Hard to believe now but the Strand was once dominated by a vast and luxurious hotel called the Hotel Cecil. With 800 rooms and riverside views, it became a centre of the “flapper” scene in the 1920s or the Jazz Age if you prefer. But the hotel had been built by a fraudulent company called the Liberator Society, led by Liberal Party politician Jabez Balfour (MP for Tamworth and later Burnley). Balfour was a wheeler-dealer in the property market who played fast and loose with investors’ money. He eventually did a prison stretch having been arrested in Argentina, where he’d done a bunk.
Thousands of investors detested the very sight of the Hotel Cecil as it had been built with their savings frittered away illegally. so I doubt any survivors wept when the huge complex was swept away by the oil giant Shell in 1930. It replaced the great Victorian edifice with Shell Mex house, a great hulk of an art deco statement that still graces the riverside today.
An 1890s guide to London I own describes the building in very scornful terms:
It was one of the outcomes of the notorious Liberator Society, whose shameful transactions led to the ruin of thousands of poor investors and for which the promotors have been justly punished.
Far from being impressed by Balfour’s sprawling hotel, the guide angrily notes that two venerable streets were swallowed up by the Hotel Cecil: Cecil Street and Salisbury Street. The name “Cecil” refers to the great aristocratic family who advised Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Most famously, Sir William Cecil (Lord Burleigh) who had a house on the Strand – on the other side of the road from the hotel. There is still a Burleigh Street that roughly marks the spot, a pretty inconspicuous thoroughfare with a Barclays bank and the back end of the Lyceum Theatre on it.
As The Strand is renovated and is starting to recover its past glories – I can’t help feeling a renovated Hotel Cecil would have been hugely popular today. Ah well.