The House of Call for Emperors
Every part of London has its history, as full of interest to the cultivated antiquarian as it is to the mere reader of "Gossip." The history of the Savoy belongs to the City and the centre of London, but the history of the Western District -- that part having Mayfair on its south side and the Tyburn Road or Oxford Street on the north, is the history of what, less than two centuries ago, was a rural outskirt of London with gardens, farm-yards, fields, cultivated and uucultivated, and, of course, a downward stream or rivulet, sometimes dignified with the name of river, sometimes affectionately called a brook, and flowing from the Hampstead and Highgate hills to seek the then "silvery" Thames, thence to be carried by its big brother into the all-devouring sea. The rivulet that gave the name to the important and historic street in which the gentleman's gentleman, Monsieur Mivart, immortalised by Lord Byron in "Don Juan," started his Royal Hotel, destined to become the "House of Call for Emperors," and to be afterwards taken over by Mr. Claridge, was called the Tyburn Brook. The name in the last century became disagreeably associated with the Hogarthian gallows at the mouth of the Edgware Road (the actual site, I believe, is No. 3, Connaught Terrace), but its companion streams were the Westerly Bourne (now suggestive of Mr. Whiteley and Westbourne Grove) and the rivulet of St. Mary the Good, vulgarised into Mary-bone, and suggestive of the rich, but now extinct, orchards of the obliterated St. John's Wood.
Brook Street (Upper and Lower) derived its name from these northern hill streams, which once had the power to tempt old Izaak Walton and his companions from their beloved river Lea. Rivulets of this kind, flowing down to and through a great city, have a melancholy and inevitable destiny. The trout stream of one century becomes the great downfall sewer of the next, as sure as the country which God made will be studded by the Devil with semi-detached villas. The Tyburn Brook -- the god-father of Brook Street -- has long been the "King's Scholar's Pond Sewer," which passes through the hollow of Piccadilly -- formerly the bed of the stream -- under Buckingham Palace to Pimlico, where it used to enter the Thames, but is now intercepted by the great Northern Outfall Sewer. I explored it many years ago from St. John's Wood Chapel, entering a rotten old Styx boat at the "dip" in Piccadilly, and singing "God Save the Queen" immediately under the Palace.
When Monsieur Mivart started his hotel in Lower Brook Street, and the father of his successor, Mr. Claridge, was catering for kings and ambassadors, after a fashion, at the house which afterwards became "Fenton's" in St. James's Street, London, except for its clubs, which, like the present French clubs in Paris were mostly gambling houses, was more like a large country town than a great city. Gas was being talked about, but not used, and was much in the same position as the electric light (the Arc Lamp) was in 1878. People endured dim oil lamps in places like Grosvenor Square even up to 1842, or sat, up to the same period, under imitation wax candles at the Haymarket Theatre until their coats got spoilt with the greasy drippings. Omnibuses were not yet introduced, and railways not yet invented; stage coaches ran not only to the country but short journeys in London. Our fore-fathers spared their shoe-leather, as it was bought of lordly tradesmen, like Hoby, and was very expensive. If they missed their coach from the Whitehorse Cellar to the Bank (about a mile-and-a-half), or from the Angel at Islington to the Stock Exchange (about a mile), they waited for the next stage, and wasted about three hours. No matter, it was an age of leisure. The hackney carriages were huge rickety family vehicles, apt to smell a little musty, and more adapted for funerals or evening parties than for business people who had the courage, very rare in those days, to admit that they were in a hurry. The cab -- the first rude idea of a "Hansom" -- was a clumsy cabriolet, with a seat at the side on which the driver sat, next door, so to speak, to the fare, handling the reins somewhat obliquely.
