BRITANNIA HOTEL – A BRIEF HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
The Britannia Hotel was built in 1879 by E K Green a liquor company. The hotel comprised 14 bedrooms on the first floor of which only four had en-suites. It was a “whites only” hotel. The ground floor comprised a kitchen, a dining area, lounge and a bar. Two areas adjacent to the main bar were labeled “coolie bar” and “kaffir bar” but in reality they were dingy lounges in which non-whites were served through hatches connected to the main bar. This ensured that blacks, whites and Indians were segregated and this conformed to the requirements of racist laws of the apartheid regime. The “whites only” bar was very well appointed with checkered black and white marble floor tiles and a bar counter made of teak wood. The shelves were beautifully made of turned teak wood with beveled mirrors as splash-backs. There were wooden stools, ceiling fans and a dedicated internal toilet. Everything looked spruced up for the comfort and enjoyment of the hotel’s white patrons. The ambience may have set the benchmark of modernity, comfort and beauty for its time. The other so-called “bars” were sparsely furnished with cheap wooden tables and plastic chairs.
In the late 70’s the hotel was sold to two Indian businessmen. Legally they could not claim real ownership of the hotel in terms of the laws that governed ownership at that time. Non-whites couldn’t own properties in major parts of the CBD or even on the fringes of the city, which is where the Britannia stands. The white owner had to “act” as a nominee on behalf of the buyers. A legal agreement had to be drafted by attorneys to provide proof of real ownership on behalf of non-whites. During the days of the apartheid this is how non-whites secretly purchased properties in areas reserved for “whites only”.
There was an underground tunnel located diagonally opposite the hotel running under Umgeni Road. The tunnel led to a busy railway station used mainly by Indian and black commuters. During the early seventies white patronage may have dropped significantly as several large modern hotels sprung up in many areas of the city, notably along the beachfront. This may have been the reason why hotels like the Britannia lost patronage. Moreover many of the facilities of the Britannia were outdated. The furniture of the rooms consisted of antique bedposts/headboards and a chest of drawers. The beds had spring bases upon which coir mattresses were laid. Since only four of the fourteen bedrooms had en-suites the other guests had to bath in communal bathrooms that were really drab in appearance and outmoded. The walls were painted in high gloss oil paint and the floors were plastered with red oxide. There were no geysers for the provision of hot water. A small cast iron furnace had to be lit very early each morning. Wood and coal were used to provide heat. From the furnace an iron pipe was connected to a huge steel water tank. The tank was fixed at roof level to facilitate the flow of hot water to the bathrooms. Hot air that flowed through the pipe heated the water in the tank. This was the method used to heat water in those days.
Attached to the hotel in one corner at the front was a small off-sales (a term that referred to a liquor store). It had storerooms at the rear of the store for the weekly purchases of beer and liquor. In the late seventies after a change in ownership and the reclassification of the racial status of the hotel, the bars and off-sales were well patronized by black and Indian commuters using the railway station. Around 1980 the railway station was relocated about half a kilometer away from the hotel, the tunnel was closed and a major restructuring of the roads took place. Traffic travelling northbound was routed via a fly over that spanned the Umgeni River. These changes negatively impacted on the financial standing of the hotel. Turnover dropped drastically and the Britannia Hotel was in the doldrums. It was during this period the ownership of hotel fell into the hands of the Moodley family.