Robin & Rita Seymour look back at the past 100 years
Love at first sight
George and Adelina (Ada) Seymour first visited Jersey on their Honeymoon in 1919. It was love at first sight and by the end of their trip they knew they wanted to return to the Island to make it their home. The holiday sparked a dream that stands strong 100 years later with three hotels, self-catering apartments, a waterfront beach bar and diner, and over 350 staff making up the Seymour Hotels Group family business.
But how did it begin? Here Robin and Rita Seymour, George and Ada’s son and daughter-in-law, share more about the incredible Seymour story; how it began 100 years ago and through the decades of pages which are still being written.
This is a story that starts with a simple honeymoon. But why Jersey? Robin suggests the early reasons aren’t totally clear: “George and Ada never actually told us why they came to Jersey for their honeymoon, but we do know that Jersey came at the recommendation from George’s friend, Percy Wright.” Percy used to work in a ticket office at Waterloo Station, so he knew where the railway workers were going for their holidays. George and Percy remained firm friends throughout their lives with Percy directing thousands of people towards the Merton over the years. “We had a friendship that went back to the roots, so to speak,” Robin remembers fondly.
By the time their honeymoon was over, George and Ada had fallen in love with the Island and weren’t sure if they wanted to leave. Their own guest house experience, a poor one, planted the seed. Robin explains that his mother turned to George on the boat and said, “Huh, I can do better than that.” And that simple statement sparked the idea that would allow them to return and establish what has become the family hospitality business.
Starting from scratch
Returning to London, George made the necessary arrangements so that the newlyweds could begin their new life together in Jersey. As soon as they could, they returned to the Island. They found a house called Glenbow in Halkett Place and turned it into their first guest house – Merton House. “They called it that, because my dad came from Merton,” explains Robin.
But it wasn’t the rosiest of starts. “There was no business to begin with at all. They just prepared the place and hung up the sign to say, ‘we’re a guest house’. They had nothing at that point and had to start from scratch.” But George and Ada were determined their dream would succeed.
"I've got just the place for you"
Many days saw George, looking for something to do, heading out for a walk to explore his new Island home. One day, spotting a group of visitors walking through town with their suitcases George approached them to check everything was ok and to see if they needed help. Knowing the ships came into the harbour early in the morning, he rightly guessed these visitors he saw wondering aimlessly around St Helier were looking for somewhere to stay.
“Come with me, I’ve got just the place for you.” This simple phrase marked the turning point for George and Ada as they successfully directed new visitors fresh off the boat with nowhere to stay to their warm and welcoming guest house.
The Merton Hotel and The Portelet Hotel
They soon expanded Merton House, leasing a house on either side, but rapidly outgrew Glenbow and its neighbouring properties. In 1923, George moved up to Belvedere, transferred the business from Halkett Place, and decided to call it the Merton Hotel. This remains the site of the popular, family-friendly Merton Hotel.
George’s parents – George and Mary Ann – being so inspired by George and Ada’s progress with Merton House decided to come out of retirement to purchase Kalimna Hall in St Brelade and create the Portelet Hotel. This became the second hotel in the Seymour portfolio.
In 1923, as more people came to the Island, hotels and guesthouses were sending coaches down to the boats to meet the visitors. Spotting an opportunity in the market, George and Ada launched Merton Mascots coach company. Robin notes, “I suppose it was a kind of advertising scheme to get the name Merton down there on the quayside so that people knew where to go.” Eventually, Merton Mascots became Mascot Motors and the addition of the coaches made a significant difference to business being driven, literally, to Seymour hotels. “Between the move to the Merton property and the introduction of Merton Mascots, they quickly doubled and filled their capacity,” adds Rita.
Railways and reunions
Robin and Rita attribute the initial boom for Seymour Hotels to the railways and the Railway Worker’s Privilege Ticket Association. Rita explains, “Railway workers would benefit from hugely discounted holidays, if not free on some routes. Also, because British Railways owned the ferries servicing the Island, Jersey was classed as the ‘end of the line’ and, with sea travel included in the discounted travel, quickly became a favourite destination for railway workers and their families.”
This, coupled with George’s natural flair for sales and marketing, guaranteed early success for the family. “He would throw these great reunion parties in London for past guests which inevitably led to re-booking,” adds Rita. Inviting past Seymour Hotels guests to join a night of celebration in London, these reunion parties started in the 1930s. The first took place at the Portman Rooms and there was so much interest adverts had to be placed in the newspapers asking guests not to attend!
To cater for the increasing demand for tickets, the next reunion was held at the Crystal Palace with 4,000 guests joining the celebration. In 1932, for the third reunion George headed to Olympia. That Saturday night saw 5,000 guests joining together to share memories, reminisce and catch up with newly made friends. “These parties were very much a result of the boom and were a celebration for all involved. They were quite remarkable and a moment in time that just couldn’t happen today,” says Robin.
Pomme d'Or Hotel
In 1930, Seymour Hotels purchased the Pomme d’Or Hotel and immediately started the task of renovating. Robin was one of the very first guests, born in the hotel in 1931. “My mother and father were living in the Pomme d’Or when I was born but shortly after we moved into a house at Millbrook,” Robin explains. The house at Millbrook had large gardens and the family would grow flowers and vegetables for use in the hotel. Robin fondly remembers the stream of items constantly going from garden to hotel. “And there was all of the sewing too, making curtains and fancy-dress costumes,” adds Rita.
