Cobourg is a tourist town. For over a century, we have had more hotels than people can name, and more people flowing in and out of the town on holidays than we can count. But the hotel that remains at the forefront of many people's memories is the old British Hotel. Although the banquet initiating the Cobourg Rotary Club was held at the Arlington Hotel the subsequent meetings were held at the British Hotel.  

Arlington Hotel on King StreetRotary, a non-profit organization that assists many charitable efforts throughout the world was founded in 1905 in the heart of Chicago. The Cobourg affiliate was founded in 1921, after it moved to the British Hotel the hotel was bought by Rueben Freeman, a member of the Rotary Club, and the club continued to meet there until 1979

During the Great Depression the many tourists that had flocked to the various hotels and inns of Cobourg were absent, as nobody had the money to spend on vacations with the slump of the economy.  Due to this change within the culture, many of the hotels converted to bars to attract more business, a practice that was used by the British Hotel.cobourg2-425

Local businessman and Rotarian Jim Gordon, owner of Gordon Insurance, remembers many of the enjoyable times he and other members used to have while meeting at the hotel. Gordon joined the Rotarians in 1967, and he recalled when he had to make a speech to the other members of Rotary. 'I was terrified,' he remembers, 'and I got up there to do my speech and got so nervous I said, 'like the humble man that lived many years ago, I too, am the son of a carpenter.' And an older gentleman pointed right at me and said 'and that's where the similarity ends!' Gordon smiles, and shakes his head, 'the room was howling for quite a while after that'. Many Rotary meetings at the British Hotel were filled with jokes and laughter.

After the Rueben Freeman passed away in 1961, the Rotarians continued to meet at the British Hotel, and were served by his widow, Dorothy, who ran the hotel.  'She served meat and fish,' Gordon recalls, 'fish on Fridays for those who were Roman Catholic'.

The British Hotel, however, was losing business, and in an effort to stay on top, converted part of the bar to a Gentleman's club. 'The girls," Gordon remembers, 'started at 12 noon, and didn't quit till the morning.' 'On a particularly memorable occasion, one of the Rotary meetings had run late, and the women were getting ready for work. One of the Rotary members had dropped his hat outside the meeting room. An unnamed girl, already in full costume, found it, and entered the meeting room, stating "Clarke Steven left this hat in my room last night, anybody know where I can find him?" 'The whole room just exploded' Gordon laughs, remembering the expression on his friends face, 'The hilarity was contagious.'cobourg3

Eventually, however, the Rotarians became too large in numbers to fit comfortably within the British Hotel. They moved to other hotels throughout the Cobourg area, before eventually settling at the Best Western, where they continue to meet now.

Although the British Hotel is long gone, it will remain within many Rotarian's memories. They had many, many meetings there, filled with laughter, discussion and the knowledge that they were going to help the world. While the building itself may not remain, the memories it helped to create will never be demolished.

By: Samantha Ward - CDCI West student

 

Footnote from Stephen Della Casa of the Woodlawn Inn: 

The author notes that the British Hotel converted from accommodation to a bar to make more money and while that's true the circumstances for the change are not entirely accurate.  She mentions "During the Great Depression the many tourists that had flocked to the various hotels and inns of Cobourg were absent, as nobody had the money to spend on vacations with the slump of the economy.  Due to this change within the culture, many of the hotels converted to bars to attract more business, a practice that was used by the British Hotel."

The tourism decline was due to a number of factors one of which was the depression but that is not important.  What the British Hotel did, and many Ontario hotels of that vintage also did, in the 1940's and 50's was to convert the hotel rooms into monthly or weekly rental units, usually to single men that were down on their luck.  

The fees charged the tenants were meager and of course you can guess that many of these "flop houses" soon became very neglected fire traps in town centres all across Ontario. The Ontario Fire Marshall's office wanted to shut down the hundreds of operations and a proposal was struck that if the hotels were to exit the flop house business a liquor licence would be granted.  

Back in those days, the memories of prohibition still lingered and securing a licence to sell liquor was very difficult and in many cases impossible to acquire. Hotels jumped at the chance to get a liquor permit and promptly went out of the accommodation business.

The liquor permits granted were very generous. For example, there was a bar called the Plaza Hotel, which was located where the current Subway is. The Plaza Hotel held a liquor licence for 497 patrons.  Today, if it were to apply they would be lucky to get a licence for 100 guests!

Cobourg's hotels were the Chateau, the Plaza and the British Hotel.  All at one time offered mid-end accommodation, but they closed down their flop house business to operate large capacity bars.
 
Stephen Della Casa