Setting the scene
1627 - 1995
The Sally Port Hotel as we know it today came into being in the early 1950s when two separate properties – Nos. 57 and 58 High Street – were combined. The premises probably began life as a pair of 17th century timber-framed dwellings which, according to some (unreferenced) sources were built in 1615.
The stucco frontage, another storey, full height canted bays, dormer windows in the roof and a pediment over the architrave surround to the doorway were probably added in the late Georgian period. At that time each of the properties were owned for many years by two businessmen – George Chambers and Robert Tyler – whose lifestyles, interests and family commitments may have given them common ground.
More about them later but, for now, it may have been them who also decided to create the shared entrance and elegant cantilever staircase with its walnut balustrade, domed skylight and access to each property. Despite these shared features though, until 1950 Nos. 57 and 58 were distinctly separate properties which, like many other premises in High Street, tended to have business premises on the ground floor and living accommodation above. Over the years this led to some interesting history.
From frigate to rocks to a staircase.
Vigilant visitors will have noticed that the backbone of the stairwell going up through the Sally Port Hotel for some forty feet was, once upon a time, a sailing ship’s yardarm or spar; one of the horizontal timbers mounted on the mast from which the square sails hung. It is purported to come from HMS Penelope, a fifth rate frigate of His Majesty’s Navy built in 1798. If the legend is true, the mast has quite a tale to tell.
In 1800 HMS Penelope formed part of the squadron under Lord Nelson blockading Malta and watching the Guillaume Tell, flagship of Rear Admiral Decres, who was sheltering in Valetta harbour after escaping from the battle of the Nile. Then, when the enemy ship ventured out in a strong gale under cover of darkness on 30 March, Penelope’s captain and others in the squadron gave chase and repeatedly raked the ship within musket-shot range. The following day the Guillaume Tell was dismasted and taken possession of by HMS Penelope. After towing the prize to Syracuse, she returned to her station off Malta until the island surrendered on 5 September 1800.
One night in 1815 HMS Penelope ran aground on rocks near the Cap des Rosiers in Canada. As desperate rescue attempts were made, sea filled the frigate and eventually reached the captain’s cabin destroying their only provisions. Forty of her crew perished that night as the ship broke into three. A few days’ later 47 men and boys deserted after plundering the trunks which had been washed ashore. The remaining survivors salvaged the ship’s pinnace and quarter boats that had carried them ashore and repaired them. The following day a Canadian boat provided them with cooking utensils and suggested they make for Gaspe. When the weather moderated, sixty-six men and two women sailed to Gaspe Bay then walked nine miles in freezing temperatures to board three conveyances which took them to Quebec. Many suffered from frostbite and some lost their toes.
On 24 July 1815 a court martial was held at Portsmouth. The loss of HMS Penelope was deemed to be due to the bad weather and set of the current. However, the master, the captain, a lieutenant and a seaman were either reprimanded or punished for their dishonourable behaviour on the night the ship went aground.