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Crowning moment

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On Tuesday 2 June 1953, the day of the Coronation, the mood of the country in post-war Britain was buoyant. The Coronation was an excuse for a celebration at a time when some foodstuffs were still rationed. It was also a time for parties, particularly in the capital.

Parties took place all over London, but one of the most significant celebrations was that held at the Savoy hotel, the Savoy Coronation Ball. It was the event of the day, and was attended by 1,400 people, including Hollywood stars, royalty and well-known people of the time, who paid 12 guineas each for the privilege. Many more tried to get tickets and found themselves on a waiting list. Very few press invitations were issued, but there was one sent to an RO Baker of Caterer & Hotelkeeper!

Here we dip back into the Savoy’s archives to tell the story of the event itself and capture the mood of hospitality during that era.

There was an Elizabethan theme to the ball, and the entire ground floor at the Savoy was converted into a scene of Elizabethan fantasy.

Sixteen yeoman warders from the Tower of London in full uniform lined the entrance staircase. An array of 150 heraldic banners hung in the entrance, and the restaurant was converted into a domed tent with 4,000 yards of pink, grey and turquoise material.

The lights were crowned with coronets of ostrich feathers; the ballroom was dotted with bay and camellia trees; there were cornucopias of fruit, vegetables and flowers on every table; and two-and-a-half tons of box hedging completed the fantasy. The entire interior of the Savoy was decked in hundreds of yards of dove-grey material and scarlet, blue and yellow heraldic banners.

The design was the remit of Bridget D’Oyly Carte, granddaughter of Richard D’Oyly Carte, founder of the Savoy Group; artist and photographer Cecil Beaton; and Lady Olivier, Sir Laurence Olivier’s second wife, the actress Vivien Leigh. The cabaret was “under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier, Mr Noël Coward and Mr John Mills”.

Run-up to the ball

Night Life, Daily Mirror, 27 May 1953

What a crazy crescendo of gaiety is working up in London this week – from Old Kent Road to the Dorchester, from Bethnal Green to the Berkeley.

Liz and I have scores of invitations overlapping, night after night. Crowning them all are the two scarlet cards for the great Coronation Ball at the Savoy on the big night. This is going to be a fantasy of luxury.

The decor details sound like plans for a new Hollywood musical; the menu is a dead crib out of the Arabian Nights; the guest list – closed weeks ago – is so ritzy that princes, maharajahs, millionaires and dukes are still waiting eagerly in the hope of snapping up cancellations.

Savoy executives, 1953

General manager (1941-1960): Wyllie Adolf Hofflin
Chairman of the board and managing director: Hugh Wontner
Head chef (1946-1965): August Laplanche

Who was staying at the Savoy?

Here is what the Savoy itself said about its guests at the time. Can you imagine this sort of thing being written today?
“The Coronation guests have arrived at the Savoy Hotel. The crowd of people always seen standing in the courtyard of the Savoy Hotel no longer only wait to see famous film stars coming and going, but Maharajahs, ambassadors, Prime Ministers, Senators, Princes and Princesses, millionaires and many famous personalities in the news staying at the Hotel for the Coronation.

Among those who are spending their Coronation at the Savoy are Prime Minister Menzies of Australia, with his wife and attractive daughter, Heather. While Mr Menzies goes from meeting to meeting, the two ladies go from shop to shop. Tired out, they arrive back in their river suite to rest, with a martini, the only drink Mr Menzies insists on making himself, then to change for the evening social function.

Among the famous Maharajahs staying at the Savoy during the Coronation are the head of the Maithil Brahmans in India, the Maharajah of Darbhanga, who eats very little, but smokes 10-15 cigars a day, which he brought over with him, and he only drinks Evian water. Also the Maharajah of Faridkot, who is here with the Rani and their son. He has brought with him 25 different coloured turbans, each 7½ yards long, which he says he can put on in under two minutes. Also staying is Sir Sayed Abdel Rahman el Mahdi, the Political Leader of the Sudan, who remains in his suite all day. He does not eat anything made with salt, and his bread is specially baked by the hotel bakery, without salt. He has brought his own coffee with him, which is made with a pinch of herbs, by his servant. He also has a 6ft 3in bodyguard who never leaves him, and a doctor in the next room.”

And what were the others charging?

Evening Standard
Hotels are doubling prices for Coronation – Woman MP’s allegation
(Evening Standard Parliamentary Reporter)

London hotels are putting up their prices for the Coronation, Miss Elaine Burton (Labour, Coventry South) told the Secretary of Overseas Trade (Brigadier HR Mackeson) in the Commons this afternoon.

She said an agency in London stated the Grosvenor House charges were being doubled over a five-day period and Park Lane Hotel charges “nearly doubled”, but this included viewing accommodation.

Around London

Daily Sketch, 2 June 1953
London – What’s on to-day – After the Coronation

West End celebrations will go on till dawn at many hotels, night clubs and restaurants:
Savoy: Coronation Ball and cabaret. Tickets 12 guineas
Claridge’s: Dinner, dancing and cabaret
Park Lane Hotel: Coronation Ball, 8pm to 3am. Tickets seven guineas, including dinner, cocktails, Champagne, liquors and cabaret
Grosvenor House: Gala dinner-dance in restaurant and ballroom. Dancing to three bands – seven guineas
Dorchester: Dinner and ball, 9pm to 3am. Cabaret included the Tiller Girls, surprise Coronation feature and trumpeters of the Royal Horse Guards at midnight
Cumberland: Coronation night gala dinner, dance and cabaret for 1,200 guests. Artists: Peter Cavanagh, Reg Dixon, and Jack and Daphne Boncer. Tickets £5 11s.

What did they wear?

Long Island Press, 4 June 1953
British Neckline Still Austere

The British neckline is austere and apt to stay that way despite the daring of Princess Margaret. The Queen’s younger sister has on occasion caused some gasps with her low-cut gowns, but British women in general are more conservative about cleavage. This fact stands out at parties such as last night’s Coronation Ball at the Savoy Hotel. Necklines on some American women drooped to the danger point. British women played it safe…

Extra rations

El Paso Times, 20 May 1953
(Milton L Kaplan)

The Ministry of Food, in order to help Britons celebrate “in the traditional festive spirit”, announced a Coronation bonus ration of one pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing and high taxes, preparations are under way in almost every city and village to celebrate the Coronation.

Coronation cocktail

A special cocktail was created by the Savoy to commemorate the Coronation. Here is the recipe as invented by Johnnie Johnson, who was head barman at the Savoy from 1942 to 1954:

A long reign
Dash of angostura
Double-measure Canadian rye whiskey
Quarter-measure Marnique (an Australian liqueur)
Juice of half an orange
Pour into long tumbler containing cracked ice. Top with ginger ale, and add cherry, slice of lemon and orange.

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