The Speech House is a famous landmark in the very centre of the Forest of Dean. Originally built in 1676 as a hunting lodge for King Charles II. The Speech House was also the meeting place for the Verderers Court. The Verderers were set up by King Canute in the 11th century and were appointed by the Crown as the administrators of the Forest. The Verderers Court still meet at the Speech House once a year. The Speech House became a hotel in 1858.
The grandly named ‘Commissioners of Woods’ were the owners of the Speech House in 1891 and 1903. Perhaps not surprisingly given its prestigious and grandiose setting it had an annual rateable value of £43.0s.0d. and was a fully licensed alehouse. According to the 1891 licensing book the Speech House was leased to Thomas Wintle’s Forest Brewery in Mitcheldean, but twelve years later in 1903 the hotel was trading without any brewery ties. The isolated rural location meant that opening times were restricted with ‘time’ being called at 10 pm.
In 1901 an article in the Daily Mail read:
‘From the Speech House – that most sylvan of all hostels, where ancient history and modern comforts abide together – the tourist may step bareheaded into hoary holly woods, or the darkly beautiful spruce drive, with its three miles of sentinal trees, or under the shadow of immemorial elm or beech, make excursions further afield to the wonderful scenery of the Yat or the Buckstone. Everywhere he will breathe air like that at Freshwater, estimated by Tennyson to be worth sixpence a pint, for many parts of the forest are seven or eight hundred feet above the sea, and everywhere the botanically-minded may find rare flora, and the entomologist a perfect paradise of insect life’.
In 1924 a booklet entitled ‘Gloucestershire Inns’ by David McFall was published at the Priestly Studios in Gloucester. Priced just 6d, it was described on the cover as ‘being thumb-nail descriptions of the County’s most picturesque and historic inns – together with announcements of the leading modern hotels, tea-rooms and restaurants, garages, shops and other houses of call dedicated to all inquisitive and observant travellers who favour this neighbourhood with a visit.’ If you think that is a long-winded, convoluting piece of prose, just read this description of the Speech House:
‘In the centre of the Forest of Dean the Speech House, or Speche House, as it was spelled formerly, occupies a most unusual situation for an hotel – miles from any town, in the heart of a deep wood – yet for many generations it has been the resort of artists, literary men and leaders in political life. The name of the hotel came from the fact it was originally the Court of Speech, where the Free Miners of the Forest tried out their litigation and acknowledged no superior authority. The old court room is wholly unchanged in appearance and furnishing, thanks to the thoughtfulness of successive landlords. From the windows of the hotel, in every direction, one may look into alluring vistas in the surrounding hosts of oak, beeches, larches and glistening hollies (a grove of the latter was planted by King Charles II), and trim tennis and cricket grounds add the modern touch to the woodland scenery.’
Queen Elizabeth II visited the Forest of Dean on April 21st 1957 on the occasion of her 31st ‘real’ birthday. It was part of a “getting to know her kingdom’ tour of the region. The Queen’s arrival was greeted by a cheering crowd of about 6,000 loyal subjects who had been picnicking in the surrounding woods for most of the day. As is normal the Queen was attended by the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, the Duke of Beaufort. The Speech House reception committee was headed by Viscount Bledisloe, the former Governor General of New Zealand and Senior Verderer, Verderers Sir Lance Crawley-Bevoy, Major C.P. Ackers and Mr Cyril Hart. The Queen also met the MP Morgan Philips Price and civic dignitaries along with a delegation of local scouts and the Matron of the Dilke Hospital, Miss E.A. Barrett. The Queen and Prince Philip both planted oak saplings using ceremonial silver spades.
In February 1962 cricket legend Wally Hammond and fellow England cricketer David Allen were guests at a dinner at the Speech House. Gloucestershire County Cricket Club organised the dinner and used the publicity in a drive to increase the membership of the club in the Forest. They promised that if the membership drive was successful a County First XI match would be organised at Lydney Cricket Club.
Forest of Dean and Ross-on-Wye Pubs. A critical guide by Jon Hurley (booklet, 1991): This handsome building is an odd mixture. A pub in which real Foresters may disport themselves noisily, whilst in no way irritating Telegraph reading retirees savouring pleasant snacks, allowing very respectable Rotarians to hold forth their various good works in an adjoining and very attractive dining room. So it is all things to all men but a very useful adjunct in an area not over blessed with really first class inns. Although Trust House Forte owned, the Speech House retains much of the old style, small country hotel atmosphere with an attractive egalitarianism, doing all its various and diverse jobs well. The setting too is among the most attractive in the county, standing foursquare on a crossing of several Forest paths, and its four poster beds must prove irresistible to ageing romantics and ambitious young bucks alike. There is a simple but effective wine list and a wide range of beers, lagers and ciders.
Former baker and Forest businessman Harry Kear bought the lease in March 1998 from the Forte Heritage Group. The owners of the Speech House being the Ministry of Agriculture. During his time as leaseholder Harry Kear made considerable improvements to the hotel, increasing the number of bedrooms from 14 to 32 and building a purpose-built health spa.
In February 2000 the 110-year lease of the Speech Hotel was offered for sale. An ‘eating out’ review in February 2002 was not entirely glowing with praise noting that, ‘a bit of mashed potato and some mashed swede are hardly three-star fare, more like 1960’s school dinners.’ And in the beamed Verderers’ Court ‘there’s a vast old fireplace, mounted stags’ heads (not a pretty sight) and lighting that’s far too bright. The chandeliers are OK but there are some horrible ceiling-mounted fluorescent lamps, some complete with cobwebs, which should be sent to the skip immediately.’
