BeatrixFan is an English drag queen with an unhealthy obsession with big hair. He has been a forum member for four years and has a special passion for the Duchess of Cornwall. Totally unreciprocated of course.
Lewis (pictured left) was born Rosa Ovenden on 26th September 1867 in Leyton, a poor town in Essex, southeast England. Leyton was typically desperate, with the shadow of the West Ham Union Workhouse looming over its residents, the final destination of the destitute which would have been a very real possibility for young Rosa as one of nine children. Breakfast in the workhouse comprised bread and milk, dinner was potatoes with meat on holy days to remind the inmates to be thankful for their deliverance from the streets of London town. The Ovenden family seem to have kept their daughter out of the most feared institution of the era, but Rosa was soon to enter another typically Victorian industry of discipline and strict regulation – domestic service. Her first engagement was as a General Servant, one of the most demanding positions in the Victorian household, for which she received a weekly salary of just a shilling (around £9/$18 today). This of course included her keep, which meant that Rosa would have enjoyed her own attic bedroom as well as three meals a day and material from which to make her own uniform.
The life of a General Servant should really have been dubbed “General dogsbody.” Houses that employed a general servant were mainly the houses of the lower middle classes desperate to rise through the class-obsessed society of Britain, and as a result most jobs fell to young girls new to domestic service. Rising at 6 a.m., Rosa would have been expected to clean the grates and lay the fires, clean the boots and black the range, sweep the house through, lay and serve at table (also providing the food to go on it), as well as answering an endless clang of bells. By modern standards it was pure slave labour, but for the Victorian poor such a position was one to be respected and enjoyed. It meant that promotion to housemaid and even housekeeper was on the cards, and a thoughtful employer always cared for his old retainers in their dotage which was a key concern for those who had known true poverty and for whom old age meant a return to wanting. It was rare that a general servant would become a cook, but Ovenden displayed such a flair for all things culinary that at the age of 16 she received a letter from the exiled Comte de Paris asking her to join his staff at Sheen House, Mortlake. The position was that of a scullery maid, hardly a step up, but Rosa took the job and it was this move that secured her future as “Queen of Cooks.”
The tastes of London were changing, and the stodgy creations of Eliza Action and Isabella Beeton were being replaced by continental cuisine. French chefs were increasingly in demand by the late 1880s, and the grandest of hotels such as Claridges and the Ritz were now employing students of Escoffier, a French gastronomic expert who believed that feeding the eye was just as important as feeding the belly. As London society became more and more enamoured with displays of riches and wealth, dishes such as honey-glazed pig's head decorated with all manner of flora and fauna became much-sought-after centrepieces for the dinner table. The Comte de Paris had such a chef in his employ, and despite their apparently rocky relationship, Rosa became a sponge soaking up every hint, tip and technique as she rose through the ranks to Head Kitchen Maid. It was a true case of being in the right place at the right time, and in 1887 Rosa was poached by the Duc d’Orleans. But instead of keeping her for himself, the Duc decided to allow his young cook to practise her skills in other grand houses, and society hostesses were eager to employ an English cook who could cater for their delicate preferences. She was the first female cook to be employed at White’s, a gentleman’s club, but when a peer made a pass she dubbed him “an amorous old woodcock in tights” and was sacked. Still, it didn’t hinder the demand, and soon Rosa would come into contact with a man who would change her life forever.
Rosa was loaned to Lady Randolph Churchill for a night’s entertaining. After a sumptuous meal of unending courses, she was summoned to the dining room where a guest wished to thank her for the repast he’d enjoyed. At the head of the table sat Edward, Prince of Wales (pictured right), who thanked her for the wonderful food and gave her a penny. According to Rosa’s long-term companion Edith Jeffrey, the young cook left the room and fainted. Word travelled fast, and houses entertaining the Prince became desperate to employ Rosa. Edward was quoted as saying, “She gives me nothing sloppy, nothing coloured up to dribble on my shirt front.” As her bank balance increased, so did her good reputation, yet speculation soon became rife about the exact nature of the relationship between the Prince and the cook. She wasn’t just a master of her field, she was also incredibly amusing. With her broad Cockney accent and blatant disregard for class or station, she was a true daughter of Bow Bells, and perhaps it was the music hall-esque side of her personality that intrigued the Prince, constrained by etiquette and his distant mother. For 10 years, Rosa received gifts and trinkets from a secret admirer. She never visited the Palace, she never saw Edward outside of her places of work, yet they became extremely close. Though the King never spoke publicly about their friendship, he did give her glowing reviews to his fellow diners: “She takes more pains with a cabbage”, he said, “than with a chicken.”
