Lillie Langtry & King Edward VII
George Albert Sweetman was seventeen years old, the only boy, and breadwinner, in a family of four younger sisters and his widowed mother. It took him over two hours each morning, to walk from his house in Stepney, to his place of work, at the recently built Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. He had been employed as a ‘call boy’, which is someone who calls to the performers in their dressing room, telling them when it is time for them to go on stage.
George had worked at the theatre for six months, since April 1892, and although he was employed as a call boy, his duties actually consisted of a great deal more, including cleaning and sweeping, running errands, and even making tea and sandwiches. These extra duties didn’t worry George too much, as they often led to him receiving tips from the cast and staff of the theatre, as well as being able to take home various cakes and sandwiches, that had been left over, for his family.
Life for a seventeen-year-old boy, in those days, was not just all work, and no play, George was a full-bloodied, heterosexual male, and had his eye on Mary, a girl about his own age, who worked in a nearby bakery. Whenever he visited the bakery, he would regale Mary with tales about the theatre, telling her stories about all the famous stars he knew, and how much they relied on him. Mary was infatuated by George and his stories, and said how much she wished that she could one day visit the theatre, and meet all his friends.
Being born within the sound of Bow Bells, is supposed to make you a Cockney, and as Stepney was most definitely within that vicinity, George was a Cockney, both by birth and by nature. For Cockneys are supposed to be wily, scheming people, always one step ahead of what is going on, and George put his true Cockney ideals into play when he heard Mary say she would do anything to have him show her around the theatre. Anything?
He asked her if she knew Church Street, which was Romilly Street’s former name. Its name was changed in 1937 when it was renamed after Sir Samuel Romilly, the Solicitor-General and law reformer, who was born nearby. Mary did indeed know the street, and confirmed that it was the street that the theatre backs onto. George said that if she came to the stage door, which is in that street, at nine o’clock the following night, he would let her in, and show her around.
Mary jumped at the offer, and was so eager that she was there at the stage door at 8.45. Dead on the stroke of nine the door swung open, and George let her in. She could hardly believe her eyes, for instead of his usual collarless shirt, neckerchief, braces and flat cap, he was wearing a dark suit, white shirt with a stiff collar and a tie, all of which had once belonged to his late father, but now fitted him reasonably well.
George took Mary’s hand and hurried her along the passageway, past the stage-door-keeper’s office, which was empty, as he knew old Sid always slipped out to the pub for half an hour at about this time. It was like a maze in there, with stairs and more passageways, twisting and turning all the time. Mary wondered how George could find his way about without getting lost. At one point, a door suddenly burst open and a young lady dressed in just her underwear, looked out and called out to George, asking him to be a dear and fetch Millie, the seamstress for her, as her costume had burst a seam again, and she was due on stage in fifteen minutes. George quickly pushed Mary into a doorway behind him and told the young lady he would do it right away.
George continued to lead Mary along yet more passageways, where the faint sound of music could be heard in the distance. He paused for a moment at the seamstress’s room, and reported the burst seam as he had been asked, then whisking Mary ever onwards, to where the sounds of music was now getting louder. George put his finger to his lips, indicating for Mary to be quiet. He peered around the side of a heavy draped curtain, and then pulled Mary towards him and whispered for her to have a look at what was happening on stage. Mary could hardly believe her eyes, when she saw the stage itself; it was enormous, and in the very centre of the stage was the figure of a man, singing, while all along the edge of the stage were flaming gas-jets encased in brass shells, illuminating the whole scene. Mary asked who the man was, and why did he sing like a woman? George could hardly contain himself from laughing out loud, as he pulled Mary closer to him and whispered to her that the ‘man’, who was singing, was not a man at all, but Vesta Tilley, who always dressed as a man.
Mary found it difficult to comprehend why a woman would want to dress as a man, but who was she to question such goings on, after all, this was the theatre!