Four unique Verderers’ oak throne chairs were stolen from the Speech House in October 2005. The antique chairs were found when a dealer put them up for auction in June 2011. The unfortunate last owner had to try to retrieve the £16,000 that he paid for them from the previous owners. The chairs were made by the Crawshay family from Oaklands Park in Newnham on Severn and were identified by the family crest and distinctive watermarks which corresponded to photographs taken when the chairs were in place at the Speech House. Head verderer Bob Jenkins said, “We are all really thrilled to bits to get them back. They had passed through several hands and without that photograph it would have been impossible to prove they were ours.”
Harry Kear sold his interests of the Speech House Hotel to Dorian Charlton and the Drew Group in April 2007. Dorian, who was born into a family of hoteliers, said it was an honour to own the Speech House Hotel. The Drew Group also owned the Cheltenham Regency Hotel. He said, “Everything we do to [at the Speech House] has to be right. So many people butcher things and rip out the original feature. We’re always putting the originals back. It’s nice to see how it used to look and try to create it with a modern twist.” His team were determined to bring the standard of the Speech House to be worthy of its three-stars and strive to exceed their guests’ expectations. Dorian added, “We want to attract a mix of people. We want local people to feel they can use this place and come to have a coffee or a meeting.” The 16-acre field behind the Speech House was also considered not to be utilised to its full potential. “We aren’t event organisers, but we want people to use our field. If anyone has an event that they would like to hold here they should come and chat to us. We want to be part of the community.”
A quarter of a million pounds renovation project was started at the Speech House in November 2008. An orangery was constructed to accommodate about 80 people. Dorian said, “Maintaining the character of the building is top priority for us. Having undertaken a lengthy and detailed consultation process with Forest of Dean District Council to ensure due consideration has been given to conservation needs and the views of the local community, we are delighted to see the work at the Speech House is finally under way.” The orangery was completed in September 2009. Dorian said, “We are delighted with the completed orangery and have received so much positive feedback.” Further plans included expanding the Garden Room and the opening-up of the reception area and corridor to make a large lobby.
A mini-music festival, the Boom Town Fair, was held in the field adjoining the Speech House in August 2009. Although the organisers considered the event to be a success and trouble-free, there were concerns from some members of the public complaining about litter and people urinating in public. The Forestry Commission were apparently only informed about the festival the day before it began. A spokesman said, “There are a lot of issues for us to sort out and we’re not very happy.” Heavy rain before the event also caused the field to be badly churned-up. Dorian Charlton said, “The field will have to be rolled and re-seeded but it will be back to normal soon.” He added, “Unfortunately with events od this scale there will always be some concerns from the public. Someone said they could hear the music in Littledean, but I was staying here in a cottage and couldn’t hear it.”
The Speech Hotel was being marketed again in October 2009. The asking price was £1.9 million pounds. Estate agents Colliers Robert Barry reported that there had been a lot of interest. The Speech House was bought in March 2010 by Peter and Gill Hands. Peter said, “It is very exciting. The hotel has a great location and it is a wonderful building. We think it has big potential.”
A ghost-hunt was organised by a local group of paranormal investigators at the Speech House in February 2011. Leader of the group Phil Jones said that they found the hotel very active with lots going on. He said, “We recorded some Electronic Voice Phenomena and heard the name of ‘Emma’ coming through the equipment.” There were also ‘orbs’ seen on photographic equipment.
An ancient Forest tradition was revived in October 2013 when the Inclosure Commission met at the Speech House for the first time in the 21st century. Known as the Dean Forest Act, it gave the crown authority to enclose up to 10,000 acres at any one time for the purpose of establishing timber trees and the first Inclosure Commissioners were appointed in October 1668. After the inaugural meeting at the old court room at the Speech House the members visited areas in the Forest to be enclosed for tree planting and grazing.
A Trip Advisor ‘Certificate of Excellence’ Hall of Fame was awarded to the Speech House in May 2015, after five consecutive years of receiving consistently top reviews on the world’s largest Internet travel site. Peter Hands said, “This is a great accolade for the whole team, from the people who was up to the housekeeping to the front of house staff. We couldn’t do it without their hard work. We have 55 members of staff here and all but three of them live locally. We get lots of comments from guests about how friendly our staff are. We put a lot of emphasis on training our staff and encouraging them to make the most of their potential.”
A grant from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development was secured in September 2017 after talks with the Gloucestershire First Local Enterprise Group. The fund helps small to medium Enterprises’ such as the Speech House to develop and expand their business. After extensive negotiations the European fund came up with a £100,000 contribution. Leaseholder Peter Hands said, “We are extremely excited about creating a fantastic venue for weddings, conferences and events in the very heart of the Royal Forest of Dean”, adding “It is anticipated that this project will bring much needed additional business to the Forest of Dean and the local economy as well as creating more employment opportunities. Local tradesmen and businesses from around the Forest of Dean are to be employed in the construction of the building, The wedding and conference centre is to be named ‘the Edwin Tauber Suite’ in memory of Gill’s father Edwin who was a great lover of trees and forests.”
The Forest Vintage Vehicle and Machinery Club hold their annual vintage show in the grounds of the Speech House every September. The show started in 2012.
Landlords / Proprietors at the Speech House include:
1852 William Watkins
1856 J. Coleman
1870 John Coleman
1876, 1891 John William Boyce (Speech House commercial and family hotel & posting house)
1902, 1906 George St. John
1919 D. Parton
1927 Walter Wakefield
1984 Megan Richards (manageress – took over from her husband Bob in September 1984. She died in February 1986 aged 54)
1999 Harry Kear
2007 Dorian Charlton (owner) / Nicholas Ireland (General Manager)
2010 Peter and Gillian Hands (Chas Druggan – manager)