Today (August 6) in London History – The Savoy

The Savoy – arguably London’s greatest hotel – opened its doors on August 6, 1889. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Guiding it is bliss. There’s no other hotel in London I’d rather guide. 

It’s an embarrassment of riches. You hardly know where to start.

But we could do worse than to start with today – August 6th. The year is 1889. We’re on the south side of the Strand. Going to see the new London wonder of wonders. It opens its doors today.

The Savoy Hotel.

So why don’t we head in there, take that turning off the Strand. Turn into that private road that is essentially the hotel’s forecourt. 

To do so is to wade right in to the first of the many great stories – great guiding points – about the Savoy. 

To wit: we’ve turned into the only street in the country – the only street in the United Kingdom – where cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. 

That moment – for a guide – it’s like a baseball slugger getting fat pitches in batting practice – fat pitches it’s easy to blast into the upper deck down homerun alley.

Quite a few of your walkers don’t notice it at first. And then when you point it out they’re intrigued. What’s going on? Why do they drive on the right-hand side?

The short answer is the Savoy Theatre is there on the right-hand side. And chauffeurs and cabbies want to let their fares exit the vehicle right in front of the theatre entrance. And it holds good when the show let’s out – you come out of the theatre and your Daimler is right there, its open door beckoning. No messing about having to cross the street. 

But, delightfully, that’s not the whole story. It’s riches piled on riches, this introductory moment to the Savoy. The further reason for vehicles driving on the right is the Savoy is so upmarket, so luxurious, that a lot of the patrons were arriving in limousines. Stretch limousines. And a stretch limousine driving west on the Strand – driving in the direction of Trafalgar Square – driving on the left-hand side of the Strand – those stretch limos couldn’t negotiate a left turn into the left-hand side of the Savoy’s private driveway, its private street. For a long vehicle that sharp left turn from a left lane into a left lane was simply impossible. And of course going the other direction – going east – on the north side of the Strand – the right-hand turn into Savoy Court – the name of the Strand’s private road – that turn is eezy peezy because the vehicle has half the width of the Strand to cross before it enters Savoy Court.

And the thing is, the fun doesn’t end there. That bit of observation and explanation – well, you can really riff there. The which is the case, incidentally, for so many finer points of the Savoy Hotel.

But, yes, let’s riff. Taking note of the only street in the country where you drive on the right-hand side of course brings up the bigger subject, well, why do Brits drive on the left? That’s a fun question to field. There are several explanations. My favourite is that hundreds of years ago everybody drove on the left. Well, “drove” on the left – “rode” on the left puts it more accurately. We’re back in the days of knights in shining armour. If you’re a knight – if you’re going into battle or just jousting – you want to be on the left-hand side because, like most people, you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding your lance or your sword. Your right hand is your strong hand. You want it to be the hand that you can bring to bear on your opponent when you meet up with him. For the same reason – people always love to have this pointed out to them – stairwells in castles spiral up to the left. That’s because the defender is at the top. He wants maximum freedom of movement for his strong arm, his sword-bearing right arm. The attacker, coming up the stairs, because the stairs spiral to the left, is forced to fight with the sword in his left arm, his weak arm. If he carries it in his right hand his right arm is completely constricted by the central pillar of the stairwell built for defence – built to spiral down to the right and, conversely, up from the left.

I sometimes go on to say, the better question is why does everybody else – or just about everybody else – drive on the right. There’s a really neat one word answer: Napoleon. The man was a military genius. He recruited a lot of left-handed cavalrymen. Turned them into their own unit. And because they were left-handed they could pull tactical surprises, attack from an unexpected quarter. Next question is: where did Napoleon get to, where didn’t he get to? He didn’t get here. And he didn’t get to Sweden. He got pretty much everywhere else. And sure everywhere else – in Europe anyway – drives on the right-hand side of the road. But we still don’t here. And the Swedes didn’t until they finally made the big change over in 1967. Well, who’s to say? But it makes a good story.

Other good Savoy stories. It had 67 private bathrooms. That was unheard of at the time. Well, unheard of on this side of the Atlantic. The builders couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the plans. They said, “67 private bathrooms – are you out of your mind – are the guests amphibious?” But to get that into perspective for you, twenty years later the leading hotel in Madrid had a capacity of 500 guests but only four private bathrooms.

