The Victoria Falls Hotel
The railway company quickly saw the potential to open a hotel on a prime site in close proximity to the Falls. The original Victoria Falls Hotel was intended only as temporary quarters for the railway employees, and was to be removed after construction of the bridge was complete as no buildings were to remain within sight of the Falls. However once established, it was quickly expanded and proved impossible to close, despite the objections of the Administrator of North Western Rhodesia, Robert Coryndon and the residents and traders of the newly established town of Livingstone.
The first structure was built in early 1904 and opened for business on 8 June. By the beginning of 1905, tourist traffic to the Falls had increased considerably and it was necessary to enlarge the accommodation at the hotel. Two locomotive sheds in use on the Beria line were dismantled and sent to the Falls. One was commissioned as accommodation and the other as a dining room. They remained on site until 1917.
Victoria Falls Hotel original buildings from the 1900s, main building on left and annexes to thr right
The original Victoria Falls Hotel was opened on 8 June 1904, in readiness for the official opening of the Victoria Falls line later that same month.
Creewel records that construction apparently ran behind schedule as adverts were place on the Bulawayo Chronicle informing gusts that delays had been encountered.
The small hotel’s designated purpose was to accommodate the chief engineers involved with the construction of the railway line and bridge across the gorge, and it was originally intended to only be a temporary ‘blot on the landscape.’ Sir Charles Metcalfe was, however, quick to see the commercial potential of the hotel.
“…the line has been open right up to the Victoria Falls since June 20, and the hotel we have built there for the accommodation of visitors is a very comfortable one. It possesses every modern convenience, and from it there is obtained a beautiful view of the Zambezi Gorge.” [Metcalfe, Sept 1904]
Front view of the original Victoria Falls Hotel
And at the Ordinary General Meeting of the Rhodesia Railways shareholders, held at the Head Office in London in 1905, a report was presented recording that:
"Lord Grey has told you that we have reached the Victoria Falls... We have also, since then, effected what we call a temporary hotel which, however, is a very comfortable one... It has most magnificent views of the bluff gorge. It has the electric light, cold storage, hot and cold water baths, and every modern luxury."
Percy Clark describes the Hotel's humble beginnings;
“The hotel, at the beginning, was simply a long structure of wood and iron containing a dining room and bar, bedrooms and offices. Later on it was enlarged by the addition of two large engine sheds removed from railway headquarters. One of these was converted into a dining room and the other into bedrooms. Later still two annexes of wood and iron were put up, complete with bathrooms… In the hot weather the rooms were ovens, and in the cold, refrigerators – but nobody grumbled much. After all, what could one expect in the heart of Africa?” (Clark, 1934)
Side view of the original Victoria Falls Hotel
The hotel was capable of hosting 20 guests at a time, with 12 single and four double rooms. The early staff were cosmopolitan in origins - the manager was an Italian, the chef was French, and the barman an American from Chicago, with Indian waiters serving guests.
“The Victoria Falls Hotel opened its doors in June 1904 and was a simple building of wood with a corrugated iron roof, well raised from the ground to afford ventilation and freedom from damp and pests. It consisted of 12 single rooms and four doubles, a dining room, a bar and offices. The manager was a colourful hotelier names Pierre Gavuzzi and the lower tariff was 12/6d per day.”
“Gavuzzi, well experienced from his time at the Carlton and Savoy hotels in London, watched the numbers of tourists increasing and knew the hotel had to increase its capacity. Two engine sheds were dismantled from the Beira railway line and sent to the Falls. One was commissioned as the new dining room and the other was used as additional bedrooms.” (C&S)
The Railway Company leased the operation and management of the hotel to the partnership of Mr G Estran and Mr W Scott-Rodger, who were already running the Grand Hotel in Bulawayo (built in 1899).
The Hotel’s Italian manager, Pierre Gavuzzi, had worked at the Carlton and Savoy hotels in London, and most recently at the Grand Hotel in Bulawayo, where he must have experienced early Rhodesia’s rough and ready pioneer rogues, experience which one would expect to have prepared him for the new railway frontier of Victoria Falls.
The French Chef, Marcel Mitton, became known as ‘the Frenchman who became a Rhodesian,’ becoming a hunter and miner as well as professional chef.
Originally the railway line ran in front of the Victoria Falls Hotel, between the hotel and the gorge, but a torrential rain storm, during which several inches of rain fell in a few hours, in 1909 washed away the track. It was rebuilt just behind the hotel, on leveller ground, where it still runs today.
