On Tuesday, the UK’s Supreme Court will issue its judgment on a case about whether the Government needs Parliament’s permission (most likely in the form of an Act of Parliament) in order to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union and begin the process for the UK to leave the EU. The court case included numerous references to an incident in London in the Great War – watch out for the name ‘De Keyser’ in the judgment if you’re inclined to read the whole thing. This is the story of the prominent London hotel of that name during the Great War, which provides a precedent for one of the key principles in the Article 50 case.
The Royal Hotel was founded by Joost Constant Fidel Armand de Keyser in 1845 on the Victoria Embankment next to Blackfriar’s Bridge. De Keyser was a Belgian who came to the UK in the 1830s to escape turmoil in Belgium. His son Polydor de Keyser followed him after his initial schooling in Ghent and – after the death of his elder brother – joined the family business. Polydor is often cited as the founder of the hotel, which doesn’t seem to be accurate but perhaps reflects his prominent role both in the history of the hotel and in his adopted city.
And Polydor certainly was prominent in the life of the city. To quote from his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:
As president of the Belgian Benevolent Society he promoted the British section at the International Exhibition on Hygiene and Lifesaving, held at Brussels in 1876, for which he was made a knight of the order of St Léopold; he was later raised to commander. He was a founder of the Guildhall School of Music and an early president of its management committee. In the autumn of 1887 he became lord mayor of London, the first Catholic to hold this office since the Reformation… His mayoralty coincided with Queen Victoria’s jubilee and the silver wedding of the prince and princess of Wales. His desire to celebrate this latter event was frustrated by the period of court mourning which followed the deaths of Kaiser Wilhelm I and (shortly afterwards) Friedrich III, though he was later able to present the royal couple with a silver model of the Imperial Institute. He was knighted in December 1888.
De Keyser accepted the task of presiding over the organization of the British section at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889. His efforts bore fruit; the British exhibitors made a good showing at this very successful event, located close to the brand-new Eiffel Tower, and the French government created him a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Geographical and the Statistical societies, a member of the Loriners’, Butchers’, Innholders’, Poulters’, and Wyre-Drawers’ companies, and held high masonic office.
Along with his father, and after the latter’s death, Sir Polydor also oversaw the expansion of the Royal Hotel. The DNB describes its growth: “The hotel was rebuilt to five storeys in 1874, decorated in the best French taste, with 230 guest rooms and a vast dining-room to seat 400 people. Another wing was added in 1882, making it the largest in London with a total capacity of 480 guests. It had a second dining-room, seating 250, many recreation rooms, gardens, and accommodation for 150 staff.”
Sir Polydor de Keyser died in 1898 and is buried in Nunhead Cemetery in South London. The hotel lived on under the stewardship of Polydor Weichand de Keyser, the nephew and heir of Polydor and his wife Louise.
When war came, the Royal Hotel – which was widely known as de Keyser’s Hotel, was badly hit. From June 1915, the De Keyser Hotel Co Ltd was in the hands of a ‘Receiver and manager’ appointed by the Chancery Court.
Times were hard. As a writer in The Sphere put it on 22 January 1916:
The misfortune of having a foreign name is exemplified in the case of that old-established institution the De Keyser Hotel, hitherto the favourite haunt of opulent European people of all nationalities. Although the proprietor and founder of this caravanserie was a Belgian and sometime Lord Mayor of London, and although the staff contains no enemy waiters or Germans who have been naturalised, the hotel has suffered to such an extent since the war opened that a receiver and manager has had to be appointed by the Chancery Court. It is understood that a new company has been formed to carry on the business under the auspices of Mr R.C.Vaughan, recently the successful manager of the Grand Pump Room, Bath, and it is hoped that when it becomes known that the hotel is in all respects English in its ownership and managership there may return an era of prosperity such as the hotel formerly enjoyed for so many years.
This article hints at the difficulties around nationality and Britishness in the Great War. That a hotel with no ‘enemy’ staff (i.e. citizens of enemy states) and no British staff who had been born a Germans that had been run by the Clapham-born nephew of a former Lord Mayor of London was struggling to convince people that it was British tells us something about problems people and businesses suffered if their names and/or backgrounds were at all Germanic sounding. A name that sounds like the title of the hated German Kaiser must have been particularly unhelpful (the pronunciation of the hotel’s name caused a bit of unusual banter during the Supreme Court case).
The De Keyser Hotel story that is particularly pertinent today, is not, however, about the difficulties of running a foreign-sounding hotel in London but about the powers of the Government in wartime.
In May 1916, the War Office took over the Hotel to house its growing aeronautics staff – the civil servants supporting the Royal Flying Corps. The Government took over the entire hotel of around 400 rooms – an article about the introduction of British Summertime in 1916 noted that there were 400 clocks in the hotel that would need to be changed by Government clock-winders. This was part of a large-scale take over of buildings and open spaces by the Government, as we have seen before on this blog.
