The Berkeley London: From Mail Coaches to Modern Day Magnificence

How did a hotel named The Berkeley find itself in Knightsbridge’s Wilton Place rather than Berkeley Street or Berkeley Square in nearby Mayfair? To understand the answer, we need to travel two hundred years back in time.

Today, to reach the West Country from London’s Piccadilly is a morning’s drive, or perhaps a few pleasant hours in a high speed train out of Paddington Station. At the start of the 19th century, however, things were very different. Each night, six mail coaches would assemble outside the Gloucester Coffee House, an establishment that provided “good soups, dinners, wines and beds”. Located on the corner of Piccadilly and Berkeley Street, this was the coffee house that would later become the Berkeley Hotel.

A fine sight worth turning out for

Each evening a crowd would gather to watch men load sacks of mail, luggage and other packages on the roof while others would harness the team of four horses that would cover the first fifteen miles or so of the journey. They departed at 8.30pm sharp. Essayist and social commentator William Hazlitt, writing in the early 19th century, observed:

“The finest sight in the metropolis is the setting off of the mail coaches from Piccadilly. The horses paw the ground and are impatient to be gone, as if conscious of the precious burden they convey…

…Some persons think the sublimest object in nature is a ship launched on the bosom of the ocean; but give me for my private satisfaction the mail-coaches that pour down Piccadilly of an evening, tear up the pavement, and devour the way before them to the Land’s End.” 

Different times

Mail coaches would almost always travel at night. The roads were quiet and higher speeds could be achieved as a consequence. Punctuality was important – and fines were levied if the coaches left late. To ensure this didn’t happen, coachmen would carry a timepiece. This would be adjusted as the coach headed west – in those days each region ran to local time. Bristol was twenty minutes behind London.

Such stagecoaches had replaced post boys on horseback. Each carried four passengers inside, with space for several more outside and on top. They could cover the route from London to Bristol in around sixteen hours, compared to the 36 hours or so previously achieved by the post boys. Stagecoaches such as these had priority over all other road traffic on newly tarmacked roads. They were also exempt from paying tolls on the major turnpike routes. A post horn would be sounded as they approached the toll gates to alert the gatekeepers to their presence. If the tollgate keepers failed to open the turnpike gate in time, they’d be fined 40 shillings, a sizeable sum in those days. 

A dangerous business

Such travel, however, was a risky business. To combat the very real threat of highway robbery, the Post Office employed guards to protect the mail (not the passengers!) Dressed smartly in a scarlet and gold uniform, they were paid handsomely for their duties. Frequently they were ex-soldiers, armed with pistols and other weaponry that few others had the knowledge to use. This, combined with the speed of the mail coaches, meant that they were rarely the victims of a hold-up. Nevertheless, the job of a guard was a tough one. In winter, their position on the outside of the coach would often be intolerably cold, and if the coach broke down, they were expected to carry the mail on foot to its intended destination, no matter how far that turned out to be.

But although the mail service was efficient, with the coming of the railways it was cheaper and quicker to send post by train. By the mid 1840s, stagecoaches no longer gathered outside the Gloucester Coffee House, nor anywhere else in London. The Gloucester Coffee House was to become a hotel and in 1897, The Berkeley was born. It quickly became popular with London’s debutantes – and especially their parents. It seems the staff at The Berkeley could be trusted to ensure there was no unbecoming behaviour that could potentially ruin a girl’s reputation and her chance of a suitable marriage.

The Royal connection

The debutante tradition had begun back in 1780. King George III staged a May ball, launched as a fundraiser for a new maternity hospital to be named after his wife, Queen Charlotte. It became an annual event and soon snowballed into what was known as the London Season. Debutantes, who were women of noble birth, or at the very least those considered to be part of high society, were presented in court to the King (and subsequent monarchs). Aged seventeen or eighteen, it was the opportunity to don a beautiful white evening gown and elbow length white gloves. They’d mingle with others of equal social status at cocktail parties, dances and elite sporting events such as polo games. It became a rite of passage for the well-to-do, as close as they came to arranged marriages. The goal was to have secured an engagement by the end of the six month season.

By the time the debutantes came to The Berkeley, Queen Victoria’s long reign was entering its twilight years. The present monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, formally ended the practice in 1958 amid growing controversy that it was becoming possible for the ineligible to buy their way in via corrupt ball organisers. She was keen to put an end to the outdated practice and modernise the monarchy. Prince Philip fully supported his wife, calling the whole thing “bloody daft”. But it was the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, who was the most outspoken, saying:

 “We had to put a stop to it – every tart in London was getting in.”

In good hands

Nevertheless, at the turn of the century, a night at The Berkeley was a firm fixture on the debutante calendar. In 1900, Richard D’Oyly Carte – he of the Savoy – purchased the hotel. His portfolio also included Claridges, which he had acquired and refurbished in 1893 and Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, bought in 1898. Under D’Oyly Carte’s tutelage, the Berkeley cemented its place as a favourite of those willing to pay for the finer things in life. Air-conditioning, almost unheard of in Britain, was installed in the 1920s and in 1935, double-glazed windows rendered the hotel practically soundproof. It gained the attention of novelists wishing to find a suitably upmarket location for their stories. Dennis Wheatley chose the hotel as the setting in his 1932 book “Three Inquisitive People” and the prolific Edgar Wallace was also a fan.

