The Cornish Buildings Group has long campaigned for buildings at risk – indeed, it is fair to say that the Group was set up at a time when protecting and saving architectural heritage was at a low ebb. It was in the late 1960s when two significant buildings in Truro were lost to the wreckers ball. The first was in 1966 when the Elizabethan ‘Great House’ in Truro’s Boscawen Street, once owned by the mighty Robartes family of Lanhydrock, was demolished. The following year, the historic Red Lion pub situated just 40 metres away from the ‘Great House’, was demolished after a runaway lorry had smashed into its frontage. Both important heritage assets were replaced by the inferior structures that still stand today.
The Red Lion, 28/29 Boscawen Street, was built towards the end of the 17th century by the Foote family. Pigot’s Directory of 1830 noted that ‘The celebrated comedian, Samuel Foote, was born in Truro, in 1721, in the house now the Red Lion Inn’. H.L. Douch, in his book Old Cornish Inns (1966), added
‘[In Truro the] top houses of the eighteenth century were The Red Lion, The Ship, The King’s Head and The Queen’s Head. The original Red Lion was an old house which backed on to St. Mary’s church. In August 1769 it was announced that Mr. Foote’s great house (which had been built in 1671) would be opened as The Red Lion Inn and Tavern, with a dining-room 73 feet long, panelled in cedar and with a room at the end of it partitioned off by folding doors There was to be a vast number of lodging rooms with “chambers backwards for servants”‘.
The first landlord, Edward Giddy, transferred his license from an adjoining property to the Red Lion in 1769. The building became one of, if not the, top destination in the town, the chambers were said to have been ‘fitted up…in a very genteel manner’. The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette of 22 January 1784 reported that the hotel was for sale, its purchaser was John Blight. The Blights and those who followed as tenants including the Stevens, the Brays and the Dobbs ran successful businesses from the building, it became the site of fine dinners, auctions and notable public events − in 1805 William Jenkin, the steward of the agent to Anna Maria Hunt of Lanhydrock, wrote ‘The Red Lyon in Truro is undoubtedly the best inn’.
On 22 August 1889 the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported ‘The proprietors of this old-established hostelry having, for the convenience of Mrs Bray’s (the tenant) increasing business, decided to make additions and improve its appearance, called in Mr Trevail as architect’. Trevail, whose office was in nearby Lemon Street, added two additional floors, the top-level being in a mock-Tudor style. The building contractor was Thomas J. Smith of St Austell. To cope with the number of visitors to Cornwall during the late-19th century the building was extended again in 1893, Ronald Perry and Hazel Harradence noted in their biography of Trevail ‘In 1893 he enlarged the St Mary’s Street elevation by building over the stable block and adding a large pitched-roof dining hall, with a gable end almost entirely of glass’.
The boom years of the late-19th and first-half of the 20th century were temporarily interrupted by a fire in 1930 that damaged a small part of the hotel. However, the hotel was in more serious trouble in June 1967 when fire destroyed ten of the thirty rooms. This second fire came at a time when it was reported that the hotel was losing money, staff redundancies followed.
On the 14 July 1967 a runaway lorry crashed into the front of the building and within a month the building was demolished. The Truro Civic Society asked some pretty searching questions about the loss and in particular why a repair to the façade could not have been made. What was lost was the handsome façade described by Pevsner in 1950 as ‘…terribly treated by Silvanus Trevail, has still its lower stories of 1671, with pediments to all windows (just going classical), and its staircase’.
By 1970 Boscowan Street had lost its two most important buildings. In addition, the streetscape was irreversibly changed by the inferior buildings that replaced the Great House and the Red Lion. A tangible reminder that ‘once its gone, its gone’.