St. James’s Hotel

One of my ridiculously fond hopes is that, some day in the distant future, I will be able to walk down Jermyn Street and know the history of every address, going back to the seventeenth century.  Just to stand before a space, regardless of whether a particular old building is still there, and know that in that space so-and-so sang and danced and be able to tell others about the singer and dancer is perhaps to feel the inevitable poignancy of our connection to what may appear not to have left even a trace.

At the moment I think a couple of interesting facts about number 76, now a building of highly desirable flats, worth imparting.  Two hundred years ago it was the site of the St. James’s Hotel, one of the many hotels that used to line Jermyn Street and keep The Cavendish company.  In the early eighteenth century, the hotel’s barber was the young Juan Famenias Floris, who had just immigrated to England from Minorca.  Floris clearly loved Jermyn Street but seems to have felt that he did not want to spend the rest of his years cutting hair.   As a barber, he would have scented many of his customers’ hair and wigs, so the idea to make and sell his own perfumes probably occurred to him while he was working at the hotel.  Marriage brought him the dowry necessary to set up his own shop on Jermyn Street in 1730, from which he and his descendants sold brushes and combs as well as perfumes for many decades.  The oldest perfumer in the U.K and second oldest in the world, Floris remains in family hands to this day. 

One hundred years later, St. James’s Hotel was the scene of the poet Walter Scott’s last days in London, when his poor physical state drew the attention of innumerable poetry lovers to Jermyn Street.  “The mighty master of romance and song” lay semi-conscious for three weeks in a second-floor hotel bed, having been rushed back from the Mediterranean and wanting only to return to his beloved home Abbotsford in Scotland in order to die.  His children stayed by his side at the hotel as well as his some of his closest friends, but he was unable to speak to anyone.  Apparently the sound of the carriages on busy Jermyn Street disturbed him often.

To appreciate the significance of Scott’s demise, we should recall that when his early long poems, Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808) and Lady of the Lake (1810) were first published, they sold as no poetry ever before had sold anywhere.  For the first half of the nineteenth century, only Byron was his equal in poetic fame, and then Scott’s novels like Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819) doubled that publishing success.   So when, on 7 July 1832, Scott was finally able to leave St. James’s Hotel, a large crowd was waiting on Jermyn Street to catch a final glimpse, with many on the crowd’s edges on horseback.  One Victorian history reports that, as Scott’s body was lifted into his carriage, “There was said not to be a covered head nor a dry eye.”  Scott died at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832.

Perhaps blessed by Scott’s brief appearance, No. 76 went on to lead yet another fascinating and somewhat romantic existence as a Turkish bath.  But that story must wait for another day.