If you wanted "restaurants," there were no such luxuries properly so called, but taverns like "Clunn's" in Covent Garden, where turtle soup and Lachrymae Christi were "specialities," and old Madeira could be got, to say nothing of port and sherry, if you paid for it; the London Coffee House on Ludgate Hill, the Gray's Inn Coffee House in Holborn, a favourite place for the meetings of creditors, and the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, an equally favorite place for political meetings. There were plenty of so-called " chop houses," and places modestly called "cook-shops," oyster houses, and soup houses, potato houses (called Irish fruit houses), egg houses, salad shops, jelly houses, "shades," some devoted to wine, some to Burton ale, and boiled beef houses, which, for some unexplained reason were always called " celebrated." There were plenty of "private" hotels, as they were called, another name for boarding houses, and in some west end districts these places gathered in a particular street, like Jermyn Street, making what the economists call a "market." Warren Hastings in 1810 lived in one of these small hotels, which was called "Wake's," in Lower Brook Street. Old-fashioned country people favoured the "Blue Posts"
in Cork Street, where the food was a strong soup (not a potage), big fish and plain joints, "roast and boiled." I think it was Theodore Hook who wrote of this place: --
After the Battle of Waterloo, when the great peace was declared in 1815, a number of French restaurants were started, and Petty France, in London at least, was made happy. The French cookery introduced was not of the highest order, but it was a change and a forward step in international education. It took a long time to persuade the sturdy Briton that the French were not a frog-eating nation who wore wooden shoes, and that Waterloo would not have been so easily won if the "Roast Beef of Old England" (Oh! the Old English Roast Beef), had been the staple food of the benighted foreigners. In spite of this insular prejudice, Giraudier started in the Haymarket, Giraiid in Castle Street (now Charing Cross Road), near to be the Alhambra; Verrey, with his Empire decoration and furniture, made a stand in Regent Street, Bertolini introduced French and Italian cookery almost next door to Sir Isaac Newton's house in St. Martin's Street, Leicester Square, in opposition to Stone's Panton Street imitation of the Albion in Russell Street, Drury Lane (Charles Dickens' favourite house), and Pagliano took the house in Leicester Square where Hogarth had lived, and seizing the name but not the skill of a celebrated Parisian chef of the past, called it the Sablonnière.
His prices were low, and his menu not very elaborate. I quote from one of his bills in 1815, which I have in my possession: --
The bill of fare at the "Telegraph Eating Rooms" in Gracechurch Street (also in 1815), was a little more substantial, but much dearer. Of all these old time places the only one left is "Verrey's."
In the wake of the French Restaurateurs, the smaller caterers followed, and the "chop-houses" soon found competition in the "Alamode beef-houses." The two most important of these were in Clare Market and Tichborne Street, Piccadilly. They both served a good strong serviceable stodge -- half liquid and half solid, which was cheap and satisfying after the theatre, and was generally eaten with salad. In those days there was practically no limit to the night hours for eating combined with drinking, and this liberty continued to 1872, when eating in pubhc after half-past twelve was made as illegal as music without a licence.
In spite of the absence of all, or nearly all of those social comforts which we now enjoy -- telegraphs, telephones, cheap postage, sanitary improvements, cheap transit, cheap literature, clieap and perfect newspapers, palatial hotels with every improvement, restaurants of all degrees of excellence, suitable to all pockets, cheap clothing, perfect dwellings, palaces of variety, civilised theatres, free libraries, and a hundred other products of material progress -- there was a dash, a brilliancy, a spirit about the "Days of the Dandies," as they were called, which certainly captivate the imagination. It was not a sordid -- a money-grubbing age. It was not exactly a virtuous age, but its vice was not vulgar, and not sneaking. It was artistic, and the Prince Regent may have met the champion of the prize ring at Hyde Park Corner and driven him down in semi-state in a "Tilbury" or "Cabriolet" to his fight at Moulsey Hurst; a noble lord, when he wanted to make a lady a present, may have posted to his northern estate, cut down a hundred thousand pounds worth of timber, hurled it into the local river to float down to the sea, where it was shipped and sold in the London market. Another noble lord may have been a fortune to old Fribourg, whose snuff shop still stands in the Haymarket, and have had a snuff-box for every day in the year, including Sundays. Another noble lord may have gone into Crockford's at midnight, a comparatively rich man in those days, when the millionaire had not been invented, and come out at daybreak a pauper. Count D'Orsay may have lived in luxury at Gore Lodge -- a fortress fortified against the bailiffs -- to slink down to Crockford's after midnight on Saturday and back to his nest at midnight on Sunday; and a week without a "Society" duel may have been a kind of Passion Week in the calendar. Much of this may have been folly, much of it madness, a little of it affectation, or a disease of the imitative faculty, but it was inspired by the same spirit that inspired the Balaclava Charge. It was magnificent, but it was not business. It certainly was not in harmony with Poor Richard's Almanac. It may have been tailor-made. In those days the tailor really created the man. The tailor was king, and he knew it. His business was to stem the tide of the new-fangled sans-culottism and to preserve the class distinctions of dress. Men who dressed as the dandies did could only act up to their clothes. Even literary men were not too ink-stained to enter the charmed circle. Disraeli was a dandy and a viveur first, an author, an orator, and a statesman afterwards. Bulwer Lytton (the first Earl) followed in Disraeli's footsteps, but surpassed him, as he did Dickens, as a dramatist. Dickens was a dandy, so was Harrison Ainsworth. Maclise, in his etchings, has left a striking record of what these men were in physical appearance round the table of Frazer, the publisher and editor. Gibson, Lockhart, Ainsworth, Bulwer, Disraeli, and D'Orsay: -- there was not one Adonis or Apollo Belvidere present, but a dozen, and Lady Blessington was with them, a Venus glorified with intellect. Even the chef of the day was something more than a chef. Soyer may have been more of a Barnum than a cook, his hand may have been too heavy and his sauces too hot; but he was a personage.
