My little culture gig for this week (in my London Shoes) surprisingly took in a lot more than I had originally planned – and in doing so, I unexpectedly unfathomed some really historically interesting facts that I previously knew nothing about.
My initial theme for the week was originally musically orientated, as my intention was to seek out the exact location near to the Savoy Hotel, where one of my music heroes Bob Dylan, filmed the now legendary 1965 coverage of him portraying his classic song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ using ‘word boards’ to portray its lyrics.
However, when exploring the Savoy Hotel and its surrounding backstreets and alleys, I inadvertently stumbled across loads of interesting bit & bobs of info and events that are now part of London’s rich history.
So – focussing on just the Savoy Hotel itself for starters, it is steeped in history and amazing facts, some of which are as follows:-
- The Savoy has been a luxury hotel at its present site since 1889 – but the sites origin goes right back to the 13th Century when a Count Peter of Savoy built his Palace of Savoy there. Much later, King Henry VII turned the palace into a hospital for the needy, but by 1702, the hospital ceased operation and in 1864, all but the chapel burned.
- The property was then left unused until it was purchased by impresario Richard O’Dyly Carte, who built the Savoy Theatre there, and decided the site needed a luxury hotel such as those that had sprung up in America.
- Everyone knows that London ‘cabbies’ have to endure and pass the infamous ‘Knowledge’ qualification to be able to work the London streets – one standard of which is for the taxi to be able to turn a radius of 25 feet (8 metres) – and that is because that is the radius of the Savoy’s ‘turning circle’ of the road forecourt directly outside the hotel’s main entrance.
- The ‘turning circle’ is also one of the only places in London that requires cars to drive on the right side of the road instead of the left. This is so Savoy patrons can board and exit from the driver’s side of a car.
- In the foyer of the Savoy Hotel there is an art deco sculpture of a black cat known as “Kaspar” – and it is specifically there to ward-off bad luck. In 1898, wealthy diamond dealer planned a dinner party for 14 guests, but one dropped out at the last minute. One of the guests just happened to mention the old superstition that 13 dinner guests meant the first one to get up from the table would soon die. Apparently, the diamond dealer laughed off this old wives tale and got up first to leave —and was shot dead two weeks later!!!!
As a result of this single incident, right up until 1927, the hotel always had a member of staff dine with parties of 13 to prevent another death.
Beyond 1927 to date, the staff member has been replaced by the statue of Kaspar the cat. When not on “dinner duty”, Kaspar sits in a display case in the hotel’s foyer.
- Historically, the Savoy was the first hotel to have electric light, ensuite bathrooms and electric ‘lifts’ – plus room service that was operated by a “speaking-tube” connected to the restaurant.
- In 1903 artist Claude Monet – painted his famous ‘Waterloo Bridge’ from the window of his room whilst staying at the Savoy.
- Over the years the Savoy Hotel has held thousands lavish parties. For one particular bash in 1905 its courtyard was flooded with a metre of water for a Venetian style party held by an American millionaire – and a silk-lined gondola carried diners around, also a 5ft-high cake was carried in by a baby elephant.
- In 1928, on winning his third British Open, the golfer Walter Hagen was heard to boast that he’d hit a ball off of the roof of the Savoy and right across the Thames. In 1970, the UK’s Tony Jacklin, upon winning the Open, followed Hagen’s well publicised deed, and did exactly the same thing.
- The Savoy Hotel has had many a famous guest since it opened, such as Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier, Claude Money, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, and many more
- It has a number of “personality suites”, including one named after the German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich. When Marlene Dietrich stayed at the Savoy she would request exactly twelve pink roses, every day. To this day, her suite at the Savoy is still continuously supplied with a dozen pink roses
Apart from the Savoy Hotel itself – the immediate streets and alleys surrounding the hotel, also have their own place in London’s history – for example:-
- Around the back of the Savoy Hotel, in Carting Lane – stands a historic piece of Victorian engineering – London’s last remaining “sewage lamp” – known affectionately as “Iron Lilly”
The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp was invented in the late 19th century, and in London these lamps were used for two main reasons:-
(1) to burn off the smells and germs from London’s sewer system, and (2) as a low cost, low maintenance way to keep London lit up at night.
Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer, with the gas then being diverted into the lamp on the street above. The lamp remained lit 24/7, powered at least partly by an almost unlimited amount of “waste” (e.g. poop) from guests staying at the nearby Savoy Hotel. Unfortunately, a reversing lorry accidently knocked over the lamp some years ago, but it was subsequently restored by engineers from Thames Gas and is now protected by Westminster Council.
- The Savoy Theatre adjacent to the hotel – was the very first building in the world to be lit throughout by electric lighting.
- The Savoy Chapel, or the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, located next to the Savoy Hotel, is a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, and was built in the early 1500’s as part of a charitable foundation under the terms of the will of King Henry V111
- A statue of Michael Faraday, the scientist famous for his work around conduction electricity, stands in Savoy Place. The statue depicts Faraday posing with his famous electro-magnetic induction ring in one hand, while his other hand is raised as if he is in the midst of explaining it. It is sited alongside the Institute of Electrical Engineers building where Faraday studied – now known as the Institution of Engineering and Technology.
- The Coal Hole pub is a Grade II listed boozer which is part of the Savoy Court, itself an extension of the Savoy Hotel complex, and was built in 1903. The Coal Hole occupies what was once the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel.
In the Victorian times, the pub was a ‘song and supper’ club where regulars were encouraged to sing comic songs and sentimental ballads. Gilbert and Sullivan regularly performed here after rehearsals, and the pub was well known as a den for ‘oppressed husbands forbidden to sing in the bath’.
So – back to the reason why I originally chose this location…..Bob Dylan!!
In 1967, film director and producer D.A. Pennebaker made and released “Don’t Look Back”, which was a documentary that captured Dylan’s very first headline tour of the UK in 1965.
This b&w film opens with Bob Dylan performing his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ – at the back of the Savoy Hotel (where he was staying), at the intersection of Savoy Hill Road and a dead-end alley called Savoy Steps.
This specific clip is said to be the very first music video, and the unique thing about it is that Dylan does not sing or lip-sync the song to the camera – instead, he delivers the entire lyric via a series of ‘word boards’ which he displays and then tosses aside as the song progresses – (it’s well worth watching it on YouTube)
The song itself, contains the brilliant opening line:- “Johnny’s in the basement, Mixing up the medicine – I’m on the pavement, Thinking about the government” – and for me personally, it contains a lyric segment which I always used to quote at work whenever ‘smoke & mirror’ corporate politics were flying about:- “You don’t need a weather man, to know which way the wind blows”.
Following quite an enjoyable day in and around the Savoy, then what better way to refresh myself than to have a ‘cheeky’ one and a bowl of chips, at the famous ‘Coal Hole’ pub.
Hope you find this topic as interesting as I did