Oscar Wilde at the Marine Hotel

Montague Terrace, the Sea House Inn and the New Inn, in a watercolour of about 1805 by John Nixon (reproduced by courtesy of Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)
Montague Terrace, the Sea House Inn and the New Inn, in a watercolour of about 1805 by John Nixon (reproduced by courtesy of Worthing Museum and Art Gallery)

The Marine Hotel and its predecessor, the New Inn – which are the focus of this article – stood immediately to the west of the Pier Hotel, which featured in Looking Back on February 27. Indeed, the Marine appeared in some of the pictures in that article.

At the end of the 18th century, Worthing’s three main inns were all in South Street.

Looking east from the Marine Hotel in the 1880s

Looking east from the Marine Hotel in the 1880s

Halfway down the eastern side was the Nelson Inn; at the sea-end were the Sea House Inn and, on the south-eastern corner of the street, the New Inn.

These three inns offered only limited accommodation.

On August 18, 1805, a newspaper reported that the previous evening “the sands had been crowded with carriages of various descriptions” belonging to “a great party of nobility”, which had come over from Brighton.

There were 153 people in the party, far too many to be looked after in Worthing.

The Marine Hotel in 1906

The Marine Hotel in 1906

The report tells us that “27 persons dined at the house of Mr Hogsflesh [the Sea House Inn], and 15 at the house of Mr Bacon [the New Inn]”, while a few others were accommodated at the Nelson Inn.

More than 100 of the visitors, however, had to return to Brighton.

The report added that “this inconveniency will be removed next season, by the building of an hotel on a scale suitable to the dignity of the visitors”.

This was the Steyne Hotel, now the southern end of the Chatsworth Hotel.

The Marine Hotel in the 1950s

The Marine Hotel in the 1950s

Although the 1805 report referred to Mr Hogsflesh and Mr Bacon, John Evans, who visited Worthing a year earlier, in July 1804, said that the two inns were “kept by two widows of the names of Hogsflesh and Bacon”.

This is puzzling. We know that Thomas Hogsflesh had owned the Sea House Inn from 1786 or earlier, and that Richard Bacon was the landlord of the New Inn by 1792; but it remains unclear when their widows took over, or indeed, when they retired.

John Mackoull tells us that, by 1813, the inns were run respectively by Mr Parsons and Mr Barker, and mentions that after Hogsflesh died, he was briefly succeeded by his widow.

Mackoull also claims that “a singular coincidence of names once occurred” at the New Inn, when Mr Bacon held a dinner party attended not only by Mr Hogsflesh, but also by Mr Wildboar, Mr Swine and Mr Ham.

South Street and the Marine Hotel in the early 1960s

South Street and the Marine Hotel in the early 1960s

While it is just possible that Bacon assembled such a party to amuse himself and the others, it is more likely that this was a hoary tale that circulated in Worthing, or an invention of Mackoull’s.

Interestingly, the author Charles Lamb was inspired by the names of the two Worthing innkeepers to use them in a short two-act comedy called Mr H, which was hissed when it was first performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1806.

Lamb later told friends that he joined in the hissing himself, because he was “so damnably afraid of being taken for the author”.

An extract from Lamb’s dreadful little play, which is full of laboured pig puns, appears in my book, Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon.

Bad though Mr H was, it was later revived, and a touring production visited Worthing in 1822.

Worthing rapidly grew in size over the first few decades of the 19th century, and the Sea House Inn and the New Inn soon became unacceptably old-fashioned. In the mid-1820s, both were replaced by new buildings.

In 1826, the Sea House Inn was rebuilt as the Sea House Hotel – later the Royal Sea House Hotel, and later still simply the Royal – which will feature in a later article; while the Marine Hotel had replaced the New Inn a year or so earlier.

As the pictures on this page show, the Marine was a charming building. Its demolition in 1965 was a great loss to the central part of Worthing’s seafront.

The Marine Hotel was also one of just four buildings that we know Oscar Wilde spent time inside when he stayed in Worthing for two months in the summer of 1894, and wrote his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

The other buildings, all now gone, were the Haven, the house where Wilde and his family stayed, which was situated at the corner of Brighton Road and the Esplanade; the Assembly Rooms in Bath Place; and the old southern pier pavilion.

We know to within a day or two when it was that Wilde lunched at the Marine Hotel.

Wilde and his friend Lord Alfred Douglas, who came to stay in Worthing three times that summer, often hired a sailing-boat; and it was on or about August 20 that 16-year-old Alphonse Conway, and a younger boy called Stephen, helped drag their boat down the beach, and Wilde invited them to join him and Douglas on their outing.

The outing was repeated the following morning, and afterwards Wilde entertained Douglas and the two boys to lunch at the Marine Hotel.

By this time, Wilde had long since ceased having marital relations with his beautiful wife, Constance, and had embarked on a series of brief relationships with boys and young men.

He rarely delayed when he took a fancy to someone, and it was within only a few days of their first meeting that he seduced Alphonse Conway.

The relationship continued until Wilde left Worthing at the start of October.

The following year, Wilde was questioned at length about Conway at the Old Bailey when he sued Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for libel, after Queensberry had left a mis-spelt visiting card at Wilde’s club that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”.

The libel trial collapsed on the third day, and Wilde was arrested and charged with sexual offences with various boys and young men.

He was found guilty and sent to prison for two years.

Although Wilde’s relationship with Alphonse Conway had featured prominently in the libel trial, Wilde was not charged with any offences relating to Alphonse, since in those days offences that took place in Worthing were outside the jurisdiction of the Central Criminal Court.

• Pier Hotel – correction and amplification

After my article about the Pier Hotel appeared in Looking Back on February 27, I was contacted by John Melser, whose grandfather, and then his parents, ran the hotel for many years – indeed until a couple of years before it was demolished in 1965.

John himself grew up at the Pier Hotel, and was later the manager of Roberts Wine Lodge, which used to occupy the site, just to the east of West Buildings, where the Nautilus block now stands.

The main purpose of John’s email was to correct my statement that the Pier Hotel had merely been given an art deco makeover in the late 1930s.

In fact, the old Pier Hotel was entirely demolished, and the art deco structure that replaced it was a totally new building.

Interestingly, a temporary building was erected in the forecourt to maintain the continuity of the licence while the new hotel was being constructed in 1937/38.