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Lesley Lewis, The French House

July 2, 2019
by the gentle author

Today, I commence a new occasional series in collaboration with photographer Sarah Ainslie of  GREAT LANDLADIES OF LONDON.

I want to celebrate the wonderful women who are responsible for those cherished oases of culture and civility – the pubs which make London a city worth living in. I introduce them in no particular order but I choose to start with Lesley Lewis who has run the French House in Soho for thirty years.

Please send your suggestions of candidates for this series.

‘It is a sort of family, a very strange family’

When you walk into the French House in Dean St, you enter a magical realm of possibility where you discover you are welcome and where you might meet almost anyone. It is the last place I can think of where the spirit of old Soho lingers and where you feel you are at the heart of London. It is a public place and yet people behave as if they were in private, a place where – just by walking in the door – you become accepted into a community.

Since 1891 when it opened, there have only been three publicans at the French House. In 1989, Lesley Lewis took over when Gaston Berlemont passed into legend. Today, Lesley presides with a regal hauteur worthy of Catherine Deneuve, a shrewd humour worthy of Marie Lloyd and a generosity of spirit worthy of Mistress Quickly.

On the road to the French house, Lesley performed with a python in cabaret before graduating to managing a strip club in Old Compton St in 1979, where admission cost 50p and senior customers brought sandwiches to stay all day. As it turned out, these formative experiences proved the ideal qualifications when destiny called.

Lesley tells how Gaston Berlemont’s family took over the pub from the first landlord, a German by the name of Schimdt, whose wife returned – after he had left the country at the outbreak of WWI – to sign over the lease on September 12th, 1914. Gaston spent his whole life at the French House and, on his return from WWII, his father said,”Enough of that. You’re behind the bar, I’m off.”

It was a brawl in the twenties between French sailors smashing pint glasses over each other’s heads that led to the house policy of only serving half pints of beer, which continues to this day with the annual exception of April 1st.

During the last war, the pub – known as the York Minister – became a centre for French ex-patriates in London, serving wine which was a rare commodity then. Gaston’s daughter Giselle recalls Errol Flynn and Orson Welles tasting wine in the cellar at this time, and in June 1940 General De Gaulle wrote his famous speech in the bar -“La France a perdu une bataille. Mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre!” After the war, the nickname of ‘The French House’ stuck and, in 1984, the name was officially changed.

With such illustrious predecessors, it was a great delight and privilege to sit down with Lesley in a quiet corner of the bar and hear her story in her own words over a glass of Ricard.

“I was General Manager at Peppermint Park, a restaurant and cocktail bar in Upper St Martin’s Lane, and when they sold the company I was offered redundancy or a pub. So I took the pub. It was the George & Dragon in Clerkenwell, a marvellous old pub. I had never poured a pint in my life, but some of my staff came with me because we were all made redundant, and that was the start of loving the pub business.

It took me a while to get into the swing of things and I learnt a good few lessons. We had no idea what we were doing but the customers helped us. After the first week, we were called together by some of the regulars and they said, ‘Lesley, this is fine. We don’t mind you looking after our pub for us.’ That is the truth of pubs, it is not my pub it is the customers’ pub – because without them, we are absolutely nothing.

Slowly, we learnt to pull pints and amuse the customers. We were next door to the school of journalism so we had a lot of students, but most of our customers were the old time, edge-of-the-East-End, Clerkenwell people. They were characters – all been pretty much wiped out, it is something quite different now.

I lived above the George & Dragon and I live upstairs here, it is a very difficult job to do without living on the premises because you are pretty much on for seven days a week. After about five years in Clerkenwell, they offered me a ‘wine bar,’ and this was the wine bar! I knew the French House already and I had always loved it, and I have been here thirty years.

It was always full of wonderful characters – it still is, but they are different kinds of characters today – writers, painters and bohemians. Gaston was the landlord then and it was condemned when he retired in 1989, which I did not discover until I went to get the licence and I was given three months to sort it out. The place had been left to rack and ruin, which I think is probably why Gaston wanted to retire. He was facing a huge bill, instead I got the huge bill but it was worth it.

We had to rebuild it in a way that people would not notice, so we were building through the night. It was the most loved place in the world and I had this feeling I was going to destroy it but the red linoleum on the bar top had to go. It is British oak to go with the rest of the interior and it cost a fortune. Then I had to bash it up a bit so it looked in tune with the whole pub. The windows had not opened since the sixties but we fixed that. There was this awful seating along the window and you burnt your ankles on the heating which was underneath, so we got rid of that and bar stools came in. This pub has evolved.

I have stayed thirty years at the French House because I love it, this is what I do. It is a sort of family, a very strange family. Most of my staff have been with me a very long time and we are very close. Eighty per cent of my customers are regulars and we are all close to each other. We help each other through everything. To be honest, I do not know what I would do without it.

A big city can be a lonely horrible place sometimes and if there is a place where you can go for a bit of comfort and conversation. It is not just about drinking, it is about going to have a chat with somebody, and feel safe in an environment that is yours – where you are not threatened in any way, as you are in a lot of clubs. It is for all ages. Our eldest customer is Norman who is ninety-two but he does not come in very often and our youngest is a year and two months, Georgie’s little boy who has been coming in here since he was conceived.

