The Greatest Parties London Ever Threw

Life at The Savoy is not as extravagant as it used to be.

Life at The Savoy is not as extravagant as it used to be. Image by Conor MacNeill in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Grey skies, exorbitant prices, obnoxious commuters: at times, London can seem an exhausting, moany place. That’s why in this city, the ‘any excuse for a party’ adage is particularly apt. We’ve raked through the detritus of parties past to bring you our selection of London’s greatest (and strangest) carousals.

Victorians: Parties in strange places

The Victorians had a penchant for hosting their parties inside things. Things like tunnels, for instance. In November 1827, a party was held in the dim recesses of Marc and Isambard Brunel’s yet-to-be-completed Thames Tunnel. Fifty guests dined by candlelight as the Coldstream Guards played deafening renditions of Rule Britannia and See the Conquering Hero Comes. The tunnel opened in 1843 but soon degenerated into a darkened lair for thieves and prostitutes. Marc Brunel decided to rebrand the tunnel in 1852, and heralded this with a ‘Fancy Fair’, boasting sword swallowers, tightrope artists, strongmen, dancing horses, and the purpose-written Thames Tunnel Waltz, belted out from a steam powered organ.

The following year in Crystal Palace, an even more unlikely party took place – this one involving 20 people tucking into a banquet inside the mould of an iguanodon, created by sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. And let’s not forget the celebratory dinner enjoyed by 14 stonemasons on top of Nelson’s Column, just before the eponymous viscount was hoisted up onto his perch in 1843.

Public bashes

London’s resident royals haven’t always lived by the motto ‘share and share alike’, but they do have their moments. Charles II’s triumphant return to London in May 1660 coincided with his 30th birthday and, as he entered the city, he was mobbed by supporters full of the joys of their returned monarch, and a newly-instated bank holiday, Oak Apple Day (still commemorated in a roundabout way at the Royal Hospital Chelsea).

One of the most inclusive royal celebrations London enjoyed was the coronation of Elizabeth II. An estimated three million cluttered the streets and shinned up the lampposts of central London in June 1953, and maybe later tucked into coronation chicken, concocted by London’s Cordon Bleu Cookery School especially for the occasion. London’s most long-awaited party was VE Day, which finally got the go-ahead on 8 May 1945. Many great monuments were lit by floodlights for the first time in years, fireworks crackled, effigies of Hitler burned, and most of London joined in with a chorus of For he’s a jolly good fellow for their prime minister. Not likely to happen again any time soon, is it?

Excessive festivities

Among London’s most extravagant junkets was the Savoy Hotel’s ‘Gondola Party’ in 1905. For this occasion, the Savoy’s courtyard was flooded over a metre deep in water, and turned into an ersatz Venice, replete with lavish scenery, real doves, and a huge silk-lined gondola seating two dozen diners. After-dinner entertainment came from Enrico Caruso and a huge cake brought in by a baby elephant.

The annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet was still getting stick for its gluttonous ways as recently as last year. Still, the 30 dozen bottles of champagne, seven dozen of port and five dozen of fine brandy guzzled in 1946, probably wasn’t repeated in 2013. Oh, and the turtle and Madeira soup is now off the menu for good.

The 1980s was the era of London’s liquid lunches, particularly on Fleet Street and within the world of high finance. However, it was only in 2002 that the most shocking display of debauchery unfolded. Six Barclays bankers rocked up at Petrus in Knightsbridge, and promptly ordered half the wine cellar, including a 1982 Montrachet (£1,400), and three bottles of Petrus Pomerol (between £9,400 and £12,300 each). The total bill came in at £44,000 not including food (the restaurant generously threw that in gratis).

Fêtes and fairs

Fêtes and fairs have provided much-needed respite for the common Londoner. Bank holiday Victorians flocked en masse to fresh air oases like Blackheath and Hampstead. Arthur St John Adcock describes one scene at the latter thus: “Steam organs wheezing and panting, grind out different popular airs simultaneously. Men shout; women scream; and children are cacophonous in ever possible manner.”

The Bartholomew Fair took place in Smithfield late every summer for over 700 years, and became a giddy concoction of circus attractions, prostitutes-on-the-prowl, cloth trading (its initial raison d’etre), and the gorging upon ‘Bartholomew pig’ – a roasted pork, which some pregnant women believed would make them give birth to a healthy male child. The playwright Ben Jonson was inspired to write a comedy about it. London’s more puritanical denizens finally got their way when the fair was halted in 1855 due to “encouraging debauchery and public disorder”.

Bitter winter weather didn’t necessarily spell ‘no fair’ for Londoners; between 1564 and 1814 during extra-icy snaps, stalls were assembled on the frozen Thames, and punters enjoyed everything from football, to puppet shows to food (‘Lapland mutton’ was the frost fair’s answer to Bartholomew pig). Earlier this year there was a frost fair on Broadgate ice rink, as a nod to 200 years since the last one.

With thanks to Conor MacNeill for sharing his image via the Londonist Flickr pool. 

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