Normally you build your hotel first and the accompanying theatre – if there is one – comes second. The Savoy reversed that order. The theatre was built first. And then they built the hotel for the smart theatre patrons. The theatre has the distinction of being the first theatre in the country to be lit by electricity. On the opening night there was a standing ovation. But it wasn’t for the performance – it was for the lights.

Anyway, the hotel took its cue, light-wise, from the theatre. All mod cons – electric lighting. 

In some ways even more ground-breaking – or I suppose you could say game-changing…. Before the Savoy came along the rule was the cheapest accommodation was nearest the sky. The Savoy reversed that. The rooms most in demand were those at the greatest altitude. 

For the very good reason that the higher one goes the purer the air becomes and the wider the prospect. And it almost goes without saying, the game changer was the Savoy had two rising rooms, as that amazing new American invention was called. What we today here, on this side of the Atlantic, call a lift and Americans call an elevator. The Savoy had two of those miracles – by means of which passengers – that’s what they called them – could conveniently ascend to the top floors in a perfectly luxurious manner.

And let’s think about that wider prospect up there on the top storey.

The Savoy’s handsome river frontage, facing the gardens on the Thames embankment, meant it commanded an extensive and highly-interesting panoramic view, embracing on the one hand St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, and, on the other, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Cleopatra’s Needle stood – and stands – in the foreground. And on the opposite bank of the Thames lay the picturesque foreshore, whilst in the far distance guests could clearly see the Crystal Palace and the Surrey Hills.

Not bad, eh.

Two final talking/guiding points. And we’ve barely scratched the surface, really. 

You go to the Savoy, you have to look for its famous black cat, Kaspar, carved in 1927. 

And here I’m going to go to the horse’s mouth, so to speak – let the Savoy speak for itself about the matter.

Kaspar’s intended function was to act as the fourteenth guest in the private dining rooms when thirteen guests were present. And I’m afraid there’s a bit of nasty in the Kaspar history. One evening in 1898, a wealthy South African named Woolf Joel hosted a small private dinner at the Savoy. One or two guests had to cancel, with the result that only 13 people finally gathered for dinner on that fateful evening. Over the meal there was some discussion about the various superstitions associated with unlucky number 13, including the one that the first person to get up from a table of 13 would also be the first one to die. 

Joel scoffed at the suggestion and sportingly offered to allay his guests’ fears by leaving the table first. Back home in Joburg just a few weeks later, Joel was shot dead. 

Joel’s death made a strong impression on his dinner guests and by extension the management of the Savoy. Taking no further chances it was decreed that in future any table of 13 would be joined by a member of staff as a 14th guest. And for the next 25 years a waiter would duly be roped in as necessity dictated. But there were problems with that solution. The presence of a complete stranger at the table prevented the discussion of confidential matters. And of course it also deprived the hotel of the services of a waiter for the duration of the function, no small matter when the hotel’s restaurants were busy and it was all hands on deck. 

Anyway, in the 1920s the architect Basil Ionides had been commissioned to redecorate the private dining room Pinafore. Ionides came up with the idea of the black cat Kaspar. And ever since then Kaspar has adorned tables for 13. With a napkin around his neck he sits silently at his place and is served with each course in turn along with the rest of the guests. He does not contribute much to the conversation but can be relied upon for absolute discretion afterwards.

And for a final Savoy tale, just outside the stage door of the theatre – in Carting Lane – is the only gas lamp in London that’s lit 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s the last of the Mohicans – London’s only surviving sewer-powered gaslamp. Which inevitably has given rise to a terribly vulgar mispronunciation of Carting Lane. I’ll leave it to you to sniff that one out.

And for a Today in London recommendation – well, you could see this one coming from 42nd Street. Yes, a visit to the Savoy’s American Bar. The longest surviving cocktail bar in London and one of the most renowned in the world.

 Forget the rest of the Savoy, there are no end of great stories, no end of great history tales that are part and parcel of the American bar. Including the fact that the new head bartender Chelsie Bailey is a woman. As was her predecessor Shannon Tebay. There have only been 13 head bartenders at the American Bar in the 96 years of its existence – and Shannon and Chelsie broke the mold. Never before had the Savoy’s American Bar had a woman head bartender. And now the cup overflows – we’ve had two in the past year.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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