Mary was infatuated by what she was seeing, and was by this time completely under George’s spell. She let herself be guided by him, not even bothering to ask where they were going next. George paused for a moment and asked if she had ever drunk champagne. Before she could answer, he pushed open a door in front of him and led her into a room that was lit by six large crystal chandeliers that sparkled and shone their reflections onto the cut glass mirrors that lined the surrounding walls. Along one wall was a bar lined with bottle after bottle of champagne, lying in wait, for the onslaught, that took place every night as soon as the interval occurred. This bar only served champagne, and was used, almost like a club by some people, many of whom didn’t even bother to watch the show. Hoping that he wouldn’t be recognised in his new “posh” suit, the young George affected an accent and asked for two glasses of champagne. No problem there, the two ‘free’ glasses of champagne were forthcoming immediately.
At one end of the bar, stood a crowd of about six men, with a large, red-faced gentleman, holding court in the centre, this was Frank Otter. George wasn’t exactly sure who Otter was, or what he did, but he did know that he was very rich and apparently something to do with the theatre, so he decided that he and Mary should move to the other end of the bar, in case he was recognised.
As George continued to point out minor celebrities to Mary, Otter and his crowd were getting louder and louder. Mary expressed her concern to George when she saw another man, who looked very drunk, push his way into the centre of Otter’s crowd, and started to address them. George told Mary not to worry too much about it, as from what he had heard Mr Otter could take good care of himself.
At that point, Otter shouted at the man in a very loud voice, causing everyone in the bar to look round. He told the man that this was a private conversation between gentlemen and friends, and as he was from neither category that he should kindly shut up and go away.
The drunk looked bleary eyed at Otter, as he pushed his outstretched arm out of his way and took centre floor again. He started to tell the group in a very slurred voice, that he had been coming to this theatre and using this bar since it opened, and no one was going to stop him.
Otter stubbed his cigar out in an ashtray on the bar, seized a bottle of champagne, and rapped the man over the head with it. As the man fell to the floor, completely knocked out, Otter calmly turned to one of the bar staff, and told him to get someone to throw this damn nuisance out, adding that he had just ruined what was once, a perfectly splendid evening.
As staff ran about, Otter seemed to be the only person in the room, not fazed by the commotion. Mary was by this time starting to get very worried and wanted to leave, but it seemed that George still had other things on his mind. He was just about to get another glass of champagne for her, when he saw someone enter the room that made his heart skip a beat. He swivelled round, hoping against all hope this person would not see him. He carefully put his glass back down on the bar, and whispered to Mary to do the same, telling her to follow him out of there as quickly as possible.
Mary knew something was seriously wrong, as she had seen George look at this woman as she had entered the room. His face was still drained of its colour, even as they hurried down yet another corridor, well away from the glittering bar and that woman. After some time, he stopped and explained to her that the women was none other than the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and she was the governor of the theatre at that moment, and was a very important person, and would have recognised him. The great Oscar Wilde, he explained, had just written a play for Sarah Bernhardt, that’s how important she is.
Wilde had indeed written ‘Salome’ for Ms Bernhardt, but it had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain that same year, while still in rehearsal.
Mary was worried, not so much for herself, but for George, who she knew could have been fired on the spot by this woman if she saw him escorting a young female around the theatre when he was supposed to have been working.
Ever the optimist, George insisted that he had one more surprise for her before she left. This time he led her down a narrow flight of stone stairs and into a dark, damp smelling basement, telling her not to be frightened, and to keep hold of his hand. He stopped in front of a large wooden wine rack, with just a few empty bottles stacked in it. He then pulled on one side of the rack, opening it up, like a door, to show a narrow passageway on the other side. He then lit a match and then a torch, which he took out of a holder on the wall, and started to lead her through the passageway, with their long shadows reflected upon the walls by the flames from the torch as they went.
A few yards further on, he stopped again in front of another door and placed the torch into another wall holder. He asked Mary if she was hungry, but by this time Mary was in no mood for food or more adventures, she just wanted to go home.
