Words Kirk Truman
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“It’s an institution, but I’ve made it my own institution with time… I do with it what I feel is the right thing to do with it.”
When you walk into 49 Dean Street, it looks as though every inch of the walls is decorated with pictures evoking the memories and characters of the Soho of yesteryear. You soon realise, though, that it’s not just the walls here that tell a story of Soho’s history and spirit; you can feel in the air itself, taste it in the half pints of beer, and find it embodied in the landlady of one of London’s most iconic pubs. The French House is a Soho institution. During World War II it was a meeting place for the Free French, and exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle is said to have written his most famous wartime speech here, while the French’s reputation for playing host to an array of Bohemians – from Brendan Behan to Francis Bacon – is unmatched; for this is the neighbourhood’s ‘village pub’… as well as what is believed to be the biggest seller of Ricard Pastis in Britain. Landlady Lesley Lewis is part of the fabric of The French House; and you’ll find her picture on its walls too.
It’s no exaggeration to say that The French House and modern Soho have grown up hand-in-hand. Although it is believed to be of Victorian origin, it is not known for certain exactly when the building itself was constructed. Back in 1891, one Herr Schmidt, a German national, opened a venue here called The Wine House. With Schmidt deported at the beginning of World War I, the Berlemont family took over, importing barrelled French wine and signing the lease on December 30th 1914, a date still celebrated today. The pub, officially called The York Minster, took on a new lease of life, and quickly became a popular meeting place for Sohoites, among whom it was known, appropriately enough, as ‘the French’ or ‘The French House’.
Lesley arrived in Soho in 1979, in search of work. Her first job was running a strip show on Old Compton Street. “It had been run by my friend Dilly, and she then passed the job on to me. There were a lot of dark times in the strip shows – a lot of the girls got quite badly beaten up. This was the time back when the Maltese ran Soho, and there was a lot of violence and aggression stemming from the rivalry between clubs,” she remembers. “I came to London to study at college. I wanted to be an actress, but my father wouldn’t let me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It was different back then – much different to today. It was lovely in those days. Nobody wanted to actually live here, so I had my own flat and studio where I choreographed the shows and made the costumes. I’m a Welsh girl, originally from South Wales. I’ve had a long love affair with Soho ever since coming here, and I don’t want to ever leave this place which has become my home.”
After moving on from the strip shows, Lesley worked in a number of different jobs. This included performing as a snake dancer; you can see this for yourself on the first floor of The French House, where she is pictured half-naked, dancing with a fierce snake. She also did a stint as General Manager for Theme Holdings, owners of premises that included Peppermint Park and Coconut Grove. It was all valuable experience. In 1989, Lesley became the new landlady of The French House, and she has happily remained here for just shy of 30 years. “The landlord was retiring, and they needed somebody to take over, and I was very lucky to have The French House handed over to me,” she says. “By this time, the place was very, very loved, almost adored. In the whole history of the pub there had only been two landlords before me. So for me, it was very difficult taking over from the previous landlord, Gaston Berlemont, who was born in the pub in 1914. We had to do some serious work on the place just to keep the licence, keeping it as close to the old place as possible. It took me a couple of years to be accepted by regulars, as I was constantly compared to the previous landlord, but since then it’s been wonderful!” she says, laughing over a glass of wine. “We’ve had such amazing people come through those doors, we really have. I did nearly give up at one time, but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s an institution, but I’ve made it my own institution with time. It will always have its historic connections, but I do with it what I feel is the right thing to do with it.”
As Lesley says, there are ghosts here… ghosts of the past, and perhaps literal ones too. She tells me of the rumours of dead Frenchmen, buried under the cellars decades ago, and the cold air that passes through you in certain corridors. Mostly, though, it’s the spirit of place you feel here – the spirit of old Soho. The French House (officially renamed as such in 1984) remains somehow timeless: despite evolving over the years, it is indeed an institution with its own rules: no music, no machines, no television and no mobile phones – a rare haven in London for conversationalists. As in Gaston’s day, beer is served only in half pints (they have occasionally auctioned off a pint for an astronomical figure). Lesley sees her role as maintaining the continuity of this very special place, keeping a watchful eye on its legacy and its role as a pub for its Soho regulars, not to mention remembering everybody’s usual tipple. By the way, mine’s a glass of pinot noir.