Donald Sinclair (hotel owner)

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The Gleneagles Hotel, Torquay, in 2009

Donald William Sinclair (10 July 1909 – 1981) was the co–proprietor of the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay which he helped manage after an extensive career in the Royal Navy, including service during World War II. He was the inspiration for the character Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, owing to his allegedly stuffy, snobbish and eccentric treatment of his guests, which included John Cleese and other members of the Monty Python cast.

Wartime career[edit]

Prior to World War II, Sinclair was in the British Merchant Navy.[1] As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he was called up in September 1939 for military service.[2] He was serving on the Armed merchantman HMS Salopian[2] when she was sunk by the U-boat U-98 in the North Atlantic, 400 miles south of Cape Farewell, Greenland, on the morning of 13 May 1941.[3] He then joined the crew of the Landing Ship, Infantry HMS Karanja;[2] she was sunk by German aircraft near Bougie, Algeria on 12 November 1942.[4] From February 1943 until July 1945, he served on the escort carrier HMS Trumpeter. He left the navy in April 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant commander.[2]

Hotel career and later life[edit]

Sinclar married Beatrice Ritchie (1915–2010) in Glasgow during the war. She was a policeman's daughter from Ellon, Aberdeenshire, who worked as a fashion consultant and designer at a Glasgow department store. She subsequently moved to Torquay to live with an aunt and avoid the German bombing of Glasgow. After the war ended, while her husband was still serving at sea, she opened a hotel in Torquay called Greenacres.[1] The business was a success and in 1964, she bought a private house that she transformed into a second hotel. She named this Gleneagles after her favourite part of her native Scotland. By this time, her husband was assisting her in running the business.[5] He made this decision reluctantly and would have preferred to remain at sea.[6]

Sinclair died in England in 1981; he was survived by his two daughters and his wife. His wife died in September 2010.[5]

Sinclair-inspired satire[edit]

The Monty Python cast met Sinclair while staying at the Gleneagles Hotel in May 1970; they were filming in nearby Paignton.

Several of the Fawlty Towers plot lines were partly based on real life events.[7]

Cleese, who played Basil Fawlty, again played an eccentric hotel–casino owner in the 2001 film Rat Race. In this later piece, the character was actually named Donald Sinclair.


Opinions are divided on how closely Sinclair resembled Basil Fawlty. Former staff and visitors have remembered actual events there that were allegedly as ludicrous as those depicted in the programmes.[8][9] However, Sinclair's family are adamant that Fawlty was an inaccurate caricature of Sinclair.[6] Beatrice Sinclair later described her husband as a "gentleman and a very brave man" and a disciplinarian who could not stand fools; she stated that he was not "the neurotic eccentric that John Cleese made him out to be." An accuracy she did acknowledge is that she was very much in charge of the business, just as Basil Fawlty was usually subordinate to his wife Sybil.[6]

The publication of Michael Palin's diaries in 2006 supported John Cleese's assessment of the Sinclairs.[10]


  1. ^ a b "Obituary: Beatrice Sinclair, fashion designer, dance hostess and hotelier". Kirkintilloch Herald. 28 September 2010. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) Officers 1939–1945 "Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) Officers 1939–1945". 27 September 2011. 
  3. ^ "HMS Salopian (F 94)". 27 September 2011. 
  4. ^ "HMS Karanja (F 128)". 27 September 2011. 
  5. ^ a b "Beatrice Sinclair (Obituary)". The Daily Telegraph. 16 September 2010. Retrieved 16 September 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c Richard Saville (10 May 2002). "My husband was not like Basil". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 August 2008. 
  7. ^ "The REAL Sybil dies aged 95: Woman's Torquay hotel helped inspire Fawlty Towers". Daily Mail. 17 September 2010. Retrieved 10 April 2013. 
  8. ^ Richard Saville (17 May 2002). "Fawlty hotelier was bonkers, says waitress". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 August 2008. 
  9. ^ Yvonne Swann (1 July 2008). "Paula Wilcox's heaven and hell". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  10. ^ Diaries 1969–1979 – The Python Years (published 2006) – In the entries for 11 and 12 May 1970, it is recounted that Sinclair saw the Pythons as a "colossal inconvenience" and when Michael Palin and Graham Chapman decided to leave after one night, Beatrice Sinclair gave them a bill for two weeks.