The image adopted for the hotel’s original logo, readopted by the Hotel since the 1990s, features a lion to represent southern Africa, a Sphinx for Egypt, symbolising Rhodes’s dream of a railway from the Cape to Cairo.
The first meal
Percy Clark claimed to have had the first meal that was served to a customer at the Hotel and recalls those early beginnings:
“I had the first meal that was served to a customer at the VFH. I ate it, I remember, in an annexe to the coal-hole near the kitchen. It was lunch I had, and I paid about four shillings for it…”
The Iron and Timber
A bar, known as ‘The Iron and Timber', was provided for the men working on the erection of the bridge. It proved to be a popular watering hole for the rail and construction workers and many an evening was described as ‘lively’, with drunken brawls commonplace.
Percy Clark was presumably one of the first 'locals' to frequent the bar, and recalls in his autobiography:
“While the bridge was still in course of construction an outside bar was put up for the workmen. They were a rough lot, even for the wilds, and they made the hotel very uncomfortable for sedater guests in the main building, especially just after they got their monthly pay.
“At this time the hotel was run by private management. The lessee was an Italian, and the antics of his customers, both heads and hands, kept him scared almost out of his wits… Whenever he came in sight of the workmen using the outside bar he was at once chased round the premises. If caught he was hauled into the bar and made to stand drinks all round. He did not relish this rough handling and had not the knack of taking it easily. He therefore gave the outside bar a wide berth, though he must have made a pile from it.
“For two or three days after the men received their pay the bar would be packed. Drinking and gambling went on continuously, with free entertainment day and night for anyone who cared for that sort of thing. There was always a fight going on outside the bar – and the work men certainly could scrap. Fortunately for the management it had secured the services of an ex-prize fighter as barman. He was not a very big chap, but he stood no nonsense from the crowd.” (Clark, P, 1936)
Hotel Expands with railway sheds, 1905
By the beginning of 1905, tourist traffic to the Falls had increased considerably and it was necessary to enlarge the accommodation at the hotel. Two locomotive sheds in use on the Beria line at Mandegos were dismantled and sent to the Falls. One was commissioned as accommodation and the other as a dining room. They remained on site until 1917.
The Victoria Falls Hotel Annexes
Beginnings of tourism
Its opening marked both the start of formal tourism in the Victoria Falls area and the start of the development of a community in what is now Victoria Falls town.
McGregor outlines the impact of the hotel in her book, 'Crossing the Zambezi':
"The British travel agents, Thomas Cook and Sons, as official passenger agent for the Cape Government and Rhodesia Railways, followed the progress of the railway and construction of the hotel in its magazine, The Excursionist, (renamed the Travellers' Gazette in 1903), and began offering excursions from Cape Town in the same year. The company anticipated a rapid expansion of business at "Nature's greatest spectacle" where the traveller could "enjoy European luxury even here in the heart of Africa". The Falls was a suitable destination for royality, and others who arrived on the 'train de luxe' from Cape Town'."
To be or not to be...
Many residents of Livingstone, most probably traders and hoteliers, complained that the Victoria Falls Hotel should be demolished. The Hotel had been envisaged as temporary accommodation for engineers employed on the bridge construction work - presumably for key figures such as George Pauling, Sir Charles Metcalfe and others - and it had been assumed that it would be demolished as soon as work was completed. Indeed the Chartered Company Administrator confirmed that it was only a temporary expedient and that it would be abolished as soon as accommodation was available in Livingstone. Townspeople were also unhappy that the Hotel, and indeed Percy Clark, had been granted licenses to run curio shops. They argued that the settlement at the Falls should be abolished and all tourists accommodated and served in Livingstone. Although accommodation was later developed in Livingstone, the Victoria Falls Hotel still attracted the bulk of the visitors to the area, even utilising railway carriages as overflow when the hotel was full. In 1907 the Livingstone Mail recorded:
"His Honour, the Administrator, announced that he had failed in his endeavours to have The Victoria Falls Hotel abolished. It had originally been erected as temporary accommodation for engineers and those employed on the bridge and Railway construction and for visitors to the Falls. It was to be pulled down as soon as a new township (Livingstone) was laid out. His Honour could now hold out no hope of the being done."
From 1910 a local passenger train ran from Livingstone to Victoria Falls on Saturdays and Sundays, known as "The Weekender". Not only was there no real road from Livingstone to the river, and the bridge then only provided a railway, and no pedestrian, crossing. To meet the demands of residents supporting the hotel, this local train service took Livingstone socialites over for Saturday night dances, the carriges being used as overnight resting quarters.
By this time the town had its own local newspaper, The Victoria Falls Advertiser.