The End of the Sands – the Haven Hotel Story

Any account of Sandbanks seems to contain an element of nostalgia perhaps because its development has been so extreme. From a lonely spit of sand dunes haunted by smugglers, it was transformed in not much more than a century into the present busy resort with traffic jams, car parks, hotels, luxury houses and (according to the press), millionaires every 50 metres. The story of the Haven Hotel is closely linked to this development and also includes drama, tragedy and scientific achievement.

An early view of the hotel with the coastguard jetty and look-out in the foreground

The hotel was built in 1880 at the tip of the North Haven peninsula with a priceless view of the harbour entrance, passing vessels and Brownsea Island across the water. There was no proper approach road and guests had to make their way along a rough track or be landed by boat to reach it. The original owner, Peter Tuck, soon rented out the building and in the 1881 census John Odlum and his wife were listed as proprietors. At this time there were scarcely any other buildings on ‘the sandbanks’, apart from the coastguard cottages on the other side of the peninsula. In 1887, a writer in the Bournemouth Guardian described a sailing trip out of the harbour, stopping at the Haven Hotel where they ‘put down some of the obliging landlord’s best. The hotel is placed in a rather lonely location for a restaurant, but I fancy Boniface does a good thing out of the visitors who, like we did, generally reach this spot beginning to feel hungry and thirsty.’

The following year, a tragedy occurred as the steam tug Telegraph was moving off after landing a couple of passengers for the hotel. A small boat was moored near the shore with Mr. A. Borrisow and his son Frank on board. Failing to see the sailing boat, the Telegraph hit her, throwing the occupants into the water and resulting in the death of 18 year old Frank. A Board of Trade enquiry found that the captain of the Telegraph was to blame in not keeping a proper look-out and failing to ensure that the lifeboats were ready for immediate use.

By 1889, the hotel was under the management of William B. Mullins and his wife, as a series of press advertisements show. In April 1890, William Mullins and his sister-in-law were driving in a dog cart back to the Haven after taking two gentlemen to Poole. At ‘Glass Cottage corner’ near the junction with Ashley Road, the dog cart was in collision with a brougham belonging to Captain Turner Jones and both William and his passenger were thrown out. The casualties were taken to the Haven Hotel and attended by Dr. Philpotts but William, who had been knocked unconscious, protested that he was not badly injured and did not need medical help. Later that night he died. He was 27 years old and had only been married about 10 months. The license of the hotel was transferred to William’s widow Lilian but in December she was obliged to file for bankruptcy.

Over the next few years the hotel had several different proprietors and in 1895, the owner Peter Tuck proposed that the license should be transferred from the Haven to Sandacres, (now the Sandbanks Hotel) which he also owned. He argued that the Haven Hotel was too remote and vulnerable to ‘parties of roughs’ making trouble. The proposal was turned down in the light of objections from neighbours of Sandacres. Contemporary press advertisements for the Haven show that the hotel was now under the ‘entirely New Management’ of W. H. Witherington and offered ‘Excellent cuisine, Choice Wines, Luncheons, Teas, Dinners always ready. Hot and cold Sea Water Baths. Terms moderate’. It seems quite a sophisticated offer for a rather out-of-the-way establishment. The picture shows that the hotel had already been extended with wings on either side of the original building.

In the 1890s there was concern that the shoreline at Sandbanks was eroding and that the peninsula might be cut in two at its narrowest point. Defensive groynes were needed. Another consequence of shifting sands was the build up of a bar at the harbour entrance which was seriously affecting trade. Impatient at lack of action on the part of Poole Council, an association of merchants presented a bill to Parliament for the setting up of an independent Harbour Board and this became law as the Poole Harbour Act 1895. The new Commissioners, who included representatives of the Council and local business, acquired responsibility for the Quay and Sandbanks. To raise money for the necessary sea defences, they decided to divide part of Sandbanks into 40 plots and sell them for building development. The transformation of the peninsula now began to accelerate.

A map of 1896 showing the hotel and some of the plots for sale

The pier and paddle steamer

Road access was still poor and although Sandbanks was the seaside place of the town, ‘people were jolted out of their lives before they got down there’. In 1898, however, the access by sea was improved with the building of a pier 92ft. long by 26ft. wide, large enough to allow passenger steamers to call there. The pier was sponsored by Messrs. George Habgood and Sons of Wimborne, owners of the Haven Hotel, to meet a long-felt want of ‘excursionists’ and visitors. Passengers were brought from Poole on board the S.S. Lord Elgin for the opening, conducted by the Mayor of Poole. The ceremony was followed by a luncheon in the hotel, hosted by Mr. G. Habgood junior who took the opportunity to stress the need for better roads.