The Government’s takeover of de Keyser’s Hotel was not a happy one for either party. In April 1916, the Board of Works and the De Keyser Hotel Co Ltd had been in negotiations over the Government renting the hotel but these came to nothing. On April 29th, the Board wrote to the company that they were recommending that the hotel should be requisitioned under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (the notorious and wide-ranging ‘DORA‘) and the company would receive compensation for losses incurred, to be decided by the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission.
The company wrote back denying the right of the Government to do this. The company’s Receiver wrote on 5 May “it does not seem to me that the acquisition of this building as offices is necessary for the purpose of securing the public safety or the Defence of the Realm”, which was the phrase used in Defence of the Realm Regulation 2 to allow requisitioning of property. he suggested that a reasonable agreement on terms could be reached, or arbitration used. The Office of Works replied reasserting the right to requisition the hotel under DORA and the Royal Prerogative (the remaining powers of the Crown – exercised by the Government – that have not been superseded or restricted by Acts of Parliament) and the need for the company to apply to the Losses Commission.
The company refused to go to the Commission and presented a Petition of Right to the King calling for payment of an annual rent while the Government used the building (£13,520 for the year May 1916-Feb 1917) and asking for “a declaration that your supplicants [the company] are entitled to a fair rent for use and occupation by way of compensation under the Defence Act 1842.” The Attorney General responded for the monarch, reasserting that the DORA powers and Royal Prerogative were sufficient, and compensation scheme was applicable in this case.
The company took the case to court. The first judge sided with the Government, saying that the DORA powers were sufficient, but the Appeal Court overturned that decision. The Government then appealed to the House of Lords. In the UK’s unusual constitution, the highest court in the land was the House of Lords – or more accurately the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, known as the Law Lords, who were appointed to decide important cases (since the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876). This was the arrangement until the creation of the modern UK Supreme Court in 2009 – some of the current Supreme Court Justices were Law Lords before they moved across Parliament Square to their current location.
In May 1920, the Law Lords decided the case in favour of the company. Essentially, they decided that the acquisition of the hotel by the Government had not taken place under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, which did not permit it. The use of the Losses Commission to pay the hotel’s managers was therefore a use of the Royal Prerogative, which was invalid because there was already legislation in the form of the Defence Act 1842 providing for compensation where property was requisitioned by the Crown.
The case helped to establish the extent of prerogative powers. It decided that the Crown could not requisition citizens’ property under the Royal Prerogative without paying compensation. It is also cited as an authority for the key constitutional principle that statute law (passed by Parliament) trumps the Royal Prerogative, meaning that if the Crown used to be able to do something on the basis of the Royal Prerogative but is now has a legal basis to do it under statute, the Prerogative falls into abeyance and cannot be resumed. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is an example of this, ending the Crown’s right to dissolve Parliament (by setting out fixed dates for elections and mechanisms for Parliament to call early elections).
Technical though it sounds, this is a ‘leading’ (i.e. important) case in constitutional law, helping to establish the balance of rights between the citizen and the Government. As Sir John Simon QC (Counsel for the De Keyser Hotel Co Ltd in the case, former MP for Walthamstow, former Attorney-General and Home Secretary, and later Lord Chancellor during the Second World War) wrote in an introduction to a book on the case:
“Leading cases in Constitutional Law are chiefly concerned with establishing the rights of individual citizens in the face of exceptional interference by the Executive, and a heavy crop of judicial decisions on this subject might, at first sight, have been expected in the years 1914-19. But in fact the instances in which such questions were raised and decided by Enghsh Courts are few.”
The ‘Article 50′ case being considered by the Supreme Court touches on the same issue as the de Keyser case. The argument accepted by the High Court was that UK citizens’ rights as EU citizens, conferred by Acts of Parliament, cannot be taken away by use of the Royal Prerogative – i.e. the Government cannot trigger article 50 and therefore remove those rights without a statutory basis for doing so. That (and not whether Brexit should happen) is the gist of the court case. We will find out the Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday morning.
It is not often that a story from London in the Great War has a bearing on 21st century UK politics, but it in this case, De Keyser’s Hotel, its forced acquisition by the Government and the competing arguments about compensation are playing just such a role.
What happened to the hotel itself? In 1920, the site was leased by Lever Brothers as their London headquarters. They demolished the old hotel and built Unilever House in 1930, the building that currently stands on that spot. The blog A London Inheritance tells of the demolition and the new building, with a good set of photos.
- Oxford DNB article on Polydor de Keyser:
- The case of requisition by L Scott and A Hildesley
- Wikipedia articles on the case and the Unilever building
- Transcript of 1920 House of Lords judgment
- Blog post on the hotel and Unilever House from A London Inheritance
Disclaimer: I know quite a bit about the Great War and about the constitution, but I am not a constitutional lawyer. I am happy to correct any errors in my interpretation of the de Keyser case and the Royal Prerogative.