Rosa Lewis 1867 - 1952
Rosa Lewis was born on 26th September 1867 in Leyton, Essex, the fifth of nine children. She left Leyton Board School at the age of 12 to become a general servant for a shilling a week and her keep. At 16, a lucky recommendation took her to Sheen House, Mortlake, home of the exiled Comte de Paris. She worked her way up to Head Kitchen Maid and later took charge of the kitchen of the Duc d'Orleans at Sandhurst. In 1887 she started going out to cook in private houses where a lighter style of cooking, such as Rosa had learned in her royal French houses, was now preferred to the stodgy Beeton style of cuisine. First to employ her was Lady Randolph Churchill, then the Asquiths, and later the Saviles.
In gossips circle, Rosa's name was linked to Edward VII who had first seen her at Sheen House when the dinner so pleased him that he had sent for the chef. For the next 20 years tactful hostesses entertaining him employed Rosa whose cooking he liked best.
Rosa married Chiney Lewis, a butler in 1893. They set up home in Eaton Terrace. In 1902 Rosa bought the Cavendish Hotel, already a fashionable private hotel.
Distinguished English families kept permanent rooms at the Cavendish. And she welcomed presentable American millionaires. Before WW1 it was the height of fashion for London hostesses to have Rosa to cook for them but with the war came an end to entertaining and Rosa had only the Cavendish to occupy her. Her immensely kind nature caused her to bring impoverished military officers into the hotel but they were never allowed to pay. Rosa embarked on Robin Hood style tactics whereby the rich paid for the poor and she continued this until her death. Her companion for over 30 years, Edith Jeffrey, had arrived after WW1 after answering an advertisement for the seamstress to renovate the fabrics at the Cavendish, and she stayed on as a personal and business assistant and staunch friend.
Rosa's tolerance of the behavior of others, the raffishness of some of her parties at the Cavendish, the great names with which hers were linked, gave her a reputation which she had not herself earned. But she accepted her legend with a chuckle rather than a denial. Evelyn Waugh described her as warm hearted, comic and a totally original woman, whose beauty was still discernable in old age. She continued to dress in Edwardian style and enjoyed a grandiose and majestic decline from 1918 to 1952.
Rosa Lewis' life was used as an outline for the popular late 1970s television serial, "The Duchess of Duke Street". In recognition of her life and times, the 68th Westminster Council commemorative plaque was fitted to the left-hand side of the Jermyn Street entrance of the Cavendish Hotel on 16th November 2006.