Personal London street connections, George Smiley, and Lillie Langtry

I do love the interactivity of blogs, and reader input is always welcome. My blogmate Pete (https://beetleypete.com/) usually has a wealth of information and personal anecdotes from his many years in London. The most recent post on water connections (you can read that here) sparked the following input from Pete:

“A Strand is indeed indicative of a ‘water’s edge’, and not a unique name to London of course. Gillingham in Kent has a Strand by the estuary water, currently something of a pleasure park. I would add the watery name of Well Street in Hackney, (somewhere I have driven along on many occasions) which is first mentioned as long ago as 1442, and still exists of course.”

Pete is absolutely right: according to A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 10, Hackney, “Well Street, a busier route, presumably had a settlement by 1442, when common [sic] to the east was called Well Street field.”

An even closer personal connection was pointed out to me by a Mr Bywater, who listed Bywater Place in Rotherhithe and Bywater Street in Chelsea; both streets, he said, are named after (different) ancestors of his. One of my sources states that the derivation of Bywater Street is uncertain, “although a Thomas Bywater did hold property in Chelsea in the mid-19th century.” Another, the learned Gillian Bebbington, is more decisive: the street, she says, “was so named in 1857, probably after Thomas Bywater, a minor Chelsea property-owner of the period”.

The Bywater descendant also pointed out that number 9 Bywater Place was the home of the fictional George Smiley in the spy novels by John Le Carré. (Penguin UK has an article on its website about various Smiley London locations, so I may revisit that topic some time.)

Number 9 Bywater Street. (Photo courtesy of Penguin UK)

But what about Lillie Langtry, I hear you cry. That is another fascinating personal connection that was shared with me. In my blog post about Maiden Lane and other streets with Lillie Langtry connections (you can read that here), I mentioned that there was a hotel in Inverness Terrace, off Bayswater Road, where Lillie is supposed to have performed in a theatre when she was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. I also mentioned that the Theatres Trust pooh-poohed the notion.

However, according to Sharon, who commented on this story, “There was a hotel on Inverness Terrace that certainly had something that would match the believers of the story.

“I worked at the Park Plaza Hotel in around in 1973/74 I was a junior receptionist, my first full time job. We used to have tour groups staying and we used to be on good terms with the reps. I loved history and talking one evening with one of the tour guides. He said he would show me somewhere few people knew about.

“We taxied to Inverness Terrace and entered one of your typical multiple occupancy hotels, all tiny lift, balsa wood doors to rooms, psychedelic carpets on sloping creaking floors.

“At the reception the guide asked for the key to the room, I don’t remember what it was called. Can’t remember which floor it was on but walked down a long corridor, with the psychedelic carpet and creaking sloping floors, to a nondescript door at the end of the corridor. The guide unlocked the door which opened into a porch area that was about 3 feet deep and 6/7 feet wide. There was quite an ornate set of dark wood doors, when unlocked led into the past. Dark wood balustrades and walk way to a bedroom with a small double four poster bed, much smaller in length than ours nowadays. The furniture was the same colour as the posts. I don’t remember seeing any mirrors.

“We walked to another door and you were in the theatre, a perfectly formed miniature Edwardian theatre. The stage wasn’t very deep and probably about 9/10 feet wide with seating, I think for about 10 people. It was all stunning and beautifully preserved. I touched the post of the four poster and stood on the stage.

“I was told at the time, it had been built for Lillie Langtry by the Prince of Wales so he could watch her performances in private. You would never have guessed that the hotel would have had something like this within its walls. It is only as I am getting older I have wondered if it still existed, or when it would have been removed/destroyed.”

To back up Sharon’s story, I found the website of the Grand Royale London Hyde Park, at 1-9 Inverness Terrace. Let me hand over to the hotel’s history section:

You could imagine a theatre in a hotel like this. (Photo courtesy of the Grand Royale London Hyde Park)

“Society gossip at the time had it that the Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward VII) commissioned the building as a private residence for his former mistress Lillie Langtry. It is rumoured that the house was built not only as a love-nest but also to support Lillie’s acting career. This snippet remains undocumented in the chronicles of history. However, sometimes hearsay is enough and, as Max Arthur, author of Lost Voices of the Edwardians (2006, HarperCollins) comments: ‘There is often no stronger proof than rumour concerning historical anecdotes and speculation – and often no stronger proof is needed’.

“In the early 1900s, the house was bought by Louis Spitzel, a merchant banker, who engaged fashionable and contemporary architects Mewes and Davis to undertake a unique renovation. These designers were known for many grand architectural achievements, notably the Ritz hotels in London and Paris and The Royal Automobile Club, buildings renowned for their Edwardian grandeur and Parisian elegance. That same elegance is apparent in the intricate Edwardian interiors and fascia of the Grand Royale. What was unusual about the renovation was the addition of a private theatre to the existing premises – adding credance [sic] to the Lillie Langtry connection!”

2 thoughts on “Personal London street connections, George Smiley, and Lillie Langtry

  1. beetleypete March 29, 2022 / 3:37 pm

    When I was in the Ambulance Service in London, I attended emergency calls at that hotel in Inverness Terrace on a few occasions. Back then (1981-2001) it was known as a hangout for the better class of prostitutes, and also famous as ‘the house built for Lillie Langtree’.
    I never saw the secret theatre, sadly. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • thestreetnames March 29, 2022 / 3:39 pm

      Pete, you never fail to impress me. Thanks for that tidbit about the demographics of the hotel… 😂. All the best, Elizabeth

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