Emily Moore spoke to Dolan Hotels director Alex Dolan about the history of the newly refurbished Somerville Hotel in St Aubin
A PERSISTENT socialite, a serial entrepreneur, a philanthropist and an occasional rapscallion…
Many words have been used to describe the ‘larger-than-life eccentric’ JW Chapman, whose love of entertaining saw him turn his St Aubin home into a hotel in the 1880s.
‘By all accounts, he was a thoroughly interesting chap and a classic Victorian eccentric with an appetite for travel, champagne and entertaining,’ said Dolan Hotels director Alex Dolan, whose family acquired The Somerville Hotel in 1985.
‘He originally built Somerville, with its Swiss-chalet-style architecture, as his private home, but soon started opening his doors to the many visitors who flocked to the popular bathing area and then popped up the hill to see what the grand building was.
‘The legend has it that he then regaled them with stories, invariably told over a few glasses of champagne, of his travels around the world. As this became a regular occurrence and his reputation as a born entertainer grew, he turned the house into a hotel, welcoming his first paying guests in 1881.’
With a love of the finer things in life, Mr Chapman soon decided that the original house was ‘not grand enough’ for his tastes and so he began extending the property.
‘It’s interesting because as you walk through the hotel, you can feel the changes from one generation of building to another,’ smiled Alex. ‘It is also interesting in a somewhat more challenging sense when it comes to maintaining and renovating the space as nothing was measured or built in a straight line, so there are lots of quirky angles to take into account.’
Indeed, the Dolan family have been reminded of this fact recently, as they have carried out a comprehensive refurbishment of the property, which started just before Covid and finally drew to a close this month.
‘We started by refurbishing the bar and restaurant in the winter of 2020,’ Alex said. ‘We had just completed that phase and opened the new Tides Restaurant and Voyager Bar – named in honour of JW Chapman – when Covid hit and we were forced to close.
‘It was devastating – and somewhat terrifying to have all the bills landing when we were closed – but having done the work when we did put us in a strong position when we were able to open again because we had a brand-new offer for people to enjoy.’
In many ways, the concept has not changed significantly from the offer developed by JW Chapman and largely emulated by Alex’s father, grandfather and aunt, when they bought the hotel from the Hill family nearly 40 years ago.
‘My grandparents lived next door to the hotel and had no intention of entering the industry but my grandfather had always enjoyed coming in for a drink,’ Alex explained.
‘He was known for being quite a character and, when the hotel came onto the market, he decided to take it on. Although he knew nothing about hospitality, he did know how to throw a good party and, luckily, he made a lot of good decisions, investing significantly to add en-suite facilities to all the bedrooms, building a large bar area and equipping the kitchen with the best equipment.’
This work saw the property transformed from a two-star hotel into the four-star establishment it remains today.
It also led to the discovery of many artefacts, which reflect the building’s rich history.
‘This building is like a time capsule. Every time we carry out work, we discover mementos from the past,’ Alex said. ‘We’ve found doors hidden in walls behind cupboards, packets of German cigarettes under the floorboards from the Occupation, when the hotel was a billet for German soldiers, and an old tin bath from the days when you had to pay extra if you wanted a hot bath in the evening.
‘There is also lots of fascinating graffiti in the conning tower at the top of the hotel where workmen have left their signatures and messages over the years. Some of the marks were made in the 1800s, while there are others dated 1919 and several from the Occupation.’
While loving these pieces of history, there have also been some less enjoyable finds along the way.
‘The hotel was created by an eccentric genius and the plumbing and electrics are works of art,’ Alex laughed. ‘I’m very cynical when it comes to spirits and ghosts but there is a real presence in this building and each time a complication has arisen during the refurbishment, I say that it’s JW Chapman’s spirit messing with us.’
After Covid brought the planned renovation to a halt, work resumed last year when attention turned from the dining areas to the accommodation.
‘We renovated all the bedrooms last year in a “modern Victorian” style, which is sympathetic to the building’s history but which incorporates all of the modern conveniences you would want from a hotel,’ Alex explained, ‘and we have just completed the final phase, which comprised the reception, lobby and corridors, this winter.’
As well as representing a major investment in the tourism industry, Alex says that the work has greater significance for the Island.
‘We have previously been described as custodians of this Jersey landmark, which has been an iconic feature of so many postcards and adverts over the years,’ he said.
‘While we hope to keep the property in the Dolan family for many decades to come, it is nice to think that we are preserving something, which has such a rich heritage, so that future generations can also experience its history.’