Tim Backhouse Season: Legendary Landlord Digby Dent

Tim Backhouse spent decades researching and writing about the city he loved. In this excerpt from his website History in Portsmouth, the late local historian remembers a major figure in the Victorian hospitality business.

As a naval town and holiday resort the Inns and Hotels of Portsmouth have long played an important part in the history of the town. Establishments such as The Fountain, The Blue Posts and the Star and Garter were regularly frequented by naval officers, but it was the George Hotel in High Street that garnered the highest acclaim, it’s reputation being cemented when Admiral Lord Nelson took breakfast there on the morning that he set sail for Trafalgar in 1805. The landlords of the George would have been respected members of the community of their time but the names of few are now remembered. One of them was William Digby Dent (usually known as Digby Dent) who managed The George during the 1860s.

Dent came from a family with roots deep into the Hampshire soil, principally around Fareham. They had a long association with the navy though our hotel keeper was not of that bent. He had been born in Gibraltar in 1805, the son of Challoner Dent (b. June 1778) and his wife Elizabeth (nee Whettam). The family were in Gibraltar at the time of Digby’s birth as his father was the storekeeper, a post to which he had been appointed in April 1797. He had an older brother Challoner Douglas Dent but there is no evidence of other siblings. His father died just a few years after he was born.

Dent was given the name of Digby after his grandfather, Rear Admiral Sir Digby Dent who was born in November 1739 and died in 1817 in Dublin. The name Digby is liberally scattered throughout the Dent family tree, before, during and after our hotel keeper’s time, making genealogy of the family rather complicated.

Nothing is currently known of Dent’s early life; he first appears in public records on 10th October 1825 when he married Harriet Holdaway at St. Faith’s Church in Havant. They had a typically large family comprising of Harriet, Mary Ann [Marianne], Henry Digby, Jane, Elizabeth, Sarah, William Digby, George, Ellen, Charles and Digby. All the available records of the births of the children show the family was resident in Havant. Although we have no evidence of the type of occupation followed by Digby in his early working life it may have had something to do with the hospitality trade as in November 1840 he advertised himself as a seller of fine wines.

Digby’s youngest daughter Ellen died in 1841, age 2 years old, and two years later the family moved away from Havant, almost certainly to Portsmouth, presumably in order to further his business opportunities. In this he was outstandingly successful as on 17th April 1847 he placed an advert in the Hampshire Telegraph as manager of the Portland Hotel promoting the qualities of staying there. The Portland Hotel was at the time perhaps the grandest in Southsea, having been built by Thomas Ellis Owen and completed just a few months earlier. In her biography of Owen, Sue Pike describes Digby Dent as being the first proprietor of the Hotel, but this does not mean that Dent had purchased the hotel as Owen is known to have retained ownership and anyway had previously advertised it as being for rent.

The hotel stood at the heart of Owen’s development of Southsea as an elegant and civilised retreat for senior naval officers, the middle classes and newly rich entrepreneurs. In his first advert extolling the virtues of a stay at the hotel Dent included the fact that it had unrivalled views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight which would come as a surprise to modern residents of the area since much of Southsea Common, across which visitors would have gazed, is now full of late 19C five story houses, the ‘view’ having long gone. Dent went on to promise the finest cuisine and it seems as though did deliver such fare as the Hampshire Telegraph regularly printed testimonials to his ability, not the least of which was from the Portsmouth Naval Club.

Digby Dent established himself as an active member of the community, subscribing to the Humane Society, collecting funds for the erection of a memorial to Lord FitzClarence, donating to a fund for the bereaved following a boiler explosion, proposing a banquet in honour of the Crimean War veterans and contributing to the Hebrew Benevolent Fund.

In March 1851 Dent’s wife Harriett died and a year later in March 1852 he married his second wife Martha in Portsea, with whom he had a further three sons, Frank, Challoner and Fred. In June 1860 the Portland Hotel was taken over by WD Hirst though under what circumstances it is not known. This did not prove overtly detrimental to Dent who within the space of two months had taken the tenancy of the George Hotel in High Street, Portsmouth, another highly prestigious establishment. Again he advertised fine dining at the hotel (with venison on Mondays and Thursdays) and continued his involvement in the community and becoming a member of the Portsmouth Commissioners. In November 1863 the George Hotel was ‘sold to a gentleman from London’ but Dent was retained as manager.

Of Digby Dent’s children, only Henry and William appear in public records. Henry had followed his father into the business of keeping inns though they were not quite as respectable. He was the landlord of the Red Lion Tavern on Queen Street until in February 1864 when he was made bankrupt. One curious feature of this action was that he had been liable for debts accrued by his father. Henry’s reputation does not seem to have been unduly damaged however as within two years he was awarded the licence for the George Inn at Cosham which still exists as a Public House on the top of Portsdown Hill. He was prosecuted for assault on a customer in November 1866.

The other son William Digby Dent left no creditable account of himself whatsoever. All references to him in an article in the Hampshire Telegraph describe him as given to drunkeness, adultery and abandonment which were adequate grounds for his wife Lydia to divorce him in June 1869. He was still being prosecuted for drunkeness in December 1880, thereby proving that he had outlived his brother Henry who died in Fareham in June 1879.

Digby Dent appears to have remained at the George Hotel until at least June 1869 but like his son Henry was obliged to file for bankruptcy. This was not finally concluded until April 1874, after which nothing more is known of him, though it is likely that he died in Lincoln in February 1888.

Main image by Sarah Cheverton. 

This article originally appeared on Tim’s website History in Portsmouth.