Meanwhile, the Haven Hotel became the site of a cutting edge experiment. The young Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi had arrived in England in 1896 and won support for his investigations into wireless telegraphy. His first transmitting station was at the Royal Needles Hotel on the Isle of Wight followed by stations at Bournemouth and Swanage. In September 1898, he arrived at the Haven Hotel with masts and apparatus and set up his laboratory in an east-facing room on the ground floor.

The hotel and Marconi’s mast

One of Marconi’s assistants, Mr. H.M. Dowsett, recalled the wireless room as ‘a business workshop, full of purposeful activity and with signals being continuously exchanged between the Needles station 14 miles away.’ By 1899 it was reported in the press that ‘Marconi’s wireless telegraphy is now far beyond the experimental stage and recent trials of its practical utility have been crowned with success. . . . Recently one of the stations has been removed to the Haven Hotel, Poole and the signalling distance increased to eighteen miles.’ Marconi continued to work at the hotel until 1926. He was a frequent visitor of the Van Raalte family of Brownsea Island and his yacht Elettra was frequently seen moored off the island. When he was in residence at the hotel, there were often convivial meals with his family, assistants, fellow scientists and other visitors, followed by musical evenings with Guglielmo on the piano and his brother Alfonso playing the cello.

The landlord during most of Marconi’s time at the Haven was Frenchman Eugene Poulain, a native of Normandy. Under his management, the hotel gained a reputation for excellent food and hospitality. A lobster tea on the veranda for 40 members of the Yacht Club in 1901 was well within his scope. Over the next few years, guests of the hotel included local gentry, members of the aristocracy and even foreign royalty when the Spanish Infanta Eulalia and her two sons had ‘a most pleasant stay’. The poet Robert Browning was a guest in 1899 and nurse Edith Cavell in 1903. M. Poulain provided motor boats to ferry guests across to Shell Bay and motor buses to bring people from Poole and Bournemouth. There was also a frequent boat service from Poole Quay.

Bus and party in front of the hotel

Articles in the press praised Sandbanks as a ‘breezy and health-giving place.’ ‘The true lover of Sandbanks cannot wish it to become a fashionable resort with all which the term implies of bricks and mortar and suburban conventionality but we scarcely fancy that such will be its fate.’ In 1909, the Bournemouth Graphic gave a glowing account of the Haven. ‘This delightful spot is at the end of the sands, westward from Bournemouth, and can be reached by different means. . . The Hotel, of which Mr. E. Poulain is proprietor, is situated in a charming position overlooking the Harbour, Solent. Brownsea Island and the Purbeck Hills Everything necessary for an enjoyable holiday is to be obtained there, – fishing, swimming, boating &c.

By 1914, Eugene and his wife Francis had acquired a French partner, Raymond Louis Patenotte who later married their daughter, Marguerite. The young couple’s son, Reynold was born at the Haven in 1916. At the beginning of the First World War, the hotel was requisitioned to house Belgian refugees and was left in a poor state with skirting boards and other fittings stripped out for use as firewood. The family continued at the hotel for several more years but in 1921, it was announced that M. Poulain was retiring and revisiting France for his niece’s wedding. Transferring the licence to Mrs. Kate Eliza Dore, the Mayor expressed the hope that it would be run as well in the future as it had been in the past.

In 1925, Mrs. Dore was obliged to sue one of her guests for a debt of £24 18s 9d. The ‘well dressed’ Maurice Friend arrived at the hotel at the end of April for a 6 months’ visit at 21s 6d (£1 15p) a day. Early in his stay, he offered to buy the hotel for £27,000 and started negotiations with Mrs. Dore, probably as a ploy to stay on, even when his bill was in arrears. He also defrauded James Harvey who operated one of the Sandbanks ferry boat services by telling him that he had bought the hotel and would give him a 5 year lease of the pier for £200 a year. Mr. Harvey paid him £70 to seal the deal. Messrs Wyatt, Jewellers of Bournemouth were also patronised (or targeted) by Mr. Friend who bought goods from them on three occasions and in each case, paid by a cheque worth more than the purchase price and received cash as change. All the cheques were returned by the bank. It turned out that Maurice Friend was an undischarged bankrupt with debts of £7,146 and no assets, but he must have been a very plausible trickster to fool so many business people.

Meanwhile, building development in Sandbanks had been proceeding at a pace and an advertisement for the hotel in 1923 mentions ‘Bungalow Town’ near by. Car travel was also on the increase and an Act of Parliament was obtained to allow a car ferry to operate across the harbour entrance to Shell Bay. A steam driven ferry started in 1926, and in its first season carried around 100,000 passengers. The ferry’s journeys to and fro have been a source of fascination to hotel clients ever since.

