A memory of the Strand

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This story has been kindly contributed by Gerald Collins.

The Strand is the gateway to Temple Bar and the City boundary. Originally lined with palaces and mansions, the only reminder of these old estates today are the street names i.e. Essex Street, Villiers Street.

As a child in the early 1950’s my parents would take me to Lyons Corner House next to Charing Cross Station for tea. This was a great treat as there was waitress service (Nippies) and a small group of musicians played what seemed like pre-war tunes. Lyons Corner Houses, there were several, were the working class equivalent of the (posh) hotels.

Coutts, 440 Strand, 1968. Via Collage, London Picture Archive, catalogue number SC_PHL_01_532_68_1705.

I worked in the Strand in 1968 when I joined Shell Chemicals at Villiers House, then a recently built office development (I still have my account with the bank on the ground floor!). At lunch times I would stroll the Strand, sometimes from the Trafalgar Square and to the Law Courts. At the Law Courts end was Tom’s Coffee House early 18th century and later to become the first place to serve tea in London. Now it’s Twinings, and you can still visit the a teashop. Once on these lunchtime strolls I met Charlie Chaplin leaning on a stick (out of necessity) and his (last) wife.

Many of the buildings from previous centuries remain i.e. Coutts bank (the ‘Royals’ bank) and Somerset House (1790) being the oldest. The first all electric restaurant (No. 22) and theatre, the Savoy was financed by and for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including the Hotel. The Savoy Hotel is still the only building accessible for traffic on the right handside. It was also the home of the first BBC transmissions (radio) in 1923.

The Shell office at Villers House was damaged by fire in the 1970’s. A wood importing business with much paneling below our floor caught fire due to a frying pan being left on the cooker overnight! We therefore moved to a small office near the Embankment (Breams Buildings) which very shortly afterwards had window damage due to a nearby IRA carbomb and explosion!

Waterloo Bridge: looking north to Shell Mex House, 1966. Via Collage, London Picture Archive, catalogue number SC_PHL_02_0726_C10511.

I eventually transferred to Shell UK Materials at Shell-Mex House at the end of the 1970s. The front of this building is on the site of the Victorian 1,000 bed (the largest in London) Cecil Hotel, which was always much frequented by civil servants returning or in transit to the colonies. Shell were forced to keep the front of the Hotel when they demolished the old hotel in the early 1930s to put up their new modern office. This frontage became Cecil Chambers and I worked in what was previously a bedroom with original pictures of the old hotel on the walls.

Being a buyer I must have eaten at most of the restaurants in the area, including the Savoy Grill. On one occasion during the ‘Thatcher period’ I noticed at the next table Ted Heath the ex PM dining with a young man, probably a nephew. Being single, a yachtman and organ player it’s probable today the Sun would make something of it! My favourite restaurant was Simpsons in the Strand which only served traditional English fare with great empire decor to go with it. The basement bar was until quite recently off limits to women and in Victorian times the entire restaurant was a male preserve. The Charing Cross Hotel above the railway station also had a 1920’s atmosphere. A new invention at the time was the Strand Palace Hotel ‘Carvery’. Luncheon vouchers (value three shillings) were all the rage for staff and you were able to return to the Carvery for endless portions of meat and vegetables for no extra charge. Very popular. It’s as well I had took up running for the Shell Lensbury Club at this time!

My farewell to the Strand was in 1988 when I was given a lunch at the restaurant at the top of Shell-mex House, close to the clock face which is larger than Big Ben.

Hope Wolf

Hope Wolf

Dr Wolf was the Lead Researcher for Strandlines between 2011-2013 while working as a Teaching Fellow in Life Writing at King’s College London.

2 Comments

  1. valerie on 21 December 2019 at 11:21 pm

    While still at school, circa 1959, I had a holiday. Job at thé Lyons teashop near Charing cross station. There was a take away counter, I helped cuttin g breadrolls and inserting a pat of butter. I also helped prepare salads for the self service café section.
    I’m looking for a picture of it at that time. Any ideas? Thanks

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