As time went on, modernising and updating the hotel became increasingly difficult – the building just hadn’t been designed for the purpose. The owners of The Berkeley found a potential new site a little under a mile away in fashionable Knightsbridge. The site, opposite Hyde Park in Wilton Place, contained a number of buildings, and planning permission was granted to demolish them and build from scratch. Works commenced in 1968 and the new hotel would open four years later in 1972.

Danger of a different kind

One of the buildings that was demolished was the one that had housed Esmeralda’s Barn. It started out, in the 1950s, as a regular nightclub, but after that, its story was a little less conventional. The Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 legalised gambling in the UK and owner Stefan de Faye turned the place into a gambling club, keen to increase profits by tapping into this lucrative trade. But things would take a more sinister turn when the casino caught the eye of the Kray twins, London’s most notorious gangsters.

At the time, Ronnie Kray was locked up, serving a sentence in Wandsworth Prison. His brother Reggie had clashed with an unscrupulous West London landlord by the name of Peter Rachman, who had a fearsome reputation for ripping off and intimidating his tenants in Notting Hill. Rachman was a ruthless businessman and shameless womaniser, counting Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies among his conquests. He developed a three-step approach to dealing with what he deemed “unprofitable tenants”. First, he’d offer them a small amount of cash to leave. If that didn’t work, he’d make their lives hell by playing loud music all night from the neighbouring properties. If still they held out, he’d send in his heavies who would smash the place up and cut off their water and electricity. Once the tenants were persuaded that they’d prefer to live somewhere else, he could fix up the place and substantially increase the rent. The phrase “Rachmanism” was coined to refer to such landlords and remains in use today.

The Krays take possession

Reggie Kray decided to push Rachman out and demanded a sum of £5000 to leave him alone. Rachman handed over a cheque for £1000, still a sizeable amount, but it bounced. Irate, Kray’s thugs beat up Rachman’s henchmen and threatened to come after Rachman himself. Fearing for his life, Rachman told Reggie Kray of a business in Wilton Place that would provide a legitimate front for his other, considerably less lawful activities. De Faye didn’t have a say in the matter, of course, and was forced to sell Esmeralda’s Barn for £1000. Esmeralda’s Barn became the “respectable face” of the Krays’ empire, if such a thing could be said to exist. Artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, both compulsive gamblers, were frequent visitors, as were high-profile actors such as Barbara Windsor and Frank Sinatra. But it wasn’t long before the West End part of the business would prove hard to control. Esmeralda’s Barn closed its doors in 1963, paving the way for the building to form part of The Berkeley’s footprint.

A new hotel is born, and it’s a triumph

Designed by British architect Brian O’Rorke, the newly opened Berkeley was a triumph, not least for its rooftop swimming pool, then unique and still one of only a handful in the capital. In winter, this showpiece doesn’t go to waste – it’s transformed into a rooftop cinema until the temperatures rise once more. O’Rorke cleverly incorporated elements from the Piccadilly hotel, such as original fireplaces, blending them seamlessly with the sleek new fixtures. Wood panelling and decorative mouldings were installed in the Lutyens Room, which was renamed the Blue Bar twenty years ago.

From the outside, the new Berkeley was classically stylish to appeal to its loyal clientele. In 2016, an extraordinary glass canopy would embellish the Bath stone façade. 52 panes of glass bisected by carbon fibre fins, with bespoke touches of steel, teak and limestone, would create a breathtaking first impression. It’s perhaps no surprise that the architect firm responsible was Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners. This project was led by Ivan Harbour, but practice founder Richard Rogers is best known for iconic architecture such as that of the Lloyd’s Building across town and also the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The new canopy enhanced the interior too. Natural light now pours into the Blue Bar – once dark and intimate, there’s no hiding its imitation crocodile and marble floor or its white ostrich-like leather stools and chairs in bold blue crushed velvet. Robert Angell, the visionary designer who was once creative director at David Collins Studio, was also responsible for turning the Caramel Room opposite into what’s now known as the Collins Room. Carrara marble and mirrors, grey silk walls hand painted with Japanese flowers and chandeliers styled to look like translucent leaves give the illusion of being in a woodland glade of silver birch trees. Modernity has a place, but here fashion is timeless.

Fashionistas welcome

In fact, at The Berkeley, fashion also comes on a plate. Since 2005, afternoon tea at The Berkeley has been delivered in the guise of Prêt-à-Portea, and the fashionistas can’t get enough of this quirky homage to their favourite designers. This season, the Dior Couture Collection takes the form of exquisite cakes and biscuits. Reserve a table and you can soon be popping a miniature of the Bar Jacket first seen on the catwalk in 1947 into your mouth, or a replica of the Junon Dress from 1949 Paris in edible form. If you’re really keen you can book a two hour masterclass under the guidance of head pastry chef Mourad Khiat. Donning your souvenir “Shoe Chef” apron (trying saying that after a couple of glasses of champagne), you’ll make Jason Wu cherry mousse, Manolo Blahnik stiletto biscuits and Moschino sponge handbags.

What a difference two hundred years can make. Things have certainly stepped up a notch from the Gloucester Coffee House and its “good soups, dinners, wines and beds”.

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