The rebuilt Haven Hotel as seen from the ferry

In 1925, the hotel had been bought by Sir Arthur Wheeler, the latest owner of Brownsea Island who appointed Major Ruttle to run it. The country was in the midst of an economic recession but  some with the means and confidence were bold enough to invest in the future. Starting with a major rebuild in 1926, the hotel was transformed into a large, luxurious building incorporating the most modern features such as a smoking room, sea water baths in the rooms and a sprung dance floor. Garages were provided for the guests’ motor cars, with rooms for their chauffeurs above.

An article in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in May 1928 gives a glowing description: ‘At Sandbanks there has arisen . . . a new Haven Hotel, the like of which I have not quite come across in all Great Britain. . . . As a comfortable, modern, perfectly designed and furnished real hotel, in the best sense of the word, it stands almost in a class of its own, and I have no hesitation in recommending any of my readers who want the best of food and wines and sea air to try it for themselves.’ The writer was particularly struck by the location ‘facing blue water on almost every side, the only exception being the view that looks across the gorse and bungalow-covered ridge to the north. Ships – mostly yachts – pass immediately beneath its windows; across the strait stand up the blue Purbeck hills; within fifty yards one can bath from golden sands in clear water and best of all, there seems always some place where one can sit entirely out of doors and yet out of the wind.’

The Haven had moved into a different league, to be considered side by side with establishments like the Royal Bath in Bournemouth. In the following years it would host big events like the British Rotary annual district conference with 150 delegates in 1930 or the 1935 Parkstone Sailing Club annual dinner dance for 180 members, as well as regular week-end dances.

Haven Hotel c.1940

World War II put everything on hold. Sandbanks was a restricted area and local residents were summoned to the Haven to be issued with special passes. The ‘golden sands’ were strung with barred wire and many buildings were requisitioned for military purposes, including the Haven Hotel. At various times, it was used to accommodate the Green Howards, American troops, the Royal Navy and BOAC staff operating the flying boats from the harbour. During a bombing raid, the hotel kitchen was hit and the boiler thrown out of the building. After the war, work was needed to refurbish the building which was in a poor state and it was not until 1949 that it reopened under Major Ruttle’s management.

The Business Centre

In the postwar world, hotels like the Haven found themselves competing with affordable holidays on the continent. A low point for the hotel was in the early 1970s when plans were put forward to demolish it and replace it with a block of flats. Ironically, it was the recession that prevented demolition, as a developer could not be found. In 1977, the prospects for the hotel improved when it was bought by FJB Group. Press articles announced that the Group planned to spend £250,000, add 25 extra bedrooms (bringing the total to 101) and install an open air sea water swimming pool and a roofed sun terrace. In the 1980s, a leisure club and business centre was opened. The Haven was once again aiming at the luxury market.

Disaster struck in 1988 when, as the press reported, ‘a blaze ripped through the roof and third floor of the Haven Hotel, and over 100 guests had to be evacuated.’ The alarm was raised by pastry chef Dave Holmes who smelled smoke while serving tea. Going outside, he saw smoke coming from the roof. Staff were quickly mobilized to check all the rooms for guests before the fire brigade arrived. No-one was injured but the damage to the hotel was serious as part of the roof had collapsed on to the third floor. It was a serious set-back but the hotel was rebuilt and restored. It went on to become an award winning hotel into the 21st century.

The Haven Hotel story over 130 years has run parallel to the story of Sandbanks itself, once wild and remote and now developed and urban. The hotel’s iconic building represents 1920s Poole archtiecture, a period of optimism against the odds. In spite of dramatic changes, the Haven’s appeal still rests on the location and its simple, but spectacular blend of sand, sea and scenery.


Main sources:  Morris, Iris Looking Back at Sandbanks / Waters, Jeremy Parkstone-on-Sea, Salterns, Sandbanks and Seaplanes. / Newspaper articles








2 thoughts on “The End of the Sands – the Haven Hotel Story

  1. Very interesting article on the hotel. Marconi had a connection to my home Province of Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada), as he set up the North American portion of his wireless infrastructure there at Signal Hill, St. John’s. It’s a small world!

  2. In the 1930s,an uncle used to stay at the Haven. My family lived in Bournemth and used to visit in the Summer holidays. I still remember the delicious” Fruit Sundaes”. The adults took up a craze of the time, the HokeyCokey “Put your right leg , put your left leg out and shake it all about”. We children (6 year old) were very shocked by the indecorum of the adults.

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