Holidays in the 30s differed greatly from those today. Guests would come for a week, arriving and leaving on the same set days and the hotels would host a week of activities. From sports days to fancy dress parties, outings to group activities. The fun of dressing up was a constant with both the Merton and Pomme d’Or hotels housing a room packed full of fancy-dress costumes for guests to dip in to. “There was always something going on for entertainment. The photos from that era are quite incredible,” says Rita.
World War II
Things came to a crashing halt with the start of World War II. All three hotels – the Merton Hotel, Pomme d’Or and Portelet – and all the Mascot Motors coaches were commandeered by the German forces. “We weren’t even allowed in the hotels to check on them,” Robin says. “My dad actually ended up spending a day in the lock-up because he walked into the Pomme d’Or which had been converted into the German Kriegsmarine (Naval HQ). He was understandably anxious about what sort of state it was in and how it was being looked after. But he wasn’t allowed. It’s hard to imagine everything you’ve worked so hard to build being taken away from you overnight.”
When the Island was liberated in 1945, after five years of German occupation, George and Ada faced the daunting task of starting the business again. Well, not completely…
Thankfully, before the Germans commandeered their properties, the family had rallied and hidden as much as they could. Cutlery and lamp fittings from the dining rooms, bed linen, sheets, and blankets from the bedrooms; they took as much as they could and stuffed the items under beds and even buried silverware in the gardens. As much as they could grab in the time available was removed and hidden. “I slept on a bed about six-foot high. It was a pile of linen,” Robin adds with a chuckle.
These were the only items George and Ada had at the end of the Occupation. Everything else had been distributed across the Island to the various locations where the Germans lived or had a bunker. “They literally had to hunt their belongings down, collect them, put them back into the best possible working order and return them to the hotels,” says Robin.
“What was left of the hotels had to be fixed and repaired internally. The hotels were left as empty, damaged shells. If the soldiers wanted another room, they simply knocked into the wall or fired at it,” adds Rita.
Undaunted, George and Ada set to work and didn’t stop for the rest of 1945 and the whole winter of 1945/46. “It was a mad scramble and a lot of hard work and worry to be remotely ready for the start of the next season,” says Robin. But they did it and after months of hard work, the Seymours remarkably opened the hotels for the season in April 1946.
The post-war boom
Robin and Rita’s memories of those years after the war and into the 1950s are ones filled with fun and laughter. “Everybody enjoyed themselves. The Island was packed with entertainment, not just at our sites but around every corner. Visitors were always entertained. When I first came here, everybody was just so happy,” explains Rita. “They didn’t expect more in those days, because they hadn’t had it. They had gone through the shortages of the war and they were genuinely grateful for anything. The war had almost given them a new perspective.”
Robin continues, “The holidaymakers and newly-married honeymooners visiting our shores had just come out of five years of serious warfare. The effect of World War II on the British people was deep and intense, and they were absolutely delighted to get out of it.”
Looking back now, the part of their history that truly stands out for Robin and Rita was the post-war boom. “The admiration we have for what George and Ada accomplished in that year is huge. Tackling the task of rebuilding and starting from scratch cannot be underestimated. It was a mammoth task. They literally rose from the ashes. They had the buildings, but they had no business, no staff and no money.”
Robin and Rita join the business
The Seymours proved themselves natural born hoteliers with grit and determination getting them through every setback. Robin inherited this gene and knew he would play a role in the family business. Graduating from Lausanne, Robin joined the Seymour Hotels Group in 1952 as a Junior Manager at the Merton. One of his first tasks was pushing single beds together to make double beds for the honeymooners who by now were coming to the Island in their droves.
Robin feels strongly that the Seymour Group wouldn’t be where it is today without the women who have played such significant roles from the start. First Ada and Mary Ann, then his wife Rita. The pair first met when Rita visited the Island with Robin’s sister Anne. They parted at the end of the holiday and swiftly struck up a long-distance relationship. Rita was also a hotelier, her parents running the former Garrick Hotel in London, so she was the perfect addition to the family. Robin proposed in 1953, the couple were married in 1954 and Rita immediately began to work for the group as a Receptionist at the Hotel de la Plage.
Hoteliers to the core
The pair held many positions across various properties in the business before settling into their roles at Head Office; Robin as joint Managing Director with his father, George, and Rita as Group Housekeeping Director. Both remain actively involved in the business today with Robin as Chairman and Rita as a Director.
To this day, they still hold the lessons George and Ada taught close to their hearts. “As well as work ethic and integrity they were strongly committed to their staff. George and Ada looked after the staff very well. One great example was Wally Perkins. Wally started with them at Merton House in Halkett Place, made the move to the Merton Hotel, became Head Chef and held that post till he retired.”
“Seymour Hotels is a business and we’re hoteliers at our core. But our business is all about our people. You have people working for you and you’re working for people as well. How you treat others is key to success and we never take anyone for granted,” says Robin.
100 years into the Seymour story, the focus on staff and building lasting relationships with suppliers and guests is the foundation of the family’s success. Robin and Rita took on and successfully wrote the next chapter of George and Ada’s dream. Now it’s for the fourth and fifth generations to drive the business forward.