Author Journal / History / Second World War

Champagne and Shrapnel

Amy Helen Bell.

Champagne and ShrapnelLast year the Savoy Hotel in London unveiled its £220 million refurbishment, which sought to restore the glamour of the hotel’s illustrious past. The renovation uncovered the glass dome in the Winter Garden gazebo for the first time since the Second World War, when the Savoy was the hub for wartime politicians, foreign journalists and other dignitaries.  Luxury hotels played an important role during the war. They were places where people of different nationalities, classes and attitudes mixed. The Savoy in particular was a hotspot of late-night socializing of the respectable and the less-so in its restaurants,  playing host to both Communist demonstrations and  high-level bureaucratic meetings. Many diners came in hopes of catching a glimpse of the powerful, if not famous.  Journalist Charles Graves noted in his diary that he spent most of his time in the Savoy and other smart hotels and restaurants, in hopes of “casually encountering Cabinet Ministers.” (Charles Graves, Off the Record. London: 1941, v.)

Most wealthy Londoners had shut up their homes at the beginning of the war, as large households became impossible to run without the servants who could earn better wages in wartime factories. For those remaining in London, luxury hotels offered a place to live and a refuge from the daily drudgeries  of war- queuing for  rations, cooking meals with very little gas and wrestling with the nightly blackout curtains. Hotels also provided expensive food and wines no longer available privately, as their restaurants were exempt from rationing. The government tried to soften this inequality by insisting that no restaurant meal cost more than five shillings, nor consist of more than three courses. The chef at the Savoy struggled to reconcile his patriotic thrift with the restaurant’s bill of fare, inventing the carrot-based Woolton pie and shouting at the waiters, “Tell them it’s steak or ships!” (Stanley Jackson, The Savoy. London, 1964, 179-180).

Lady Diana CooperThe Savoy Grill during the war was ‘the one place in London’, according to socialite Lady Diana Cooper, wife of MP Alfred ‘Duff’ Cooper, who did her wartime entertaining there. It provided late nights and a heady mixture of people: “Without music and apparently without closing  time, you are certain to always find bits of the Cabinet  there….Workers off their shifts, actors, writers, the Press, Mayfair’s hostesses who have abandoned their private houses and still want to entertain – they are all grazing at the Savoy Grill.” (Diana Cooper, Trumpets from the Steep. London: 1960, 66.)

The Savoy also boasted the most luxurious air raid shelters in London.  In the early days of 1940 the Abraham Lincoln Room and the adjoining Pink and Green Rooms were converted into shelters with two hundred  beds installed in separate curtained bays. Special compartments were set aside for the conferences of important individuals, and there was even a compartment for snorers. The air-conditioned, gas-proof and sound-proof dormitory was equipped with its own maids, valets, waiters and nurses, with coffee room and a small bar one floor up. This was a far cry from the conditions for the majority of Londoners in 1940, who were sleeping on the floors of Tube Stations in their thousands, with buckets for toilets and no water.

On September 15, 1940, Communist Party organizer Phil Piratin led a demonstration at the Savoy to protest the difference in shelter accommodations for rich and poor. It was hoped that the presence of so many American journalists would help to publicize the event abroad.  A party of seventy Communists from Stepney presented themselves at the door of the Savoy when the air raid warning siren went off. They were admitted to the shelters, and Phil Piratin recalls the reaction of the East Enders,  “Shelters,” they said, “why we’d love to live in such places!” (Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red. London: 1948, 73-74). After the all-clear sounded twenty minutes later, they were politely but firmly shown the door…the back door.

The history of luxury hotels like the Savoy during the war challenge our nostalgic views of universality  and fair shares during what was called ‘the People’s War’.  Hotels and high end restaurants allowed the wealthy to evade the restrictions of rationing, and those from the middle and upper classes to mingle more freely, while the working class were relegated to the kitchens and back staircases. In diary and memoir descriptions of hotel restaurants and shelters, solidarity is within social classes, not between them.

Yet luxury hotels were not immune from the common fate of many of London’s buildings during the war: bombing. The Savoy, like most of the grand hotels, suffered bomb damage in the Blitz of 1940-1. But unlike the Carleton and the Langham hotels, the Savoy was not forced to close, but carried on. That the last of the wartime damage was repaired as recently as last year shows the enduring legacy of the Blitz on modern London. ■

Amy Helen Bell is Assistant Professor of History at Huron University College in Canada, and the author of London Was Ours, telling the story of London under siege during the Blitz, through the diaries and memoirs of those that lived it.

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