George however, had one more surprise in mind for Mary. Kettners, probably one of the most famous restaurants in London, was now no more than a few feet away, and entering through this secret passage meant that unlike the normal diners to the restaurant, they did not need a reservation. George explained that they had just come through a secret passage, which led from the Palace Theatre to the basement of Kettners.
Kettners restaurant was first opened by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III in 1867, at 29 Romilly Street. It’s close proximity to the West End theatres, helped make it a favourite of royalty, and the upper echelons of society. It is housed in four interconnecting Georgian houses, over five floors with the ground floor being used as the public restaurant area, and a warren of private rooms, upstairs known as Cabinets Particuliers. It was in one of these rooms that King Edward VII allegedly entertained his mistress Lillie Langtry.
George put his finger to his lips, indicating Mary to be quiet, as he opened a cupboard and took out a long white apron, which he quickly put on, and told her, to wait there for him. Now looking every inch a waiter, he pushed open a pair of swing doors, which led into the kitchens and disappeared inside. Within one minute Mary heard the noise of someone approaching and quickly ducked down out of sight as the doors swung open again, and a waiter carrying a silver salver with plates of food upon it, strode through and out another door on the other side of the room. Two seconds later the doors flew open again, but this time it was George, also carrying a silver salver. He told her to follow him, and two minutes later they were in a small room, not much bigger than a cupboard, where George had placed a chair up against the door, in case they were disturbed. He had constructed a makeshift table by using an upturned wooden crate, using a sheet of newspaper on the top as a tablecloth, and in the centre was the dish he had brought in from the kitchen, still piping hot and steaming. He asked Mary if she had ever had pheasant; to which she relied that she hadn’t, but was more than willing to try it. This is where he found out that he had forgotten the cutlery. They laughed and giggled as they picked away at their luxurious meal with their fingers, and Mary told George what a wonderful time she was having.
A loud bang from outside the door caused them to stop talking and stare in silence at the door, as if waiting for it to crash open at any moment. This was followed by a voice from outside, asking if there was anybody in the room? Mary and George sat motionless, wondering what was going to happen next. The door handle moved, and rattled, as someone tried the door, but the chair that George had placed there, stopped whoever it was from getting in. Whoever it was outside, then spoke again, but this time, as if to someone else, saying that the door is locked sir, there can’t be anyone in there. This was followed by another, much lower voice, answering the first one, telling them to lead on Jenkins.
From inside the little room, George and Mary listened, as at least two, maybe three pairs of footsteps walked away from the door, and gradually grew fainter, before finally disappearing altogether. George quickly pulled the chair away from the door, led Mary out into the hallway once again, and whisked her up a flight of stairs, which led to a small landing, lined with two doors on each side. A man was standing at one of the doors, and bidding goodnight in a reverent manner to whoever was inside, calling them sir, and ma’m. George pulled Mary into a dark recess, and silently watched as the man walked past them.
George stuttered, as he told Mary that the man was the Prince of Wales’ manservant, he had seen him many times at the theatre with the Prince and his fancy lady, Lillie Langtry. Mary could hardly believe what she was hearing as it suddenly dawned on her that it must have been the same man outside the door downstairs, and those other footsteps they heard must have been none other than the Prince of Wales and Lillie Langtry, and she, an ordinary shop-girl was standing just a few feet away from them.
George knew that they had to get out of the building as quickly as possible, as the Prince’s manservant could return at any time, and if they were caught anywhere near him, they would be in severe trouble. George rushed Mary through yet another passageway, to where he knew they would be safe, but as he turned the last corner he crashed straight into someone, sending both the other man and himself, sprawling onto the floor. He prayed to himself not to let it be the Prince’s manservant again, and sure enough his prayers were answered, as a helping hand came down towards him, and lifted him to his feet. The younger man whom he had collided with had already got up, and was brushing himself down, but it was the larger of the two men, the one wearing the green carnation in his buttonhole, who had helped George to his feet. He smiled at George and in a faint Irish accent asked if he was all right, to which George assured him that he was. The man then turned to his young companion, and said, “I don’t know how you manage it Bosie, you always seem to bump into the most handsome people”.