For me, it all about the people who have been in here over the years – like Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas, Dan Farson and Lucian Freud. I think at some point just about everybody who is anybody has put a foot over the threshold. They are all still here in a funny kind of way. Their essence is here.

I think it is really important that we keep our pubs. You notice how – particularly in Soho – they are disappearing all the time. It is even more important in the country villages where, if the pub goes, there is nothing. People need to have somewhere to go. It is a very British thing, a pub.”

Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie

The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 5BG

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. David Collard permalink
    July 2, 2019

    A wonderful profile of a great doyenne. You ask for suggestions and I hasten to make one – the great Roxy Beaujolais of The Seven Stars in Carey Street, Holborn. Get weaving! And thank you for your daily treat as London’s peerless chronicler.

  2. Tony King permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Anne, Karen and Linda Pride of Spitalfields, Fournier St

  3. Wendy Lowe permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Love this pub. Hope you met the delightful resident cats while you were there.

  4. Malcolm permalink
    July 2, 2019

    The French House should be given grade 1 listed status. Many is the time I’ve supped at the bar of that august hub of old Soho.
    When I was a mere lad of not many summers living on the Isle of Dogs, at the top of my street was a pub named the Newcastle Arms, run by the redoubtable Mrs Dunn, mother of nine kids and a fearsome landlady. The pub was later bought by Dan Farson, who was a regular at the French House, and he turned it into the infamous Waterman’s Arms. Just up the road was the Pier Tavern, run by Dolly Watson and a bit further along from there was the Cubitt Arms, a run down old boozer run by a rather run down landlady called Lil Ponders. Most of the pubs on the island seemed to be run by women in those days.
    On another note, the George and Dragon in Clerkenwell is now called The Peasant.

  5. Ian Silverton permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Great storey GA loved it,well remember old Dan Parson from his Wapping Days as a Publican, as well as TV shows,every time we bumped into him on his Pub crawls around Soho he was well drunk and never tried to hide the fact, good chances that more good stories will come from your other Fans on here about which pubs next,Good Luck.

  6. Libby Hall permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Oh my how old I am! I remember ‘The French’ so very well from the 60s. We seemed to call it only just that – never adding on ‘House’. I think we were only vaguely aware it was actually called The York Minster.

    Ah… such memories! How incredibly crowded it often was, Gaston’s famous moustache, the cosy scruffiness of everything– and I do actually remember that bench with the heater underneath that burned your ankles! But it usually felt so lucky to be able to sit down that I would wriggle my legs around before they got too scorched.

    It’s lovely to read about it now, and the continuity of its atmosphere. And to see Sarah’s fine portraits of the landlady I’ve never met – because my Soho days had ended by the early 70s.

  7. Milo Bell permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Great article. I started going in there in 1979 when i had just moved to London as an aspiring actor. Now living in Australia i make the French house one of my first ports of call as soon as i get back and it always feels like ‘home.’

  8. Paul Loften permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Thank you for this wonderful portrait of a great lady and a special place. I have been to pubs with some really eccentric characters that you could have the time of your life with ! and by that I mean you would never forget your time there . I wish I could recommend you a few but they have now all long gone and been turned into coffee houses or blocks of flats.

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    July 2, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great idea to feature the landladies of London pubs, starting with Lesley Lewis. She has a fascinating history and really seems to enjoy her calling. I checked out the French House website below. The slide show features an eclectic mix of “mature” merrymaker patrons. Looks like fun!

    http://www.frenchhousesoho.com/

  10. Jonathan permalink
    July 2, 2019

    One of the best and long may it continue. It’s criminal what has happened to other similar institutions such as the Windsor Castle and Duke of Wellington in Crawford Street/Place. They should be listed buildings.

  11. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    July 4, 2019

    Great read, I’m so glad some of the ‘old’ Soho still exists. My friends and I spent so many weekend evenings hanging around various coffee shops and restaurants in Soho back in the 80’s and 90’s that are all gone – and shouldn’t have. Pollo, Presto, the New Piccadilly… Long may the French House and Lesley reign! I think I’ll pop in tomorrow!

  12. July 4, 2019

    I’m grateful for this latest little gem from the Gentle Author. Thanks.

    I first discovered The French House back when apprenticed in Warren Street. Back when mentored by elder statesman master craftsman woodworkers, and Tina Morris, with tremendous skills gained before WW2.

    Coming from North America, pubs and I were never an ideal fit, esp when early on I was glassed by one of camden’s working class zeroes (the court let him off, he’d been a volunteer fireman – akin to how the Rillington Place murderer walked away quite a few times before…). But I digress.

    For all kinds of reasons, I found the French House a safe, safer, place; full of the right crowd without the crowding, on par with a good European Grand Cafe. I was made very welcome there and in turn I introduced closest pals.

    One of these had what y’all call a posh accent, tho I was new to all that.

    Today I still wonder if it played a role on one special day. Gaston, whilst cleaning glasses, was repeatedly wiping the same grey towel on his nose, and staring down my pal. My chum said, perhaps too loudly, ‘It’s appalling!’ in that way only y’all brits can do.

    On that one occasion, it didn’t go well, but takes nought away from that fine establishment and never put me off. I’d bonded with too many regulars to jump ship now.

    Indebted to Lesley though.

    Rick Armiger

  13. Mikey permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Lovely piece.
    Thank you.
    Please interview Sandra, landlady of The Golden Heart in Spitalfields.

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