A trip to Gillingham for this month’s Then And Now, where Roger Guttridge discovers an Olympic champion’s unlikely connection with North Dorset hostelries
Sports fans in their late 60s or older will remember Mary Rand as one of Britain’s greatest female athletes. But how many know of her connection to a couple of North Dorset hotels?
Mary (née Bignal) was born and brought up at Wells, Somerset, won an athletics scholarship to Millfield School and at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics became the first British woman to win Olympic gold in a track and field event.
She actually won three medals – gold with a world record in the long jump, silver in the pentathlon and bronze in the 4x100m relay.
Her (admittedly tenuous!) connection with the Blackmore Vale is that her grandfather George Bignal owned two of Gillingham’s leading hotels – the Royal and the South Western.
Both hotels were spawned by the coming of the railway, which arrived in 1859.
In fact, the Royal was originally called the Railway Hotel, despite being in the area of Newbury, a tidy stroll from the station.
In 1889, it was owned by Frank Ford, who made a point of stressing that it was ‘within three minutes’ walk of the London & South Western Railway’ (L&SWR).
It was also a posting house and offered billiards and pool.
By 1895, it had become the Royal Hotel and George Bignal was the owner.
It did not close until 2005 but was subsequently demolished and the site redeveloped as flats. The developers and local planners deserve credit for making an effort to build the flats in a similar style.
It is a shame they couldn’t find a spot for the two lions that once graced the portico.
Locals will already be familiar with Bignal’s other hotel which was, ironically, barely a stone’s throw from the station, built on land bought from the L&SWR.
The South Western’s prime site made it eminently accessible to train passengers, especially commercial travellers. They were able to hire carriages and traps from the hotel to take them to neighbouring towns and villages.
The South Western also cashed in on its proximity to Gillingham’s market yards. On market days it would be crowded with farmers and livestock dealers, who could rely on the hotel staff to look after their horses.
The building to the right in the c. 1900 picture above was the Market Hall, which was also used for public meetings and was the town’s first cinema, the Electric Palace. George Bignal owned the hotel around this time and issued his own public house tokens, a form of in-house currency.
Unlike the Royal, the South Western is still standing by the station, but has long since been converted to flats.