Today (April 18) in London History – London’s swishest hotel

The story of the Dorchester Hotel – that’s the stuff of this Today in London History podcast. This day, because the Dorchester opened its doors on April 18, 1931.


“Everybody who counts was there.” That’s how one socialite put it.

She was talking about the opening of the Dorchester Hotel on April 18th, 1931.

And that way of putting it – well that’s pretty much been the case ever since. 

It’s a roll call of the famous down the decades, the guest list at the Dorchester. 

Which is, it almost goes without saying, what you’d expect, given that the Dorchester is arguably London’s swishest hotel.

But yes, why not. Let’s drop some names. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were regulars at the Dorchester. General Eisenhower during World War II. You have to wonder, did Kansas-reared Ike ever channel his inner Dorothy when he was at the Dorchester: Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.  Not in Kansas. But on his way to Normandy. It was during his stay at the Dorchester that General Eisenhower planned the Normandy invasion. It’ll come as no surprise that his suite today is known as the Eisenhower Suite and it’s decorated in his honour with historical memorabilia. 

He had remarkable powers of concentration, General Eisenhower. After all, staying at the Dorchester, Ike was right in the thick of all the action – because the hotel was the wartime centre of social life in London. It’s an extraordinary conjunction, there being a direct line from the epicentre of London’s haute monde to those June 6th, 1944 Allied objectives – those cauldrons of death and destruction and mayhem and God-almighty violence known as Omaha and Utah and Gold and Juno and Sword Beaches. That conjunction is the 20th-century version of the Brussels ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. 

Moving on. Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, was a regular at the Dorchester. It was at bridge-playing sessions at the Dorchester during the early days of the war that he got to know his future wife, Ann.

And to pay out a few more names: David Bowie, Michael Jackson, John Lennon. In John Lennon’s case it was  a lunch at the Dorchester to accompany the launch of his book In His Own Write.

And not forgetting the party at the Dorchester to mark the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night. It coincided with Paul McCartney’s father’s 62nd birthday. McCartney senior was making £10 a week and worried that he was going to lose his job to a younger man. His son gave him an envelope. Dad opened it. There was a photograph of a horse. Paul McCartney said, “it’s yours dad and it’s running at Chester on Sunday.” He’d bought his father a thoroughbred, Drake’s Drum, who had a very good career. Won a lot of money for McCartney senior.

Other names: Fidel Castro. In the memorable words of one of my two best-connected London Walks colleagues: “I know somebody who shagged him – Castro – at the Dorchester.” I still chuckle at the image that remark conjured up. Fidel pumping away in his green fatigues and his field cap. 

And not forgetting Frank Sinatra. If you get a chance listen to the February 6th Today in London History podcast. The one about cabmen’s shelters. It ends with a very amusing tale about Sinatra’s tete-a-tete with a couple of London cabbies in the cabman’s shelter outside the Dorchester.

The list goes on and on. Royalty of course. Mahatma Gandhi, not long after the hotel opened. In his loincloth. 

But “everybody who counts” – personalities, celebrities – they’re just the bonnet ornament on the Rolls Royce. Let’s get under the bonnet.

Start with the name. It’s called the Dorchester because it stands on the site of Dorchester House, which was London’s largest private house. In 1910 it became the American embassy. It did service as a hospital during World War I. And then, come 1929, it was demolished to clear the site for the hotel.

It cost – remember these are 1931 figures – one million, 750 thousand pounds to build the hotel. It went up very fast. The first floor was completed in September 1930. Every subsequent floor was completed in a week. The building is reinforced concrete. Said to be bomb-proof, earthquake-proof and fire-proof. Every wall is interlaced with steel rods. Lay those rods end to end you’d have a 2,000 mile-long steel rod. And foundation-wise, the Dorchester is pretty well anchored. It’s embedded in 50,000 tons of sand and gravel.

So, eight storeys high to start with. It was topped up with a ninth storey after the war. 

It’s some 300 bedrooms and 80 salons. No two rooms are furnished alike. The Dorchester, it’s not just a different world, it’s a different universe from, say, Travel Lodge.

The public areas are equally magnificent. The Dorchester’s is the largest ballroom in London. And it has one of the largest banqueting rooms. To say nothing of three restaurants, one of them a three-Michelin stars job. But yes, that huge banqueting hall – There aren’t many banqueting halls that can accommodate over 500 people. The Dorchester’s can.

