Plenty of people will associate Chichester’s Ship Hotel with its wartime role when the future President Eisenhower stayed there.
But fewer will associate it with the man for whom it was built, one of Admiral Lord Nelson’s most trusted confidants.
It’s a story Chichester historian Alan Green tells in his latest volume, The Ship Hotel, Chichester, number six in the New Chichester Papers series.
The work revives interest in the impressive Admiral Sir George Murray – and also corrects a wrong Alan had himself unwittingly promulgated
“When I researched for my book on Georgian Chichester several years ago, obviously I came across this building. People know it was the home of Admiral George Murray, but people didn’t know who had built it.
“I wrote the thing up for the book, and then the year before last, a friend of mine came across a deed that had the signature of Admiral Sir George Murray on it.
It was obvious that Murray must have had it built himself. Popular belief was that it was built by Richard Murray, his brother, who thought the admiral would want somewhere nice to come back to. And I perpetuated the myth in my book, to my shame!”
Sir George – Alan can now confirm – was himself the house’s instigator.
“There had been a number of houses on that site going back to at least the 16th century. At the time it had been owned by Cobden brothers who were builders. But it was an unfinished site when the admiral bought it. He pulled down the unfinished house and built the current one.
“George Murray was born in Chichester of the great Murray family. He was someone who was well-liked. He was very friendly with (the celebrated Chichester composer) John Marsh, and he entertained royalty at the house.
“Murray was also a great friend and confidant of Nelson. He was captain of the fleet to Nelson, and when they were planning Trafalgar, Nelson famously said he wanted ‘none but Murray’.
But Murray did not get to go to Trafalgar because his father-in-law had died and he had to stay behind to sort out the estate. Had he been there, he could well have been at Nelson’s side and perished with him.
“Murray was a very accomplished sailor and tactician. He went to see at the age of 11. He went as a midshipman and rose up. He was seen as a very competent sailor. Nelson trusted in him, and they got on terribly well.”
The building which became The Ship Hotel certainly befitted his status: “It was the grandest house ever built in Chichester. The staircase wouldn’t have looked out of place in London in a gentlemen’s club. Sadly that’s the only part left now of the interior.”
Murray didn’t go to sea again after 1808, but continued to be promoted until he died in 1819 in his 59th year, still in the navy. He had been knighted four years earlier, but despite the promotions, his main focus was Chichester where he also served as mayor.
“After his death, the house remained in the Murray family and was largely tenanted out. But in 1888, it came into the hands of Dr Skaife. He was what you would call a GP today and also a surgeon at the Royal West Sussex.
“There were several residents after that, and it remained a private residence until 1938. And then it was bought by a hotel chain, Allied Hotels. They had a bit of a battle with the then city council, but in the end they extended the building down the side of Guildhall Street. They doubled the size.
“It opened on the eve of World War II which didn’t augur very well, but Eisenhower stayed there when they were planning D-Day.”
Alan’s book is available from Kim’s in South Street, from the Ship Hotel and from the County Record Office in Chichester.