If Lord Beaconsfield was right in describing the cab as the London gondola, the Strand is certainly the Grand Canal of the world's most unwieldy City. It is not a Cockney thoroughfare, but the Highway of the Universe. It runs through the heart of the great half-way house from everywhere to everywhere, and although in matter-of-fact parochial records it has the parishes of St. Martin's in the by-gone fields at one end, and the old Maypole district of St. Maryle-Strand at the other, its boundaries really stretch from China to Peru, or from the recluse pole in the north to the equally recluse pole in the south. In appearance it is not broad nor majestic. In this respect it is put in the shade by the Mile End Road, to say nothing of the Nevskoi Perspective, in St. Petersburg; but it is the petrifaction of English history. Every stone on its footways is a chronicle. These chronicles lead a rather disturbed life, as seven or eight industrial enterprises -- gas, water, telephones, electricity, etc. -- have powers under Acts of Parliament to enclose and excavate the thoroughfares, which they exercise freely all through the year without the slightest consultation with each other.
That central section of the Strand on the south and river side known as the Savoy, is as full of history as, in homely metaphor, an egg is full of meat. Little remains of it but antiquarian records. A few material fragments may be discovered in odd corners, like decayed teeth, if they are diligently probed for. This is an occupation fit only for Old Mortality. Traditions exist in the air; but, unfortunately, it has not been the custom in this country either to preserve ancient monuments, or to honour such monuments, when they are destroyed by the brutal force of population and public necessity, even with a tombstone or a memorial tablet. Palaces of Kings, Chapels of Saints, houses and workshops of the great ones of the past, hospitals, barracks, sanctuaries, are swept away by Local Boards and dust contractors, leaving not a trace behind. When a sentimental and well-meaning Association like the Society of Arts is stirred into activity and goes its rounds with in memoriam plaques, there is always a danger that they may fix these records to the wrong houses, thereby investing the most common-place and unsanitary tenements with the dignity of shrines.
The history of the "precinct" called the Savoy would fill a bulky volume. Withiin its narrow boundaries much has happened for more than six centuries and a-half. In the old wars between England and France, which did so much to establish that Anglophobia which has often taken a rabid form, and rarely more so than at the present hour, the Savoy lodged the French King, John, when he was brought to England as a captive by the Black Prince, after the battle of Poictiers. He was evidently well treated at "the fairest manor in England," as it was called, for he returned voluntarily on a point of honour (History has not told us the name of the lady), and died at the Savoy Palace on the 9th of April, 1364, his body being honourably conveyed back to St. Denis, in France. In 1381 Wat Tyler appeared upon the scene with a riot, an insurrection, or a "Rumour," when the Palace was fired, pillaged, and almost demolished by throwing certain boxes into the fire which were supposed to contain property, as looting had been forbidden, but, unfortunately for the rebels, contained gunpowder. The usual story is told of these conscientious rioters. Proof against money and plate, they succumbed to drink. They broke into a cellar where, according to the vague chronicle, they stupefied themselves with "sweet wines." Here they were walled in by their civilized opponents and left to die, which they did, of hunger, thirst and foul air, in seven days. This was worse than Sir William Walworth's dagger, which figures to-day in the arms of the City of London.
Savoy Palace 1650
The Palace when restored was turned into an Hospital, but it had a short life. In two years the revenues were seized by Royalty. It was re-endowed by Queen Mary, but was treated negligently by Queen Elizabeth, who probably resented the attacks made upon her and her subjects by the ruffians who found "Sanctuary" in the precinct. It was a bad place to serve a writ; they tarred and feathered the server. It was well guarded during the Great Plague, a sort of rough quarantine being established. The Court regarded it as a kind of buffer-state, and insisted that it should try to prevent the plague spreading from the City to the "West-end." The Court did not trust altogether to its own regulations and officers, but retreated to Windsor. The Savoy stood a ruin and a London eyesore for a century and a quarter.
The literary associations of the Savoy go back as far as Chaucer, but what he wrote there can scarcely be decided. The Savoy has always figured largely in the religious world. The life of "Mr. Cleveland," Oliver Cromwell's alleged illegitimate son, was published in the neighbourhood. It was in the Savoy tliat the Confession of Faith was drawn up in the time of Cromwell and the Directory, and it was the place where Charles the II. ordered the assemblies of the Commissioners for the Revision of the Liturgy to be held. This Commission was rather "mixed," for it comprised twelve of the chief bishops of the time, with nine assisting clergymen, while the Nonconformist party was strongly represented -- amongst them being Richard Baxter, the author of the "Saint's Rest," and "A Kick in the Breech for Unbelievers." The meeting is known historically as the "Savoy Conference." It certainly favoured the so-called High Church party. At that time Fuller, the author of the "Worthies" was Lecturer at the Savoy, and the poet Cowley was a candidate at Court for the oflfice of Master. As a poet he wrote the best drinking song ("The Thirsty Earth drinks up the Rain," etc.) in the English language.