Not wanting to waste any more time, George and Mary excused themselves and ran as fast as they could. They didn’t bother to go back through the secret tunnel to the theatre, but ran directly through Kettners restaurant, much to the surprise of both the diners, and the staff.
It had started to rain as they got out into Romilly Street, but that was the least of Mary’s worries. She just stood in the middle of the street and looked around her, to Kettners restaurant opposite, and then to the stage door of the Palace Theatre, where this adventure had began just a couple of hours earlier. George looked at Mary and jokingly asked, “Same time tomorrow then?” There was silence for almost a whole minute, and then they both started to laugh, and they didn’t stop until George had seen Mary to her nearby home.
George and Mary are sadly, no longer with us, but Kettners still thrives. You probably won’t find our future King using the secret tunnel between the Palace theatre and the restaurant these days, but you will still find an elegant dining experience there. Kettners has never tried to become a part of the in-scene, preferring instead, to cater for the rich and famous, who want nothing more than good food, and plush, intimate surroundings.
During the late 1900s people such as the author Agatha Christie and crooner, Bing Crosby dined there regularly. Jeffrey Bernard, (of he who is unwell fame), also held court there, along with the jazz singer George Melley. Today it is a different crowd, and by next year it could have changed again, but one thing you can be sure of, is the fact that Kettners will still be there, come what may.
Further down the street from Kettners, at number 33 Romilly Street, and the corner of Greek Street, is the Coach and Horses pub (which I have dealt with elsewhere in this book). To give a brief outline on the pub, there has been a pub on this site since the 1720s, but the present pub owes its fame, or maybe notoriety, to its recently retired landlords, Norman Balon, who was reputed to be the rudest Landlord in London.
The Coach and Horses has been the favourite watering hole of the media and arts crowd for many years. Frequented by such luminaries of the British school of acting, as Peter O’Toole and Tom Baker, it was also, for some time reputed to be the favourite meeting place of Private Eye columnists, including its celebrity Editor Ian Hislop, and former Editor Richard Ingrams.
One can walk the length of Romilly Street in just two or three minutes. The south side of the street is taken up by the backs of the Palace Theatre and other large buildings with frontages facing onto Shaftesbury Avenue, while the north side, has developed in relation to the character of present day Soho, with many restaurants, clubs and bars, including, as already mentioned, Kettners Restaurant.
The first reference to houses being built in this street was in 1678, when just nine ratepayers are listed. There doesn’t seem to be any record of an earlier name for the street; the current name stems from the lawyer Samuel Romilly, who lived just around the corner, and was successful in campaigning to abolish the death penalty for petty crimes such as theft during 1810.
During the 1950s and 60s Soho was known as much for its crime and drugs, as for its theatres and restaurants. Thankfully, that side of its reputation has since subsided, and visitors and locals now feel much freer to walk the streets at night. The original ‘Ladies of the Night’ or ‘Street Walkers’, as they were often called, no longer ply their trades on the open streets as they did during the 50s and 60s, but they do still exist.
As recent as the 18th December 2008, three police officers from Charing Cross Clubs and Vice Unit visited a flat in Romilly Street, Soho, and issued a written notice against a young lady, who worked as a receptionist there, informing her that they intended charging her with “controlling prostitution for gain”. An organisation known as the ‘English Collective of Prostitutes’, spoke up for the young lady, stating that Soho has become one of the safest places for women in the sex industry to work, and as a receptionist, the young lady would be the women’s first line of defence against any possible violent attacks and exploitation.
The police responded by what was seen as a backdown, stating that they were familiar with this, and other flats in Soho, and that their visit was “to check the welfare of the occupants and to ensure that there are no juveniles or trafficked victims working at the location”. Needless to say the proposed charge against the young woman was dropped, and both the young lady and Romilly Street, lived to see another day.