The real show-stopper though is the staff. It’s a small army. Nearly a thousand people. Twice as many staff as guests. In the words of a Dorchester higher up, “the basic product is not the rooms, the food or drink, it is the service.”

Let’s take a look at that army. To greet you, six doormen in their handsome green coats with gold braid. One of the early doormen was Sergeant O. Brooks, a holder of the Victoria Cross. The VC is the highest and most prestigious honour of the British military honour system. It’s the British equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honour. 

Ok, Sergeant Brooks having ushered us in, let’s go down to the kitchen. In its early days the Dorchester employed 130 chefs. When he became Head Chef, Anton Mosimann – the most famous Swiss of them all after William Tell and before Roger Federer – gradually whittled that figure down to 85. But still, 85 chefs, it’s mind-boggling. They can provide 3,000 meals a day. The Dorchester’s bakery employs 22 people. They produce 20,000 rolls a day. Yes, I know, 300 guests – that would come to about 70 rolls each. I know the super-rich have gargantuan appetites – especially as regards their bank balances – but it doesn’t compute.  

So what’s going on?

The Dorchester supplies other hotels in the area with rolls, that’s what’s going on, that’s how you account for the 20,000 rolls coming out of the Dorchester’s ovens day in and day out.

And since time is of the essence when it comes to room service, each floor of the Dorchester has its own kitchen. As well as its own maid and its own valet.

The Dorchester say they can get you anything you want. It’s not an idle boast. An American guest once asked for sauerkraut juice. The Dorchester operation swung into action, feelers were put out, a staff member was despatched to Fortnum and Masons and in no time at all the Yank had his sauerkraut juice. 

Other members of the team.

The Dorchester has two carpet spotters (not that I have the foggiest what a carpet spotter is but if one of the greatest hotels in the world needs two of them, well, who am I to raise a quizzical eyebrow?)

It has four window cleaners. Sixteen people work in its paint shop. 30 people in the linen room. The Dorchester may be fire-proof but it employs three firemen. It has a tailor on its staff. And valets and page boys and maids and receptionists and concierges and head porters and butler service in the suites and – but that’s enough, time for a handbrake turn. Let’s go back to World War II. Prior to ending with a price tag or two.

Here’s Lady Diana Cooper describing a wartime evening at the Dorchester.

“Then down to the luxury-liner restaurant, reminiscent of SS Titanic, jam-packed now with passengers and crew that one knows too well. Dinner to the accompaniment of a band playing as loud as it can to drown the storm of the Hyde Park guns incessantly booming. At 11, a little lulled by Chianti but utterly unexhilarated, we walk down to the Turkish bath, stepping over hundreds of hotel-mates dossed down on mattresses, some with dogs that bark at you as you pass, some snoring, some reading with a torch.”

Oh dear, roughing it at the Dorchester in 1941.

And roughing it in the ledger book at the end of the 20th century. Remember it cost 1 million seven hundred pounds to build the Dorchester in 1931. It changed hands quite a few times in the next 50 years. Then in 1985 the Sultan of Brunei bought it for 43 million pounds. And then spent a further 70 million refurbing it. He was on to a good thing. In 1992 – seven years after he bought it for 43 million, he sold it for 500 million. And yes, that was 30 years ago. Do I care what it’s worth today. Not a fig.

And here’s something else. For today’s Today in London tip I’m not going to recommend afternoon tea at the Dorchester’s Orchid Room. I’m going to recommend that you catch a 16 bus outside the Dorchester. The 16 will take you to Victoria station. Go up top. Sit on the left-hand side. At the very front if that seat’s available. From up there, when the bus makes the turn at Hyde Park Corner you’ll have the wall round Buckingham Palace Gardens on your left. For a few seconds you’ll be able to see over it. See down into the palace gardens, see the tennis court. It’s a bit of fun. And what you can do – if you want to get the thing into focus a bit – is think how big Green Park is and that’s just about the same size as Buckingham Palace Gardens. Green Park is 40 acres. The grounds of Buckingham Palace are 39 acres. 

You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s signature walking tour company. London Walks – the gold standard – the Dorchester – of the London walking tour scene. 

It all comes down to the guiding. That’s the pole star. You want to excel in this field you have to set your course by it. Setting your course by it means fronting your walking tours with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London

archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. That’s how we do it. That’s who we are.

See ya tomorrow.

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