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A unique glimpse into the history of Eccleston Square Hotel

Here is a fascinating insight into 1950’s London focusing on Eccleston Square Hotel as lived and written by David J. Thompson:

In June of 1957, I left home and school in Boston, England, to look for work in London. My birthday is June 2, and I had just turned 15 years of age. I wanted to join the British Merchant Navy, but found out that you had to be 15 and a half. Instead, at the employment office, my mother helped me get a job as a teaboy at the prestigious Grosvenor House on Park Lane. The hotel’s Personnel Office directed me to a hostel as you could not live alone in London until you were 18.

The Grosvenor House, Park Lane, the largest Five Star Hotel in London.

That hostel was the P.M. Boys Club, at 37 Eccleston Square, London SWI. It was for 28 boys (aged 15 to 18 years) who worked in the restaurant and hotel trade. The Club had been started for that purpose in 1949 in the crypt of St. Martin’s in the Field in Trafalgar Square. It was called the P.M. Boys Club because it was where boys in the trade could spend their time off keeping out of mischief between the lunch and dinner shift. While tourists in the church above admired the magnificence of Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture, we lads were down below the church admiring the deft handling of a billiard stick or table tennis bat. The space is now home to “Café in the Crypt,” a delightful restaurant.

Tommy Docherty, former manager of Manchester United coaching the P.M. Boys Club team outside of St Martins in the Field at Trafalgar Square (circa 1955).

Today, the hostel is the Five Star Eccleston Square Hotel, voted Europe’s most High Tec Hotel by Conde Nast. In its society heyday, the terraced building was home to Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was married to Princess Victoria of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria once visited her granddaughter over afternoon tea at 37 Eccleston Square.

In 1917, the same year the Royal family officially changed their surname from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor, the Battenberg family changed theirs to Mountbatten. The Mountbatten’s were grand entertainers and 37 Eccleston Square had been a sparkling gathering place until just after the Second World War. In 1948, the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth, visited Lord Mountbatten (his uncle) at 37 Eccleston Square, the night before their Royal Wedding.

Winston Churchill had lived at # 33 Eccleston Square, and the present Prince of Wales had his architectural group across the square. Continuing the Square’s tradition of hosting notable visitors, the Dalai Lama stayed at # 58 during a visit to London in 1996. Thomas Cubitt, Queen Victoria’s favorite builder, created Eccleston Square in 1828. With its stately private enclosed garden in the center, Eccleston Square remains an elegant reminder of its aristocratic past.

In 1957, 37 Eccleston Square still had a majestic exterior. However, on the inside of # 37, all memories of the glorious past had disappeared, and the interior was undecorated. On my first entry I did not feel any sense of a royal welcome.

There were five boys who slept in the two main rooms on each residential floor. In my room of five, two boys were orphans. One orphan boy (Aldo) cried himself to sleep most nights, and another (Allan) had a glass eye. All too often at night, Allan’s glass eye rolled off his dresser onto the linoleum floor and we all had to search for it. David Potter, a boy from Yorkshire in the bed next to me, is still one of my best friends. (The five of us worked at the Waldorf, Berners, Rubens, Quagiliano’s and the Grosvenor House)

My pay at the luxurious Grosvenor House was nine dollars a week after taxes and I paid seven dollars a week to live at the hostel. I had two dollars left over to spend as I wished. There were bus fares, clothes, movies, soccer games and all sorts to spend the two dollars on. By maintaining daily income & expense accounts (which I still have), I achieved a goal of saving 42 cents a week (half a crown). Not taking the bus, biking to work, and curbing my appetite on weekends were the core of my savings plan. I kept my thrifty bike in the hostel’s basement.

By living together in this group setting I had support to grow through the trying times of youth. The first-floor front rooms (with the balcony) were set aside for table tennis and billiards and were well used. Tony Lavender played table tennis or billiards for money and was unbeatable. So instead, I used to play George Sophos (the son of Greek immigrants) who played for fun and was free. Through our club activities we entertained ourselves, went to Speaker’s Corner to hear free and fascinating orators and taught each other how to reduce expenses.

The food program at the club saved us a lot of money. We all took turns washing up after meals and daily filling the heater with coal. Every resident worked on a 28-day rote schedule. The work we did at the Club kept expenses down. The Club was thrifty in every way. We got a clean top sheet every Saturday which we exchanged with the bottom sheet every Wednesday and looked forward to getting another fresh clean top sheet and a fresh pillow the next Saturday.

