Settlement at Featherston began with a single inn. In the 1840s, English settler Henry Burling purchased land near Morrisons Bush from local Māori, to run cattle. While driving his herd to the land, he cut a track from Morrisons Bush to the base of the Rimutaka mountain range. In 1849 he was granted a licence to establish a 'house of entertainment', Burling's Bush Inn. And the area, where the track over the Rimutakas met the Wairarapa plain, became known as "Burlings".
Then the surveyors arrived. A new town, Featherston, named after the superintendent of Wellington province, Isaac Featherston, was born in 1856. Initially Featherston grew slowly, mostly due to the high price of land, but after the arrival of the railway in the 1870s it became an important service town.
By this time, The Royal was the principal hotel in the town, and has remained so ever since. The plot of land the hotel stands on is believed to have been originally owned by the Methodist Church, and was sold at auction in 1856 to W.L. Buller. The Royal was to have officially opened by Christmas 1868 but, owing to the late arrival of the furniture, didn’t welcome its first patrons until February 1869. The opening was reported in Wellington’s Dominion Newspaper where we learn that the first proprietor was Mr John Feist.
In July 1893 the hotel and attached stables burned down in the middle of the night. It was rebuilt by Mayer & Sons (builders) of Wellington and when finished was a 45-room establishment with 26 bedrooms. The proprietor was believed to be one W. Buckridge.
The 1908 Cyclopedia of New Zealand noted that The Royal was "first built many years ago, at the time of the foundation of [Featherston], and has since been rebuilt. It is a substantial two-storied building, situated at the north end of the town, and contains about thirty-five rooms, including a commercial room, several sitting rooms, a dining room, a billiard room, and detached sample rooms. The house is well furnished, the liquors and accommodation are of the best, and a good table is kept. The Royal Hotel is lighted by a private installation of acetylene gas, and there are up-to-date fire escape appliances."
The Royal is one of only two hotels in New Zealand displaying the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom.