The history of St. James’ Court, A Taj Hotel, London spans more than a hundred years as a luxury hotel, but its origins go right back to Elizabethan aristocracy.
St James’ Court was the masterwork of an English gentleman, Major Charles Pawley, a Royal Engineer. Built at the turn of the 20th century, when Britain ruled the waves, and a third of the world besides, it was truly art without ostentation, as Pawley wanted it. He meant it to be exclusive – and exclusive it has remained.
To find its origins, we must go right back to the Elizabethan aristocracy and another period of hospitality. The wealthy landowner Lord Dacre and his wife Anne, daughter of Lord Buckhurst, was treasurer to Queen Elizabeth the First. Distantly related to the Queen through Anne Boleyn, second of King Henry VIII’s six wives, Lady Anne was said to be the most pious Christian at court. Shortly before their deaths in 1594, Lady Dacre and her husband drew up a scheme to endow a number of almshouses for the poor to be built on the open fields near their Westminster home.
In 1601, a group of small cottages, known as the Emmanuel Almshouses were constructed here on four acres of land to provide ‘rooms’ for the habitation of twenty poor children, which gradually grew with other charities over the years, into a cluster of five schools, identified by their uniforms as the Bluecoat, Greencoat, Greycoat and Browncoat schools.
In 1701, the simple cottages were replaced by three beautiful Queen Anne buildings laid out round three sides of the present quadrangle. This institution became known as Emmanuel Hospital.
In 1894 the site was sold and then acquired in 1897 for an unknown sum by Major Pawley. His highly original concept was executed to the highest professional and artistic standards – and at great cost. It called for the erection of eight more or less self-contained six-storey houses, each with its porched entrance opening onto the great central courtyard, each named in keeping with the area’s historical associations. King’s, Queen’s and Prior’s House fronting Buckingham Gate were the first three to be completed, followed by Falconer’s, Minster’s, Almoner’s, Duke’s and Regent’s House; names that have been retained to this day in the present hotels.
The name St. James’ Court itself was singularly well chosen, with its royal resonance linked to the Court of St. James’ and its association with the medieval St. James of Compostela, whose badge worn by pilgrims was the scallop or cockle-shell. This was the symbol chosen by the Dacre family for their coat of arms and can be seen displayed on the wrought-iron gates that guard the hotel.
Pawley spared no creative expense when it came to embellishing his hidden court. Here the surface of brick and stone was broken into turrets, balconies, arches, columns, cornices, gable ends, consoles and copings, all overlaid with scrollwork and bas-reliefs. Every portico had attendant nymphs to hold up the pediment, each balcony its supporting satyrs, while the entire brickwork up to the second floor was tiled over with a sea-green glaze. Topping this glittering green curtain is the monumental frieze – actually carved out of the brickwork – in which characters from Shakespeare’s plays disport themselves. This and much more was the work of the Doulton Brothers of Lambeth, was famed in their day for their pottery and glazing, as JS Gardner was for his artistry in iron, all this surrounds a cherub adorned fountain, a truly special centre piece.
The hotel first opened its gates for paying guests in 1902. Pawley’s goal was to secure the patronage of the highest in the land: members of the English Establishment. The then St. James’ Court was magnificently located at “the centre of the highest Social, Political and Literary, Artistic and Religious worlds in our Great City”.
All the centres of power lay within a few minutes walking distance: Buckingham Palace and the Royal Court of St James; Downing Street, Whitehall, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the India Office and the Ministries; the House of Lords and House of Commons; Westminster Abbey, the offices of the Church Commissioners and the newly built Westminster Cathedral; even, just across the Mall and St James Park, and all the more exclusive London clubs. Pawley’s achievement was to provide a pied a terre in the heart of London, that was fashionably “smart”, exclusive, quiet; without being vulgar. In short, St James Court offered a home away from home for members of the Establishment during the working week and for the nobility and landed gentry when “in town”.
St. James’ Court was famed in these early years for its role as a political meeting place. This had begun with the arrival of two important rival politicians in 1902. The Right Honourable Sir William Mather, MP was an influential power broker in the Liberal Party whose cronies included Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. It was here, over cigars, port and coffee, that decisions affecting the whole world, were made.
At almost exactly the same time as Pawley was building his architectural gem in Westminster, another hotel was being built several thousand miles away that was to become the most famous grand hotel east of Suez. This was to become the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay – better known today simply as the Taj – the brainchild of one of independent India’s founding fathers, J.N. Tata. The Taj Mahal Palace opened in 1903, as a property of the Indian Hotels Company Limited. Four years later, in 1907, Tata sets up its first office overseas, Tata Limited in London.
In 1982, the Indian Hotels Company Ltd. (Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces) acquired St. James' Court, which was partially operated from 1999 under a franchise agreement for fifteen years and was formally restored in 2014 to its original identity as St. James' Court, A Taj Hotel, comprising the Almoners, Dukes, Regents, Queens and Priors townhouses and Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences, comprising the Kings, Minsters and Falconers townhouses.
Today. St. James' Court remains a veritable English classic, typifying the concealed charm of one of Britain's finest hotels. With a distinguished pedigree shaped over more than a century, this discreet Victorian masterpiece with its Shakespearean Courtyard is perfectly placed between Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament in a historic enclave marking the centre of power. Exceeding the expectations of today’s discerning traveller, St. James' Court is a slice of the past served up on a contemporary platter.