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An interview with Savoy archivist Susan Scott

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By Hadeel Mohamed

There is a turning point in my interview with Susan Scott, the in-house archivist at The Savoy, in the moment following my faux-pas of detailing an fact I’d heard about the lamps outside the hotel. It turns out to be wholly untrue. But she is good-natured about my error and laughs me off, stating: “ That’s the thing, it’s not enough to tell good stories, you have to back them up; that’s why you need archiving!”.

I’d repeated the uban myth that the gas lamps that burn brightly on the Strand are powered by the sewers.

They are not.

The marshy area close to the river naturally gives off the methane that is captured to power the lamps. But the Dickensian twist that the stomping ground of the well-heeled brushes with sewage is just too good a story to be forgotten. This gets us talking about the number of untruths that are part of The Savoy hotel mythology. There is often  a large margin for error in what people, myself included, think they know about the Hotel and its surrounding site, and what the truth really is.

Susan had twice as many myths to tell me that she has heard about the Hotel in her time. It seems when a place has such a strong place in London’s history, the lines between memory and history blur. Some places are remembered so personally, and somewhere like The Savoy is almost a possession, evocative of a certain time that people guard preciously.

Susan remembers a particularly emotional time during a refurbishment: “when the hotel closed in 2007, a lot of furniture and things like that were being sold off, which happens quite often with hotels, but some people were quite upset about it. We may have had this particular decor, since, maybe, the 1980s. There is a high likelihood if you went back to the 1940s, and the 1920s the decor will have been completely different. So it is interesting when people want things to stay the same, as if things will stay the same forever and ever! It’s very amusing actually.”

Anecdotes and stories become a way for people to author their own history and leave their mark on a place instead of vice versa, and it speaks to the character of the establishment that The Savoy creates such vivid impressions in people’s minds.

The Savoy, which is often named London’s most famous hotel, has an illustrious and colourful heritage. It holds a prime location on the south side of the Strand near to Charing Cross Station, where the main entrance to the Hotel opens into Savoy Court (which sustains its own myth as the only street in the United Kingdom where cars must drive on the right).  Its palatial sign is a beautiful silver structure with stark green lettering that harks back to the Art Deco heritage of the establishment. It certainly fits a certain image of London: the name alone conjures a fantasy of old-world opulence and grandeur, which even Susan notes she had imagined as a little girl to be “impossibly glamorous”.

However, the side of the hotel I would be hearing about from Susan was decidedly less romanticised and more practical.

Her anecdotes add another novel dimension to the famous hotel that I did not know about: as a workplace. Susan explains: “It’s an office.  People work here, the same as anywhere else really. Sadly, we don’t all lounge around on satin chairs”.

I find despite the aloof beauty of its surroundings, I am greeted by very friendly smiles of attentive staff upon entry. I remark on this, and Susan assures me that this is something she hears very often: that “ordinary” people fear they may be banished from the threshold merely for attempting to get in. So much so that the hotel frequently receives letters from visitors expressing how welcome they felt. I can attest, the front hall was buzzing with warmth – however did they get such a chilly reputation?

“Perhaps it wasn’t always that way, 60 or 70 years ago. But,” she allows generously, “of course, there is no one around who remembers those days to ask!”

Change is the only permanent thing in life, if the turnover rate for the Savoy site is any example. Many people know of the Savoy Chapel, part of the Duchy of Lancaster but not many know of the site’s predecessors such as the Savoy Palace or Henry VII’s hospital which came after that. The Savoy site has a tumultuous history, where recent additions to the area (such as Savoy Way and Savoy Court) still echo the name, whereas places like the Savoy Steps and Savoy Hill are much older. And the poor chapel has been burnt so many times, you have to get to the Savoy Steps to see much of the older architecture like the stonework up the side. The site, in its time, has seen both a bloody peasant’s rebellion at the Savoy Palace in 1381 and a fire which burnt down the hospital in 1854.

