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Lesley Lewis, The French House

September 23, 2022
by the gentle author

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‘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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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    September 23, 2022

    When we come to London this place will be on the list. I like a good glass of claret.
    From San Diego, CA, USA.

  2. John Cunningham permalink
    September 23, 2022

    When in London I always try to get to Soho and the French House as a Soho institution is always on my itinerary. I was last there a few weeks ago and was happy to find that it is still as quirky as ever. Their Normandy Cider is well worth a try! I also recommend to anybody visiting the area, The Coach and Horses, another excellent and much storied old school pub,which is just around the corner. My favourite pub in London.

  3. Milo permalink
    September 23, 2022

    I started going in the ‘French’ when i arrived in London as a callow 18 year old seeking fame and fortune. I wanted to know where the actors, creatives of all stripes and oddities hung out and was sent straight there and between there and the ‘Coach’ i met all sorts of strange and interesting people. I make a beeline there as soon as i’m back in London and Lesley is always a reassuring sight. Long may it – and her – flourish.

  4. Cherub permalink
    September 23, 2022

    Lesley’s mention of being the General Manager at Peppermint Park took me back, I can remember going there for Christmas Parties with work in the 80s.

  5. Robin permalink
    September 23, 2022

    London pubs are the best, and The French House is a crown jewel among them.

  6. Richard permalink
    September 24, 2022

    Thanks for posting. Lesley looks gorgeous.

  7. September 25, 2022

    Fabulous interview with Lesley and the history building up to owning The French. Such a special place in the heart of Soho……look forward to my half later. artyGent!. X

  8. Mandana Ruane permalink
    September 25, 2022

    Sylvia Plath signed her first contract with Faber on the bar at the French. (Source: “Letters Home” – a collection of SP’s letters to her mother.)
    There could be no better guardian of the French & all who sail in her than Lesley.

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