The Savoy in religion has been Catholic in its broadest sense. It sheltered exiled Roman Catholics and exiled Protestants. It did not object to Jesuits, and Jesuit free schools. William the Third used the Savoy to house many families of poor French Protestants, who sought to get a living by the practice of their handicrafts, but the "open-door" theory then was not in favour, and the competition was destroyed by the London tradesmen of the period. The French Church established for these refugees was afterwards moved to Bloomsbury. To show its tolerance, the Savoy also endured a German Lutheran Church and a German Calvinistic Chapel, which were the neighbours of a prison, some barracks and some "gardens."
A considerable part of the old Savoy was standing at the beginning of the present century, but it was demolished to form the Strand approach to Waterloo Bridge -- the bridge that delighted Canova.
The Savoy Restaurant and Hotel was one of the early pioneers in bringing the best "catering" of Paris to London. It helped perhaps more than any "advanced" restaurant to kill that class of tavern or chop house, with its sanded floor and sawdust, its mustard-stained table cloths and its not over-clean plate and china, where the "good old English fare" legend was freely used to cover inferior food badly cooked, what the melancholy exiled Frenchman called "lumps of bleeding beef, and hot, fiery balls of burning flour." The new Savoy reminded that favoured few who knew Paris under the superficial glories of the Second Empire, of the never-to-be-forgotten Trois Frères, in the Palais Royal, the old Rocher de Cancale off the Rue Montmartre, the Tottenham Court Road of Paris, the dead and gone Bignon's, and the Cafe Bredant on the Boulevard, the Café Véfour in the Palais Royal, and Voisin's in the Rue St. Honore, the latter now happily surviving its buried comrades.
It almost reconciled these old and middle-aged viveurs to the fogs of perfide Albion, and the inelastic and indiscriminating licensing llaws which compel a civilised café, like the Savoy, to work under the self-same licence and restrictions as a pot house in Whitechapel, or a gin shop in the Seven Dials. Henry Fielding, the great English novelist, who lived in Beaufort Buildings in the last century, would have borrowed more money from his friend, neighbour, and publisher, Jacob Tonson, at the "Shakespeare's Head," in the Strand, and given up his rump steak and two bottles of port at the "Salutation," if the New Savoy had then been open at the bottom of his street, instead of the river-side tavern, called by courtesy an inn, and bearing the sign of "The Fox under the Hill." Fifty years or more ago, when the halfpenny steamboats, the "Bee," the "Ant," and the "Cricket," plied from London Bridge Wharf to the Adelphi Arches and "Ivy Lane," and anticipated, by many years, the halfpenny journals and the halfpenny omnibuses, the "Fox under the Hill" was still in existence, but it had become a semi-rural river-side drinking shop, and a "house of call" for coal-heavers and bargemen. It had a wooden gallery projecting over the river, with rough tables and benches, and looked as if it had drifted up the stream from Wapping. There was a decided air of Old Quilp about it. It stood a little above the water at high tide, and further above the mud at low tide. The Thames Conservancy always claimed seignorial rights over this mud, if not over the mudlarks who revelled in it and dived for half-pence, and it was dignified with the name of "foreshore." The "Fox under the Hill" had a patch of garden, partly cultivated, which grew a few vegetables well manured with soot. It boasted a "good dry skittle ground," except when the spring tides trespassed on its rotten boarding. The cheese-shaped balls were cracked and chipped, and its "pins" were rather splintery, but in a rough way they served their purpose. The bargemen and coal- heavers made up with force what they wanted in skill, as I found out when I "made one of four" for half-a-gallon of "Hoare's Entire." This was the ancestor, the father or grandfather of the Savoy Hotel and Restaurant, which has brought a bit of the Second Empire Paris to London.
The gardens along the south front of the Savoy Hotel and Restaurant, which have been rescued from the river and form part of the Thames Embankment, have been laid out at the expense of the ratepayers of London, and are under the control of the London County Council. They add much to the bright prospect from the Savoy Hotel and Restaurant balconies. The view in front reaches from Ancient Egypt to the day before yesterday, from Cleopatra to "Blind Fawcett," from Robert Raikes, the pious founder of Sunday Schools, to Robert Burns the national poet of Scotland, who was in all things intensely human, a free soul in a free body.
Homes of the Passing Show, "The Highway of the Universe", The Old Savoy, by John Hollingshead, 1900.