6 August 1889: The Savoy hotel opens its doors

Staff at the Savoy, 1904 © Fairmount Group
Staff outside the Savoy entrance, 1904

If, upon walking into the Savoy hotel on its opening day in 1889, you felt a little out of place, you weren’t alone. London, after all, had never seen the like. Here on the Strand was a hotel that was American in size, and European in style. Rather fittingly for a hotel that is famous for witnessing some of the 20th century’s wildest celebrity antics, it was all based around the theatre.

In 1881, the theatrically named impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, built the Savoy Theatre to capitalise on the public’s appetite for operas by Gilbert and Sullivan. D’Oyly Carte hoped that by adding an adjoining hotel, he would be able to lure high-spending American opera buffs.

After nearly five years, the hotel designed by Thomas Edward Collcutt was finished, boasting electricity and lifts. It had 400 bedrooms, but only 70 bathrooms. D’Oyly Carte had originally envisaged 437 bathrooms. Did he expect his guests to be amphibious? asked one wag.

The shocking innovations didn’t end there. The new hotel even had a restaurant. It’s hard for us who are so used to eating out to appreciate the stir this caused. But even by 1889, polite society in Britain didn’t eat in public. It would take the irresistible aromas coming from celebrity chef August Escoffier’s Savoy kitchen to change that.

Yet, despite everything the new hotel had going for it, the Savoy was far from a guaranteed success. Something was missing – or rather, someone. And D’Oyly Carte knew exactly who that someone was.

Sunning himself on the French Riviera was the wunderkind of European hotels, César Ritz. Ritz was the fin de siècle’s turnaround king. Without his golden touch, The Grand Hotel National in Switzerland and the Frankfurterhof in Germany would have failed. Would Monsieur Ritz care to work his magic with the Savoy?

No way, replied the Swiss. The British were too stuffy, they ate in private, and they were more or less beyond redemption. He could, however, be prepared to attend the hotel’s launch on 6 August 1889, when he opened his friend Escoffier’s restaurant.

But D’Oyly Carte wouldn’t take no for answer, and presented the star hotelier with a blank cheque. Ritz eventually caved in, and agreed to lead the Savoy for many colourful years.