A London pub that became a ‘Mecca for comedy’ as a favourite haunt of Tommy Cooper, Tony Hancock and Sid James faces demolition as a hotel group plans to raze a huge part of Leicester Square’s conservatio area and turn it into a 360-bedroom, 10-story hotel and cinema complex.
Radisson Edwardian has applied to Westminster City Council to tear down a substantial block of 19th and 20th century buildings, including the site of The Hand & Racquet pub. The Victorian Society is leading a host of campaigners fighting back and has written to the council strongly objecting to the plan. In its letter the society says the pub is the “oldest and most charming” of the Victorian buildings in the area under threat.
Conservation adviser James Hughes said: “The date of its construction – 1865 – is emblazoned on its corner and, despite having been closed for some time, its handsome and attractively-detailed external appearance survives largely intact. It is a classic Victorian London pub and possesses great character, contributing positively to the appearance and interest of the conservation area in which it stands.”
Urging the council to reject the application, Mr Hughes said: “The site sits at the junction of four conservation areas, and the proposed demolitions would have a significant and detrimental impact on the setting of each, as well as views in and out of them.”
A plaque, now removed from the now boarded-up pub, recorded some of the famous names that drank at the Whitcomb Street bar. It said: “The upstairs became a Mecca for comedy. Artists such as Tony Hancock, Sid James and Tommy Cooper were often seen quaffing ale or two. Tommy Cooper, when the bar was split into two bars, would use his height to peer through the windows to see if anyone he knew was in the bar, as he always tried to avoid buying other people drinks. The problem was everyone would see the fez and follow him in.”
Originally founded as a brewery in Tudor times by William Whitcomb, who gave his name to the street, the upstairs bar and restaurant was taken over by the Oldbury Family who ran the pub for more than 50 years.
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who wrote dozens of Hancock’s Half Hour scripts featuring the pub, also drank at the Hand & Racquet, named after the tennis court and the national headquarters of the game which had been located across the street until 1866.
Mr Simpson told the Independent on Sunday: “We heard about it as Tony used to drink in there and thought it such a fantastic name that we chose The Hand & Racquet as his local in the Hancock Half Hour shows. Nowadays pubs are all called things like the Slug & Lettuce. It’s getting ridiculous.
“It would be a great shame if the pub is demolished but we’re losing a lot of landmarks these days.”
In the £60,000 planning application, Radisson says the project will deliver a number of economic, social and environmental benefits such as “significant investment in the heart of the West End” and an “enhance setting for the Conservation Areas”.
The company said its ambition is “to deliver a high quality urban resort hotel and a brand new cinema facility operated by Odeon Cinemas Limited”.
English Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society, the Twentieth Century Society and the Cinema Theatres Association have all also objected to the scheme.
Mr Hughes said: “This is a very large site which offers scope both for saving the best historic buildings and sympathetically redeveloping the rest of the block. We urge Westminster City Council to hold out for a scheme that enhances Leicester Square with the best of modern architecture whilst respecting its historic streetscapes.”