Changing London

At the Savoy – tracing a millennium of glitz and poverty at history-rich theatre and hotel site


It’s Sunday, a little after the midday, and people are flocking through the revolving front doors of the Savoy Hotel for afternoon tea. The distant sounds of piano music can be heard as they pass through the fine, wood-panelled lobby, with chequered black and white marble floor tiles and an array of ornaments on the coffee-style tables. The walls are lined with artwork, including a brightly lit painting with a panoramic view of the Thames – depicting an area not far from where the Savoy is located – while other smaller black and white framed pictures feature scenes from all over the world.

People are constantly coming and going, arriving and departing from their carriages on the covered glitzy forecourt just off the Strand and are helped by the smartly dressed doormen. But inside the lobby, there is a feeling of calm, despite there being so many guests passing by. I take a break on a comfy seat and watch the comings and goings      for a while – the people heading straight ahead for afternoon tea (I know that’s what they are here for because many need to ask the Concierge for directions), those doubling back on themselves for a Sunday roast in the Savoy Grill and a few others still turning left up the steps to the American Bar.

After some time watching the world go by, I head in the direction of the latter. The stairs to the American Bar are lined with black and white pictures of famous guests from time gone by – names ranging from John Wayne to Judy Garland. There is an interesting nook on the left with a display on the bar managers from over the years, with stories of how they perfected this cocktail and that. And how they served a drink to the likes of Winston Churchill.

There are so many great, plush establishments in London, but this one set in a Grade II* listed building has to be one of the best. Opened in 1889, it was the first luxury hotel and boasted an array of pioneering features – it was the first building to be lit with electricity. With the forecourt lined with parked sports cars when I visited, it seems that – in the face of considerable competition – it is still managing to pull in guests with money.

But what particularly fascinates me about the Savoy is how it stands on the site of so much history. It would be worth writing about the hotel alone, yet there is a bigger story here that is worth telling.

Riverside palace and paupers’ hospital

Head behind the Savoy Hotel to the quiet streets where staff smoke cigarettes during breaks in their shifts and you’ll come across something that is many ways is quite unexpected. The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, which (three walls at least) dates from 1512, is all that survives from the time when there was a paupers’ hospital here. Provided for in the will of King Henry VII for 100 “pour and nedie” men, the institution was re-founded by Mary I and then enlarged by Queen Elizabeth I.


The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy

The hospital foundation was formally dissolved in 1702 and most of the complex was demolished in the early 19th century for re-development and to allow for the construction of Waterloo Bridge. But sandwiched between office blocks and the Savoy Hotel, the chapel – originally known as the Chapel of St John the Baptist – can still be visited during the week and stands in an attractive (but gated) garden, with a small patch of grass. The stained glass windows, one of which is dedicated to the Queen’s Jubilee, are particularly attractive and the painted blue and gold ceiling is exquisite.

Savoy Hospital was built on the ruins of Savoy Palace, which was constructed by Peter of Savoy on land granted to him by Henry III in 1246 “on condition of yielding yearly at the Exchequer three barbed arrows for all services”. In Medieval times the Strand was lined with a series palaces occupied by the aristocracy who wanted to be as close to the centre of Royal power at Westminster as possible. Savoy Palace, lying where the Savoy Hotel and Savoy Theatre are today, was perhaps the greatest of these riverside residences.

It became the home of John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III who inherited by marriage the title and lands of the Dukes of Lancaster. But as Gaunt was blamed for the introduction of the poll tax, it was razed in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 “so that not an upright nor beam was left, but every single thing was burned”. Although the Savoy name has survived, no physical evidence of Savoy Palace remains above ground.

The plan for Savoy Hospital may have been on King Henry VII’s mind as early as 1505, but work had certainly begun before his death in 1509 and construction seems to have been finished by 1517. Engravings showing the institution – which are on display at the Queen’s Chapel today – later depict an extensive network of buildings, including a sizeable dormitory which was larger than Westminster Hall, as well as three chapels (as well as St John the Baptist, they were dedicated to St Catherine and Our Lady).