When the newspapers began to ask questions, Ovenden panicked. She had worked hard to become society’s number one cook and any hint of scandal would flush her success away. In 1893, she married a butler by the name of Excelsior Lewis (nicknamed Chiney, probably on account of his outlandish christian name). It was an arranged marriage, clearly intended to end the rumours. They had a comfortable home in Easton Terrace, and a baby would secure the image of a happy couple but no child was forthcoming and the marriage was pretty much a loveless one.Rosa would later explain: “Me family said that if I didn’t marry Mr Lewis they’d shoot me. I told the parson to be quick and get it over and done with.” And she meant it; though they never divorced the marriage lasted less than a year. “We were married, I threw the ring at him outside the church door and left him flat”, she’d later recall. The Prince of Wales was understandably grateful that Rosa had put a stop to certain tales in the gossip columns that were hardly pleasing to Mama, and he showed his gratitude in ways only a Prince can. In 1902, Rosa Lewis became the proprietor of the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street. Of course, Edward and Rosa didn’t end their friendship. Indeed, she had a private entrance installed for Edward and his royal guests so that nobody would notice their late-night parties in the grand drawing rooms of her hotel. Rosa's romantic interests didn't include only Kings and butlers. At an auction, she once bought a vicarage by mistake due to her rather frenetic style of bidding. When she was informed that her purchases that day included a presbytery she simply waved it off and said, "Wrap the parson with it, I might as well take him too". She dressed in the finest fashions and decorated herself with gifts from the Prince including brooches and bracelets. Other blue-blooded clients included Kaiser Wilhelm, who presented Rosa with an austere portrait of himself as thanks for many wonderful evenings spent in the company of his favourite cousin. During the First World War, Lewis displayed the portrait in the downstairs lavatory.
Rosa was such a sparkling wit that that any gathering held at 82 Jermyn Street, she was the life and soul. She delighted the King with tales of “Lord Droopy Drawers” and “Lady-You-Know-Oo!” and when later asked about her Royal clientele she proclaimed, “One King leads to another.” She believed that it wasn’t her food that caught her a Prince but her personality. Edward’s death in 1910 caused her tremendous heartache, and in a deep depression she allowed her trademark efficiency to slip. Bills for the hotel remained unpaid and the debtors began closing in. After the war, the nobility were in no mood for entertaining, having sent their sons to die on the foreign fields of France and Belgium, and Rosa became confined to the Cavendish. The hotel by this time was more like a curiosity shop than a fashionable guesthouse, and decadent furniture and ornaments were crammed into every available space. In 1917, Rosa placed an advertisement for a seamstress to freshen up the decor and Edith Jeffrey became permanently employed. Later she would become a close friend and confidant as well as Rosa’s key business advisor. Lewis opened the hotel to veterans of the Great War who had fallen on hard times. She lavished them with champagne and truffles whilst refusing to allow them to pay a penny towards the bill. Instead, she hiked up her prices and forced her rich guests to pay for her poor ones. In her hey-day, she had been dubbed “The Duchess of Jermyn Street” and anybody who was anybody had a private suite at the 300-room Cavendish, but now her circle of friends was becoming smaller. Though the hotel continued to do good business, she no longer paid host to the royal guests of the elegant past.
The 1920s provided her with something she desperately needed – an audience. In 1927 she toured New York, cooking in fine hotels and teaching her skills to eager young apprentices. She found time for interviews in which she didn’t hold back in sharing her experiences and the tastes of Kings. “King Edward, now, he was fond of your Virginia Ham”, she delighted American journalists with, and went on to explain, “I never baked it, I used to boil it slow so that it was almost steamed. Then when it’s done, no sauce, just pour some champagne from your glass over it. That’s the way King Edward used to like it.” Considering that Marion Crawford was nowhere near writing her tuppenny novelette, “The Little Princesses,” these were revelations of the grandest kind. “There have only been three men in my life,” she said with a twinkle in her eye – but she wouldn’t spill the beans entirely. When she returned to the Cavendish, she was delighted to find that the youth of London’s finest houses had decided to make her hotel their number one port of call. They rarely paid their bar bills, but Rosa was glad of the attention and landed them with her longest-staying resident, a dowager she called ‘Froggy’. The guests even included a Prince called David who would later go on to become King and then Duke of Windsor.
Despite the changing fashions, Rosa stayed the same. She had known everything that was wonderful in Edwardian England and she wanted that to last a lifetime. She never changed her apparel, always cutting an eccentric figure in the high collars and bustles of yesterday right up until her death in the 1950s. During the Second World War, she was almost killed when a bomb blew the front of her four-storey hotel clean off. Her only concern was for the number of vintage champagne bottles it destroyed, though her near-death experience stayed with her, as shown by her telling Richard Hillary, “Don’t ever die. I’ve been right up to the gates of ‘eaven and ‘ell. And they’re both bloody.” But die she did. After suffering a stroke at the age of 76, dementia set in and she found comfort in vast quantities of wine and spirits. She never wrote a book, nor did she ever give another interview after her American trip, but in the hearts of those who had spent both the glittering gay days of the 1900s and the swinging days of the 1920s at the Cavendish, she lived on after her death in 1952 at the grand old age of 85. Her hotel was sold of course, and was demolished and rebuilt, but it retained its original name and still welcomes guests to this day. Rosa’s life was serialised by the BBC in their 1970s drama “The Duchess of Duke Street,” and in 2006 the actress who played her (Gemma Jones) unveiled a plaque commemorating the life of a woman who rose to the top despite all odds.
Portraits of Rosa Lewis and Edward VII: public domain.
Photo of the commemorative plaque to Rosa Lewis reprinted from the Cavendish Hotel website with kind permission from the hotel.