The meal plan was our key to survival. On weekdays, breakfast was at 7 a.m. and dinner at 6 p.m. The normal breakfast was beans on toast or spaghetti on toast. I often dreamed of the bacon sandwiches Mum made every Saturday. I don’t remember any of the foods provided at dinner except there was often mashed potatoes and canned peas. Everything was portioned except toast and I did have a lot of toast. There were no meals at all, however, on Saturday or Sunday. Fortunately, I worked every other Saturday at the Grosvenor House and got a free lunch.

DT on the right with another member on the balcony of # 37. The only photo I have of the club.

Every Saturday night I was invited to my Uncle Selwyn and Auntie Dorothy’s in King’s Cross for dinner. Uncle Selwyn had once been engaged to my mother and they remained good friends all their lives. Uncle Selwyn and Auntie Dorothy (as I called them) had told my mother they would watch over me while I lived in London. I would walk from Eccleston Square to their hotel at Kings Cross every Saturday. The walk was an hour from one side of Central London to the other.

Arriving at 5 p.m., I was treated to a marvelous evening of good humor, care, and compassion. There in the basement of the hotel a grand, filling meal was had. At the rollicking kitchen table was also Mrs. Haywood, Auntie Dorothy’s mother and Maxine, their young daughter. Uncle Selwyn has one of the greatest senses of humor and was a master of the art of storytelling. The night was always full and for one evening each week this young lad was loved.

About 9 p.m., it would be time to leave. Uncle Selwyn would accompany me outside to say goodbye. As I left, he would press a half-crown into my palm. “That’s for the bus, lad,” he’d say. Taking the bus did cost one shilling and three pence each way. However, a half-crown in my pocket was definitely a great monetary reward for two hours of walking. I would be home just before the Club door shut for the night at 10 p.m.

But Sunday Bloody Sunday! The one day of the week bereft of free food.

Those of you who have been at our home on Sundays have had a replica of the Gillingham breakfast (one egg, bacon, one sausage, tomatoes, baked beans, toast, and a cup of tea). But in addition, the Rutgers de-luxe version has two eggs, two sausages, heaps of mushrooms and fried onions, unlimited coffee or tea and lashings of home-made jams and marmalade with the toast. This unforgettable English breakfast borrows its name from a cab drivers café (no longer there) on Gillingham Street near Victoria Station where David Potter and I spent many Sundays. Our game plan every Sunday was to have our stomachs wait as long as humanly possible to have the hearty breakfast and make it last all day. It was a long time before Monday’s breakfast at the club.

Whenever I read the strict Club rules, even to this day, I still think I lived in a Dickensian period. For example, every boy had to be out of their room by 9 a.m. and could not return to their room until 4 p.m. For those who followed the rules and sought a little power and privacy, one could achieve the rank of floor captain or floor vice-captain, and then live in one of the double rooms on each of the floors. The captain’s job was to keep order on each floor. They had to turn the lights out at 10 p.m. and ensure that there was no talking after the lights went out. These cushy appointments of rank were made by Mr. Hardy, the Warden of the P.M. Boys Club. With his military background, Mr. Hardy had a keen eye for discipline and junior officer material.

Before World War II, Mr. Hardy had played football for Blackpool Football Club. Although I was born in Blackpool and knew the names of several of the Blackpool players with whom Mr. Hardy had played, it never got me any extra helping of beans.

Mr. Hardy had a wooden leg, having lost one leg in the war. As a result, he walked with a limp. He and his wife were in their 60s and lived on the top floor. There was no elevator, only stairs from the basement to the Warden’s flat on the sixth floor. Obviously, going up and down the six floors of the club was difficult for Mr. Hardy. So, if he had to come down to deal with trouble, you knew you should expect no sympathy

Without the club, I could never have survived economically in London. Without the other members, I would never have had a social life. Without the peer help, I could not have grown as an apprentice in the industry. Without the guidance and safety, I would not have had the power to stay.

After leaving home and school at 15, I did my best to build my life. At 17, I joined the Norwegian Merchant Navy as a saloon boy on an oil tanker that brought oil to Europe from the Persian Gulf countries. I then returned to Blackpool to work as a waiter at the Queen’s Hydro Hotel. While there, I obtained the Licensed Trade Diploma at Blackpool Technical College.

At age 20, I immigrated to the USA as a way of removing the barriers put in a Northerner’s way that had left school at 15. There, I continued my hotel and restaurant profession working at Mount Airy Lodge, a honeymoon resort in Pennsylvania, the Ocean View Hotel on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida, and, lastly, at the Tower Suite, Hemisphere Club and the Rainbow Room in New York City.

