The new George Hotel was the first building to be erected on the square in front of the recently opened railway station. Designed by Willian Wallen for the Ramsden Estate, it set a standard for future development in the area.
Like the railway station, it was built by Joseph Kaye who brought in the cheapest tender. He was able to use stone left over from the station and had sufficient men on his books that work could begin without delay. Excavation of the foundations began in March 1849, barely a month after the opening of the tenders. Despite a severe winter, the builders had started constructing the upper storey in February 1850. Across the road, at the corner of Brook Street, on the site of a former brickyard, work began on the hotel’s stabling. This was at an additional cost of £720. The final cost of the new hotel was £10,374 10s 7d, more than £4000 over the original estimate. This was put down to changes from the original plans and decorative features.
Thomas Wigney, who had been at the old George, took on the tenancy and the first guests were welcomed on 27 August 1851. He was succeeded by other members of the family who are celebrated in an obelisk which survives in St Peter’s Gardens.
Whilst the Wigneys were to complain that trade was not as good, probably a ploy to secure rent reductions, under their successors standards were said to have fallen to a level that was unbefitting of the town’s premier hotel. Seeing an opportunity, in 1872 a group of Huddersfield businessmen formed a limited company to take over the lease; running the hotel has been in corporate hands ever since. The George Hotel Co. Ltd. brought in Huddersfield architect W.H. Crossland to make alterations and additions including new kitchens and a laundry. Furnishings were supplied by cabinet-makers Brown & Lamont of Chester. On the eve of the First World War, another local architect Willie Cooper was responsible for a complete refurbishment which included furniture from Waring & Gillow. When the freehold was bought by Huddersfield Corporation in 1920 as part of the Ramsden Estate there were 45 bedrooms, some with private sitting rooms, a restaurant, billiard room and other facilities as well as stabling.
In one of those ground floor rooms, later to become the home of the popular Tudor Bar, what was to become the Rugby League was formed in the last week of August 1895. Compensation for broken time had been a major topic for debate by English rugby’s governing body but when the matter came to the vote in 1893, it was roundly defeated. The Rugby Football Union stressed the amateur nature of the game which it was argued should continue to be governed from headquarters in London. This was unacceptable to many of the northerners and the clubs which they represented. A series of meetings followed at the Spread Eagle on Corporation Street in Manchester and at Huddersfield’s George Hotel, convenient for members from either side of the Pennines. At the meeting at the George on 25 August, the representatives of twelve Yorkshire and nine Lancashire clubs took the momentous decision to break away from the RFU, form a northern union and established the principle of payment for broken time. From September, when the new season got underway, players were able to claim six shillings (30p) provided they could show that they had lost a day’s pay.
James Mason was a lifelong supporter of ‘Fartown’ (Huddersfield R.L.F.C.) though as a young man he could not wait to get away from the town of his birth. In later years, family and business brought him back to the town which had grown in his affection. On his many visits, he became a regular at the George which in the fifties and sixties was at the heart of the town’s social life. James, later Lord, Hanson added a touch of glamour, entertaining his many friends including his long-time fiancée Audrey Hepburn. Sir Malcolm Sargent stayed at the hotel on his visits to conduct the Huddersfield Choral Society. Lunch clubs, charity dinners, wedding breakfasts, annual dinners and dances were a regular feature of the social diary.
But fashions were changing. Town centre hotels with limited parking had to compete with the new venues that were springing up. Successive managements of the George failed to modernise the accommodation and invest in new facilities. After more than one near miss, the inevitable happened. The receivers were called-in in 2013 and the doors of the George were locked. A sale was soon agreed to local dentist and entrepreneur, Dr Alaf Hussein, who announced ambitious plans to re-develop the hotel to include some apartments and a roof top lounge bar. Start dates for the work came and went – a matter of great concern for many local people, who witnessed the gradual deterioration of the building. It was an embarrassment to the local authority which considered St George’s Square a key gateway to the town and the George an important element in the recently published Town Centre Blueprint.
In March 2020, it was announced that Kirklees Council had agreed terms for the purchase of the building as part of the regeneration programme. The purchase came as the coronavirus crisis set in but work has now started on this much-loved town centre building. There is much at stake. In 1851, the new hotel set the standard for the development of the area; a flagship re-development of the George could help to kickstart the town’s regeneration.
Brian Haigh, May 2021