Hitchin Folk Club
A brief history of the Sun Hotel
From medieval times, Hitchin’s principal lodging and meeting place was the Angel Inn, situated in Angel Street. This building was burnt down in the famous fire of 1523, when Henry V111 was staying there, escaping "with not so much as a shirt on his kingly back". Although the Angel was rebuilt, the tenant of the adjoining tithe, owned by Trinity College, took the opportunity to build a rival – The Sun Inn.
By the reign of Charles 1, The Sun had overtaken The Angel as the leading Inn of the town. The importance of The Sun continued to increase, to the extent that Angel Street became Sun Street.
The Hitchin Justices held their sessions in its commodious upper rooms as early as 1600.
During the civil war, The Sun served as the headquarters for the three thousand parliamentary soldiers who were quartered in town. The Council of War met sometimes at Knebworth House, but more frequently at The Sun. After the war, the Duke of Bedford became the Lessee under Trinity College, but the local restored nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood would not use a place which had been so disloyal to the Stewart cause. This led to a temporary decline in trade, but this had been restored by the end of the 17th century.
The Sun was particularly popular with government officials. For example, the collector of the hearth tax, and later on the window tax, would always put up at The Sun.
The coaching era started for The Sun in 1706. By 1741 the London – Hitchin and Bedford service was established and this lasted exactly 100 years. By the time the Hitchin Directory was printed in 1792, there were some fifteen coaches passing daily through the town, to say nothing of stage wagons and village carriers.
The south wing of the building (now backing onto the Conservative Club) dates back to the middle ages, and much of the original Elizabethan and Jacobean building work survives. The present front buildings were constructed circa 1717, and the great ball or assembly room in 1770 (this by the Duke of Bedford shortly after having renewed his lease for the premium of £1000). Further bedrooms were added as a second floor in 1870.
As the 18th century proceeded, more and more attention was paid to the roads to meet the ever-increasing demands of the coaches that plied along them. Under the great McAdam, who lived at Hoddesdon, and who was acting surveyor to both the local Turnpike Trusts, the road surfaces were widened, leveled, hardened and improved to facilitate the traffic. In the course of his work, McAdam was often dining and deliberating at The Sun, especially with Samuel Whitbread (later of brewing fame) of Southill, who took a particular pride in the speed of the Bedford coach as it ran past his estate and on through Hitchin to London.
The Sun continued to be an important administrative centre. The Hitchin, Shefford and Bedford Turnpike Trusts held their statutory meetings in the assembly room. In 1792, when it appeared that revolution might spread from France to England, a town's meeting was summoned at The Sun.
During the 19th century there were Hunt Balls and Easter Balls. The place was a hive of social and intellectual activity.
The Sun has always hosted exhibitions and matters of public interest. In 1830 local people flocked to stare at the Siamese twins of Mary Fisher, of Gosmore, when they were on view for the admission price of 1 1/2d, in the ballroom.
By the turn of the century, The Sun Inn had become The Sun Hotel. Trade again declined after the first world war. The property was purchased by Trust House Limited in 1933. It was sold twice in 1952, in February to Fred Webb for £25,000 and in August (after Webb retired due to ill health) to Hodgkinson and Elwerthy for £30,000 (clearly a substantial profit for six months ownership!). The property was purchased by Charrington in 1961, and transferred within Bass to Toby Hotels.
The rivalry between The Sun and The Angel finally ended in the late 1950’s when The Angel was demolished (now Flecks Nightclub, Wimpey Bar etc.). The loss of this building led to the formation of The Hitchin Society.
In this "The Story of the Sun Hotel, Hitchin (1575-1937)" by Reginald L. Hine, he concludes "fortunately, in any ancient habitation, there is an indwelling spirit – the spirit of the place – more pervading and protecting as the centuries pass by. A long established licensed house, in particular should attain a vintage, lasting value. Landlords come and landlords go, but an Inn goes on, or should go on, for ever".