Although it survived the Great Fire, by then it wasn’t being used as a pauper’s hospital. The Tudor historian John Stow noted that the institution was being misused by “loiterers, vagabonds and strumpets”. It was not properly endowed so gradually fell into decay and in 1702 was formally dissolved. The historian John Strype described the building it in 1755:

“This Savoy House is a very great and at this present a very ruinous Building. In the midst of its Buildings, is a very spacious Hall, the Walls three Foot broad at least, of Stone without, and Brick and Stone inward. The Ceiling is very curiously built with Wood, and having Knobs in due Places hanging down, and Images of Angels holding before their Breasts Coats of Arms, but hardly discoverable. On one is a cross Gules between four Stars, or else Mullets. It is covered with Lead, but in divers Places perished, where it lies open to the Weather.”

And Strype also described how the “large Hall” way then then “divided into several Apartments” that were partly used by a Cooper “for the stowing of his Hoops, and for his Work”. Other sections were used for £two Marshalseas for keeping Prisoners, as Deserters, Men prest for military Service, Dutch Recruits, &c.”

One of the last images of what remained of Henry VIII’s grand hospital, showing it in 1816 in ruins following a fire, is on display today. It was then demolished between 1817 and 1823. But the Queen’s Chapel of Savoy survived and a picture from 1820 depicts it having a flagstone floor and oak box pews, some of the latter included benches, tables and even curtains. The chapel itself was badly damaged by three fires in the 19th century and on each occasion it was re-built.

Today, the Queen’s Chapel of Savoy is a private royal chapel of Her Majesty The Queen. “We honour Her Majesty as our Queen, and in right of her Duchy of Lancaster,” it notes on its website. “Yet we do not forget the prime purpose for our existence. The chapel is a sacred space where we gather to experience the power and love of the living God of earth and heaven in sacrament, worship, prayer and music, set in ‘the beauty of holiness.”


Inside the Queen’s Chapel of Savoy

Lavish theatre

The first Savoy Theatre opened on 10th October 1881 on land where the Savoy Palace and Savoy Hospital had previously stood. Accounts noted that it “was situated on a site which, though rich in historical associations, was also rich in the olfactory sense, Mr Rimmel’s scent factory being close by as was Burgess’s Noted Fish-Sauce Shop”.

Built by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte and designed by C.J. Phipps, the Savoy seated 1,292 people on three tiers with four levels: stalls and pit, balcony, circle, and amphitheatre and gallery at the top. The interior decoration, by Collinson and Locke, was “in the manner of the Italian Renaissance” with white, pale yellow and gold predominating, including a gold satin curtain, red boxes and dark blue seats. The Times newspaper was impressed, commenting: “A perfect view of the stage can be had from every seat in the house.” It added that it “is admirably adapted for its purpose, its acoustic qualities are excellent, and all reasonable demands of comfort and taste are complied with.”

The Savoy was very much ahead of its time, boasting numbered seating, a queueing system for the pit and gallery and free programme booklets. It was also the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. “The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres,” said Carte, in an attempt to explain why he had introduced electric light at the venue. “As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.”

The generator – supplied by Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb – was sited on open land near the theatre. However it proved inadequate to power the whole building, so while the front-of-house was electrically lit, the stage was initially lit by gas. Once the new technology was up-and-running, it was praised by the Times as superior to gaslighting. And although gas lights remained as a back-up, they were rarely used.


Carte originally intended to call it the Beaufort Theatre, in a nod to ‘Beaufort Buildings’, the name given to the site when he bought the freehold to the land in 1880 for £11,000. However, he explained in a letter to the Daily Telegraph why he had instead opted for the name Savoy Theatre: “On the Savoy Manor there was formerly a theatre. I have used the ancient name as an appropriate title for the present.”

The venue, which was made from red brick and Portland stone and initially had its main entrance on Embankment, started by showcasing a series of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. Known as Savoy Operas, the theatre opened with the composers’ Patience work and it subsequently premiered the last eight of their pieces. Later in its history, the first public performances of Oscar’s Wilde’s Salome and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit were performed at the Savoy.

Richard’s son Rupert D’Oyly Carte extensively modernised the theatre in 1929, bringing in the designer Frank A Tugwell. Basil Ionides was responsible for the décor, with gold and silver walls and the ceiling was painted to resemble the sky. While it was designated a Grade II* listed building in 1973, the theatre was gutted by a fire in February 1990 which ruined everything bar the stage and backstage areas. English Heritage blocked a proposal to construct a brand new, modern building in its place and it was so restored as close to its 1929 designs as possible.


The Savoy Theatre re-opened in 1993 and has in recent years predominantly been used a venue for musicals. It is currently showing Dream Girls.

