view. Here there are six acres of private ground stretching down to the beach, and you can walk straight from your bedroom down to the sea in your swimming suit. There are all the characteristics of a country mansion. In the hall is a magnificent baronial fireplace, beautiful parquet floor, a minstrels’ gallery – everything, in fact, to promote a sense of well-being.” – ‘Hotel Discoveries’ by Ashley Courtenay in The Illustrated and Sporting Dramatic News – March 18 1938.

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - 28 Apr 1934 - BNA
From the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. 28 April 1934. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

And so Wheatcroft Cliff began life as the four-star Holbeck Hall Hotel. Although it was used briefly as part of a scheme to re-settle returned prisoners of war after World War Two.  The property passed through other owners until it was bought by Barry and Joan Turner, who added it to their English Rose Hotels portfolio.

Until that fateful day in 1993. Cracks had been seen near the hotel some weeks before, but it took until the night of 3 June for the cliff near the hotel to finally give way. Guests had to make a quick exit after its owners realised the seriousness of the situation following the landslip which left the building perched perilously close to the edge.  As the cliff continued to collapse, parts of the building soon began to follow.

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Image: BBC News.
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Image: BBC News.
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Image: BBC News.
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Image: BBC News.

The hotel was in ruins by the time the ground finally stabilised by the end of the weekend, and what was left was bulldozed into the ground two weeks later. The Turners later used the insurance money to buy a new hotel in Malton and continued to build up their hotel empire.

BBC News
At the bottom of the cliff where the Holbeck Hall Hotel once stood, the material which fell during the landslip between 3-5 June 1993 has been landscaped, giving little clue as to the dramatic events which took place there 25 years ago. Image: BBC News.

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