“When the people of Old Sarum realised that there was an excellent
hotel in the valley, they moved the Cathedral to be nearer it”
Whilst this statement is clearly rubbish, like many stories, it does contain an element of truth! Originally the “White Bear Inn”, the building was constructed to house the draughtsman working on the new Cathedral (in fact Salisbury’s or Old Sarum’s third Cathedral building) when the churchmen of the time ‘fell out’ with the military garrison on the hilltop castle at Old Sarum. When the basic construction was finished in the late 13th Century, the White Bear continued to house visitors to the Cathedral and subsequently the ‘New City’ of Salisbury. It is therefore probable that the hotel is possibly the longest running purpose built hotel in the country.
The earliest part of the building is the South Wing – a fact made obvious by the many beams and numerous examples of wattle and daub which have been exposed. The Open Gallery of the upper storey that once looked down upon the Courtyard was sealed during the 19th Century. Outside the hotel ran one of the main watercourses for which Salisbury was famous. It was here that the ‘Cage and Ducking Stool’ was sited. It was a method of punishment for scalds, nagging women and short changing shop-keepers, who were ducked in what was no more than a deep smelly open sewer, no doubt to the delight of on-lookers who then returned to the Inn for refreshment.
In the early 1700’s the name was changed to the ‘Red Lion and Cross Keys’. This name remained in use until 30th January 1769 when the sign was altered to the ‘Red Lion’ only, by Daniel Safe, who bought the property following Ralph Musselwhite in 1766. When Daniel Pearce Safe, the Postmaster of Salisbury, took over the ownership of the Red Lion in 1766 he immediately transferred the Salisbury Post Office to the Hotel building. As a result the Red Lion became the main entrance for all mail coaches arriving in and leaving Salisbury.
The Red Lion was extremely important to commercial travellers journeying along the route between London and Exeter during the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. A certificate of appreciation and commendation presented by The United Commercial Traveller’s Association of Great Britain and Ireland can be seen in reception. The Hotel was used as the headquarters and ‘club house’ of the Salisbury Rugby Club after it was formed there in 1881.The Red Lion has also been used in the past by the military. In the late 1770’s much to the resentment of the hotel’s owner, troops were quartered upon it. The troop’s rowdy and unruly behaviour cost him money and deterred travellers from staying. During the First World War Australian troops staying at nearby Codford used the hotel. However, their equally unruly behaviour resulted in the Red Lion losing a large double bed, which the Australians took home as a souvenir when they left Salisbury in 1918!
More importantly to the local community the Hotel offered farmers from rural villages an ideal place to stay whilst visiting Salisbury Cattle Market. It was also much used by traders visiting the nearby market which is still held on Tuesdays and Saturdays to this day in the Market Square.
(For further information about the hotel since the First World War, please obtain the book by Molly Maidment (Daughter of Charles and Elsie Thomas), who was born at the hotel and lived there for the early part of her life. It is called “Child of the Red Lion”