Pioneering luxury hotel

Profits from the hugely successful theatre were invested in building the Savoy Hotel. The luxury establishment – the first of its kind in Britain – was opened by Richard D’Oyly Carte on 6th August 1889 and featured innovations such electric lights, electric lifts and hot and cold running water in the marble-decorated bathrooms. And it soon became popular with the rich and the powerful, including royalty, who enjoyed elegant dining and the very best in entertainment.

Designed by architect Thomas Edward Collcutt, and based on the opulent hotels that already existed at the time in America, it boasted 268 bedrooms, the majority of which had private en-suite bathrooms. Even the largest of London hotels had until then only four or five of the latter.


Savoy Hotel lobby

Carte hired Cesar Ritz as general manager who created “a little army of hotel men for the conquest of London” to operate the venue. But while Ritz, Auguste Escoffier (the first celebrity chef) and their other partners attracted wealthy clientele and helped revolutionise the notion of eating out, in 1897 they were dismissed for cash and wines and spirits going missing. Ritz would go on to found his own hotel, named after himself, in Green Park.

The writer Oscar Wilde, who had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas in Room 346, was arrested for gross indecency. In court the presiding magistrate commented: “I know nothing about the Savoy, but I must say that in my view chicken and salad for two at sixteen shillings is very high. I am afraid I shall never supper there myself.” But the high prices didn’t seem to put off the other writers, artists and other society figures from flocking through the Savoy’s doors in the early days.

When the hotel was expanded between 1903 and 1904, with new east and west wings, the main entrance was moved to a courtyard, off the Strand, which also provided access to the Savoy Theatre. This glitzy spot is still where chauffeur driven cars arrive and are guests are greeted by smartly dressed doormen. The renovations also added Britain’s first serviced apartments and some guests lived in these for decades, benefiting from the hotel’s amenities. French artist Claude Monet, who painted Waterloo Bridge, Grey Day in 1903 from a hotel balcony, described the view of the Thames from the establishment as “the finest riparian coup-d’oeil’ in Europe”.

Modernisation and innovation continued in the 1920s: it was the first hotel with air conditioning, steam-heating, soundproofed windows, 24-hour room service and telephones in every bathroom. And it manufactured its own beds – the division, which became Savoir Beds in 1997, was later sold but continues to make the Savoy Bed for the hotel.

The Savoy didn’t start advertising from the 1930s, but decided to use this “intensive propaganda work to get more customers; this work is going on in the U.S.A., in Canada, in the Argentine and in Europe.” During the interwar years it became famous for its entertainment, with the hotel’s dance bands, the Savoy Orpheans and Savoy Havana Band, being described as “probably the best-known bands in Europe” and broadcast regularly from the hotel.” And in 1937 King George VI was the first reigning monarch to dine in a hotel.

But then the Second World War struck and the hotel became a lunch meeting spot for Winston Churchill and his cabinet. It was also a popular place to stay for US officers, diplomats and journalists. However, it is probably best known at this time for its air-raid shelters – “the smartest in London” – which attracted considerable protests when ordinary members of the public were barred from using them. But the hotel had to back down.

In the decade following the end of conflict, the hotel went from strength to strength. It hosted the Savoy Coronation Ball to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, attended by 1,400 people, including Hollywood stars, royalty and other notables. And in the 1980s the hotel was the regular haunt of Britain’s two most powerful newspaper magnates – Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch.

When the Savoy Theatre was renovated in the 1990s following a devastating fire, an extra level was added to enable a new health club to be created and a swimming pool installed above the stage. The hotel closed for a major refurbishment in 2007 which, by the time it re-opened three years later, had cost £220m. Many critics were impressed with the changes, with the Telegraph saying the “new Savoy has the X factor”. The article added: “The lobby is bigger and grander, and JUST THE SAME. You check in in an adorable drawing room or in the privacy of your own suite. It has a fireplace, it is English. You could not be anywhere else but The Savoy.”

Seeing the glitz and glamour on show today at the Savoy Hotel and Savoy Theatre, takes us right back to this historic site’s early days. It was here that in medieval times one of the most lavish riverside residences stood, which attracted the great and good. And now, all these years on, these star-studded venues are brining in the crowds.


First coin at the Savoy Hotel – being for a bottle of champagne. On display at the establishment today.


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