The Rainbow Room Restaurant on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Centre, NYC

At age 27, I realized that to get ahead in the US I needed to obtain a complete education by going to college full-time. From 1967-1975, I obtained a high school degree, and an AA from Santa Monica College, as well as a BA in Sociology and an MA in Urban Planning from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1974, I took one year off school to replenish my bank account. That year, I was Head Waiter at the Saloon, a posh Beverly Hills restaurant with 40 of the Who’s Who in Hollywood as shareholders. It was the last year I was employed in the hospitality industry. My life took a huge turn when I was recruited by a member of the Hemisphere Club to work for his company. That, however, is another story you can read about later.

I have never forgotten my start as a young lad at the P.M. Boys Club. I know better than most how much low-cost housing with a built-in social structure helped give me the support I needed. That beginning also gave me confidence.

Sometimes I am asked, “Why do you work on affordable housing?” or, “Why do you build community”?  My answer is, “I hope I have helped someone like me who will want to help others like us.”

I often reflect on the P.M. Boy’s Club. On special occasions, when I am attending a meeting where the outcome may benefit affordable housing, I wear my sixty-year-old P.M. Boy’s Club pin in my lapel for luck. It is a proud reminder of days lived in managed poverty that through group structure was preparation for a life that would later be rich in many ways. Yet, I do not forget what others did for me so that I would not fail and what others gave me so that I would succeed.

The P.M Boys Club badge given to me in 1957

The P.M. Boys Club no longer exists. The cost of running it and keeping up with government regulations became too heavy. Secondly, much of the grunt work in hotels and restaurants in London is now done by foreigners on short-term contracts who are willing to live in unregulated, crowded conditions.

When the lease for Eccleston Square ran out, the P.M. Boys Club took another property lease in Earls Court in 1982 for boys, and then another property for girls. At its peak, the P.M. Club accommodated 120 young people working in the industry. In 2002, the P.M. Club chose to conclude its operation of hostels and focus on professional development for young people in the industry. The charter was amended to rename it the P.M. Trust and the remaining funds now help young people (16-24) in restaurants, hotels, and the catering trades in London. For more see https://www.theP.M.trust.org

David Thompson & David Potter together again near Eccleston Square in London about 2016

My 1957 P.M. Boys Club roommates:

David Potter, 15, Dronfield, Yorkshire, worked in the kitchens at the Waldorf Hotel and later Claridge’s Hotel

Aldo Castagnoli? 15, Italian-born orphan, brought up in Dr. Barnado’s Orphanage and worked at Quagliano’s Restaurant

Tony Anderson, 16, worked in the kitchens at Rubens Hotel

Allan? Glass Eye, 15, English-born orphan, Worked at Berners Hotel*

David Thompson, 15, Boston, Lincolnshire, tea boy and then commis (trainee) waiter at the Grosvenor House (originally from Blackpool, Lancashire)

*Berners is now called the London Edition.

Other names of residents of the club I remember:

Gordon Chatfield (we were all in awe that he had to shave, we would watch him shave and wondered when we might shave, too), Nigel Foster (from Tong near Sittingbourne, Kent), Tony Fox (a very strict captain), Tony Lavender, George Sophos, Jimmy Thomas (from Tenby) (later I roomed with him and two other former P.M. Boys Club residents, Jimmy Rae and Gordon?, in a bed-sit in Shepherd’s Bush in West London.)

Each time I return to London, I find time to stand outside 37 Eccleston Square to remember my past and reflect upon the arc of my life. The front desk staff at the Eccleston Square Hotel would have no idea why the elderly man standing across the road was staring pensively at the hotel. Well, that elderly gentleman once was a fifteen-year-old boy who lived at #37 at an important stop in his young life.

David J. Thompson is President of the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation and co-principal of Neighborhood Partners, LLC). He has worked for the national cooperative organizations of the United States, Britain and Japan as well as the United Nations.

 David is a former V. P. for Western States and Director of International Relations of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) and Western Region Director of the National Cooperative Bank (NCB). At NCB, David created over 2,400 units of cooperative housing and with NP and Yolo County over 1,200 units of nonprofit affordable housing. David has helped put roofs over 10,000 people.

 David has written a number of books and over 400 articles about cooperatives. He has an MA in Architecture and Urban Planning from UCLA and was inducted into the US Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2010.  David was born in Blackpool, England, started off in the hotel and restaurant trade and immigrated to the US in 1962. 

[email protected] www.community.coop and www.npllc.org

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