'Sometimes Princess Diana was at the Savoy twice a day': Meet the old timers of London's grande dames

·6-min read
It’s not just London’s spectacular properties that have stood the test of time – a number of their distinguished staff have, too
It’s not just London’s spectacular properties that have stood the test of time – a number of their distinguished staff have, too

Old guidebooks bought cheaply off the internet have been getting me through lockdown. I have armchair-travelled to Italy and France in 1960 and to India in 1965.

I don’t think the Hides had a copy of Fodor’s Great Britain 1975 on a family day trip from Yorkshire to London that year. But I do remember seven-year-old me riding on the Tube, being allowed to choose a toy at Hamleys on Regent Street and, the ultimate treat, a knickerbocker glory in the café at Fortnum & Mason before the train home.

If we had stayed overnight, Fodor’s might have pointed us to moderate category hotels in Earl’s Court that started at £5. Or, we could have splashed out on luxurious properties, such as the Hilton on Park Lane or the Ritz, from £17 and up, including pesky 10 per cent VAT, which had been introduced two years earlier. But it’s not just London’s grande dame properties (which can reopen to leisure guests for overnight stays from Monday, May 17) that have stood the test of time… a number of their distinguished staff have too.

Peter Sweeney, 77

Doorman at The Goring, joined 1965

“I started off in the merchant navy taking Ten Pound Poms down to Australia. My younger brother got a job at The Goring and loved it, so he persuaded me to join in 1965, which wasn’t difficult because the pay was better. I’ve been here ever since… 56 years isn’t bad, is it?

Peter Sweeney, doorman at The Goring -   Original/Custom 
Peter Sweeney, doorman at The Goring - Original/Custom

In 1975, I remember Margaret Thatcher becoming leader of the Conservatives, and she’d often come to the hotel – she was a force to be reckoned with, and The Goring became her ‘go to’ for many a discreet meeting.

One of my favourite guests in those early days was the actress Jean Simmons. One evening she invited me for a beer at the King’s Arms, where I was gasped at by passers-by who presumed I was her boyfriend.

Another brush with fame involved being shouted at from a car by Elizabeth Taylor, who was appearing at the Victoria Palace Theatre. I asked her how she knew me and she just said: ‘It’s your beautiful blue eyes, everybody’s talking about you.’ It turned out that some of the other actresses from the show were staying at the hotel, and had taken quite a shine to me.

The Goring Bar - Nick Rochowski
The Goring Bar - Nick Rochowski

To look at, The Goring is a very different place today, but underneath it is exactly the same. All the rooms have been remodelled, but the feeling that you are family when you stay here and the bend-over-backwards service is just the same. I’ve been very well looked after over all these years. It’s like I’m part of a big extended family, too – that’s why I’m still here. Well, that and the money. I was paid 14 pounds and 10 shillings a week when I first started. Luckily it’s a bit higher than that now.”

Fodor’s 1975 description: “100 rooms with bath – the first hotel in the world to be so equipped: Well established, quiet, near Victoria Station.” 1975 room price from £17; 2021 price from £455 (thegoring.com).

Sean Davoren, 64

Head butler at The Savoy, joined 1977

“I first worked at The Savoy in 1977 as a waiter and doing room service. I was born in Limerick, and The Savoy was my first job after I came out of catering college. I was paid £14 a week but half of that went on rent in Holloway Road.

Sean Davorean, head butler at The Savoy
Sean Davorean, head butler at The Savoy

Things were very different back then because in summer a lot of guests came for “the season”, starting with the Derby at Epsom. They stayed for weeks, all came down at the same time for cocktails in the evening and all left at the same time to spend August in the South of France. Some would sail in from America with huge trunks, and when they entered the lobby they had such presence and elegance – you don’t really see that any more.

I remember one princess who would announce ‘today is a happy day’ because she was going to wear her ring set with what she called her sunshine diamond, which was huge. Those times bring back very fond memories.

I met the best of the best. They knew how to deal with (I hate the word) servants and had a knack of making you feel comfortable. Society is different now.”

Fodor’s 1975 description: “One of London’s largest hotels, famous for impeccable service and location overlooking Thames Embankment; 500 rooms with bath. Popular with celebrities … excellent cabarets.” 1975 room price from £20; 2021 price from £568 (thesavoylondon.com).

The Prince and Princess of Wales arrive for an event at The Savoy in 1984
The Prince and Princess of Wales arrive for an event at The Savoy in 1984

Stuart Johnson, 63

Managing director at Brown’s in Mayfair, joined 2004

“I started at the Savoy as an apprentice chef when there was still a very ‘army’ atmosphere – during my two years in the kitchen, there was only one woman working there. The menu was very 1970s: dishes such as sole veronique, beef stroganoff, breast of duck with a black cherry sauce, Black Forest gateau and so on. The maître chef was a Welshman called Silvino Trompetto, although he only ever really cooked when the Queen Mother came in.

I moved around a bit within the Savoy group, going on to Claridge’s to be assistant banqueting manager there. From 1982 I was at the Connaught, before moving on to Cliveden in Berkshire when it opened in 1986. In 1990, I went back to The Savoy where I was its youngest ever hotel manager at 32 years old.

A snapshot of a previous dining experience at Brown's Hotel
A snapshot of a previous dining experience at Brown's Hotel

Some famous guests stand out. Frank Sinatra, who invited me to one of his concerts and I drove back under his police escort, and Bob Hope who always used to sing Thanks for the Memory as he headed towards the lifts.

For sheer aura, though, it was Princess Diana who exuded star quality but in a naturally humble way: when it was the month of her 30th birthday in 1991, she dined with us 30 times because all of her charities were having celebration lunches and cocktail parties for her. Sometimes she was at The Savoy twice a day.

Now at Brown’s I can look back on nearly 50 years in the hospitality industry, and certainly one thing that has changed is that we have become a recognised profession. Some incredibly smart young people with high-powered degrees use the hotel industry as a stepping stone to go on to other things because they know the people contact, structure, training and experience they are going to get is unparalleled.

When it comes to guests, the dynamics of travel have changed in that money has got younger and so the age bracket of people visiting luxury hotels and wanting amazing experiences, because they are cash rich but time poor, has increased enormously.

Stuart Johnson, managing director at Brown's
Stuart Johnson, managing director at Brown's

The trend towards larger family units travelling together, from grandparents down to grandchildren, has grown immensely too.”

Fodor’s 1975 description: “This one-time favourite… yielding nothing in its traditional furnishings to modern fancies, is still favoured by overseas visitors who like atmosphere. 130 rooms, most with bath.” 1975 room price, from £17; 2021 price from £480 (roccofortehotels.com).

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