In contrast, the hotel itself was always a bastion of modernity and progress, where technological advancements of the 19th century such as steel wires led to elevators. Richard D’Oyly Carte not only had created Britain’s first luxury hotel, but a hotel which was one of the first adopters of elevators at the time, which is why there are no main staircases in the hotel. This is why, Susan tells me, all the rooms here are large and grand, unlike the usual hotel fare where you will find the higher you go the cheaper rooms get, because people who can, will pay to avoid walking up flights of stairs.

Susan has seen it all: “You’ve caught me at an interesting time, I am coming to my 16 year anniversary, in a couple of weeks time. There have been a lot of changes in the hotel, and a number have occurred while I’ve been here.”

She has seen the management of the original hotel change from when it was part of the Savoy Group, to the arrival of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts in 2005. She arrived just as the Front Hall was being restored in 1996:

“A week after I started working here, after I came in June 1996, the Front Hall was closed for access, and there was a project to restore it using pictures from the Archives. They took out the mezzanine floor. The lights in the front hall are the original lights: they had them in store, so they found them and put them back and of course, it was even more beautiful when it opened all those months later’”

She has since seen the recent notable £220 million restoration that started in 2008 and was completed in 2010, which brought the hotel back to its essence.  Its architectural style is classic and timeless, while hotel administration and management is moving progressively forwards:

“The year before I came it was the ending of L’Ancien Regime, almost an unbroken chain dating back to the beginning of the hotel, where the managing director would find his successor and groom him to take over. I didn’t know it at the time, but in a way, that was all ending.”

The Savoy hotel remains a strong feature of the Strand in life and in memory, and people will probably never tire of talking about it for a good story.

More Myths about the Savoy

1. That Harry Craddock opened the American Bar in the 1920s

A woman got in contact with me: her mother-in-law had been the head barman way before Harry Craddock. There was nothing about her in the history books. I went to check, and there were two files on her in the archive. Two files! She had still been alive in the 1960s. She had been friendly with the D’OylyCarte family. The fact there was a woman as head barman, was quite incredible really. People are actually more interested in that, that there was a woman in that kind of position in that era. She had been quite colourful in some ways”.

This woman was Ada “Coley” Coleman. Harry Craddock was the next head barman. “He did not write the Savoy Cocktail book – that’s another myth – people always say that, but it is clear from the book that he didn’t, he compiled the recipes for it. I did a lot of research and I wrote a whole paper on cocktails, the history of cocktails in the Savoy and the American Bar.”

2. That Richard D’Oyly Carte was an Irishman

“He was born in London, and his parents were both born and raised in London or the home counties. If he did have any Irish ancestry in his family, it is possible it was on his mother’s side. “D’Oyly” was not a maiden name, it was a family name that seems to have been given to eldest sons. In my view, he is not Irish. The earliest mention I have seen of it is in Madame Ritz’s biography of her husband, Cesar Ritz, The Savoy’s first famous general manager. I just don’t understand it. I do feel it is just because it has been published before, that people do not want to contest it. That’s a funny thing, people don’t always do research very thoroughly, people will read something in a book, and they will repeat it. And they don’t check it, because it was published in a book, so it must be true!”

3. That the hotel is haunted

There is nothing about hauntings in the mythology of the Savoy site, or in the history books. Just before the start of the restoration project, a rumour had started after an engineer thought he heard a woman sighing after spending the night in a guest room:  “There was one room that didn’t get let to guests because it was near a lift and was a bit noisy. One day one of our staff stayed in this room, he heard some pipes; he was engineer and he must have known it was pipes. But people say these things when they’ve been walking around about the hotel late at night, or walking around the cellars on their own, and they see shadows… “

Although Susan spends a lot of her time being told outlandish things, she  accidentally created her own myth.  Inspired by the titters in the workplace over the supposed haunting, Susan wrote a ghost story and circulated it around a few colleagues. She found that soon people from the Hotel were asking her about a girl who died accidentally in the hotel, quoting back parts of her own story!

I didn’t know for sure whether they believed it, but I was fairly sure they didn’t. They were probably just winding me up a bit! So sadly there are no ghosts, but I think people like to believe they are…maybe their imaginations are stronger.”

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