The Dandy, who was always largely represented at Claridge's, was not neglectful of his family duties, or his muscular training. He would give his belongings a treat at Vauxhall to hear Braham and Mrs. Billington sing, and Michael Boai play the Paganini "Carnaval de Venise" on his chin. He would send to Newman's in Regent Street for a carriage, where he had an account for such things from the day when he eloped with his wife -- an heiress, of course -- from a boarding school at Brighton (spelt Brighthelm-stone) to get married by the blacksmith at Gretna Green. The carriage was booked according to custom (Newman hated cash payments), but a little ready money had to be found for the tolls, as London was then a province of turnpikes. These came to about twelve shillings -- exclusive of beer-money. Vauxhall was a journey. In those days people who lived at the village of Chelsea, and had been to "the play," assembled at the bottom of St. James' Street until they got twenty or thirty strong, so that with lanterns and bludgeons, and perhaps a blunderbuss or two, they could cross the "five fields" at Pimlico and face the footpads at "Bloody Bridge" -- the site of Eaton Place and the Court Theatre. After the concert and fireworks at Vauxhall (about two o'clock in the morning, my paternal legislators,) the family had supper in one of the bay windows of the banqueting hall and the champion carver was had up to show how much space he could carpet with a pound of ham. By the time my Dandy had escorted his family back to Claridge's, Grosvenor Square looked so pleasant in the fine June morning that my Dandy took a "pick-me-up" (a little egg flip made with sherry) instead of going to bed, and went round to "Gentleman Jackson's" at the Tennis Court in the Haymarket, to put on the gloves with one of the tutors. Having sent a runner to "Johnson's Dandy-Horse Schools" in Brewer Street and Berners Street for his pet Dandy-Horse (a bicycle worked with the feet touching the ground instead of intermediate pedals) he went back to dress as became a gentleman. After his breakfast of devilled chicken, he mounted his machine, not dressed like a Highland Gillie, a Dorsetshire labourer, or a Barclay and Perkins drayman, but with a Brummel cravat, a tall curly-brimmed silk hat, a bright blue loose dress coat with a velvet collar, patent boots, and broad strapped-down trousers of the peg-top mould, and " legged " himself off to Brighton. The hill-top telegraph signals had told the Clarence Hotel people he was coming, and to prepare his promenade clothes, made by Nugée, his tailor, who was then building the Kemp Town extension out of his Bond Street profits. The Claience was a loyal and proper hotel, conducted quite in the spirit of the age. It was the favourite hotel of royalty, and looking up the London Road Valley, was advertised as being near the pump-room, and perfectly protected from the sea-air.
All these men and many more like them, rubbed shoulders with Kings, Emperors, Ambassadors and Ministers at "Claridge's." Captain Gronow, Lord Lamington and Sir Algernon West (amongst many others) have pictured their faults and their merits for the enlightenment of an age that has "reformed its tailors' bills," deals at the "Stores" and dresses in "Sixteen shilling trousers," a modern invention of Brook Street.
The Brook Street "worthies" of the past, if we include Grosvenor Square, have been Handel (as we spell him), Edmund Burke, Lord George Gordon (not quite a worthy), the Rev. Sydney Smith, "Single Speech" Hamilton, Sir Henry Holland, chatty Horace Walpole, the red-tape martyr, Lord Clive, Sir William Gull, Sir Charles Bell, cock-eyed John Wilkes, George Grenville (the gossiper), the Earl of Derby, and his actress wife, the beautiful Miss Farren, and Sir William Jenner. The surgeons here have a more than respectable minority. Even the Sablonnière Hotel could boast of such visitors as Mirabeau, Kosciusko, and one of the Popes (I forget which), in the early part of the century.
The "New Claridge's Hotel" list at the close of the century, will more than maintain the ancient reputation of the "House of Call for Emperors," although it has destroyed the old "Throne Room," without thinking it necessary to build another.
Homes of the Passing Show, "The House of Call for Emperors", The Old Claridge, by John Hollingshead, 1900.