The 19th century was a hard time to be a woman. Their role was to be a wife and mother, in charge of all household duties; working and even studying were frowned upon – to the point where some doctors reported that women who studied too much were damaging their ovaries. As a result families wouldn’t let their daughters enter further education in case they jeopardised their chances of marriage.
Against these odds, Rosa Lewis defeated all the social conventions of the age to command the kitchens of the most fashionable restaurants.
She became known as the “Queen of Cooks” because of her flair for cooking and exceptionally sharp wit, having gone from scrubbing kitchen floors to entertaining aristocracy, and according to certain reports even having an affair with Edward VII.
Lewis (née Ovenden) was born in 1867 in Leyton, a London suburb that had only just been developed to house the increasing numbers of workers moving to the capital. The fifth of nine children, her father was an undertaker, and like most poor families at the time she started working as a domestic servant at the tender age of 12, a preferable alternative to the workhouse. Accommodation and food was provided in exchange for cleaning and performing menial chores, however she quickly demonstrated great talent in the kitchen, managing to rise to the position of cook by the time she was 16.
As luck would have it, her employers gave her a recommendation that caught the attention of the Count of Paris. He was exiled in Surrey due to the French law that forbade former monarchs from living in France, and a member of his staff wrote to Lewis offering her the role of scullery maid at his home. While this was still a lowly, gruelling job, it was certainly a step up from being a servant.
It was also fortunate that the Count employed a chef who was a devotee of Auguste Escoffier, the acclaimed chef who had worked at the very fashionable Ritz, Savoy and Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris. Escoffier helped to transform British cuisine with his preference for lighter sauces and less courses than the Brits were accustomed to.
Lewis’ technique greatly developed during her time working for the Count, and it wasn’t long before she was poached once again, this time by the Duke of Orléans, who requested that she work at his home in Sandhurst. He allowed her to cook at other dinner parties too, and her reputation as a talented English cook who could cater to fine continental tastes soon spread among London’s high society.
After working for the Duke, Lewish took a job at White’s, a gentlemen’s club on St. James’s Street, becoming the first female to ever work there. A feisty character with a thick cockney accent, she wouldn’t allow anyone to patronise her. Working at an all-male club in the late 19th century wasn’t easy, and when a colleague made an inappropriate remark she called him “an amorous woodcock in tights”, leading to her dismissal.
Lady Randolph Churchill (mother of future Prime Minister Sir Winston) hired Lewis for a dinner party, which was attended by the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII. He was so impressed with the meal he thanked her in person, and this accolade meant she was soon catering to nearly every party where the royal was present, as eager hosts wanted to please the incumbent king. The two struck up a close friendship, and rumours of an affair started to circulate. To quieten the gossipmongers she married a butler called Excelsior Lewis, however this marriage of convenience didn’t last.
In 1904 Lewis purchased the lease of the Cavendish Hotel, along with the leases of neighbouring buildings which she set about converting into one much larger and more modern hotel. Under her ownership the Cavendish became one of the most fashionable addresses in the city, hosting aristocrats and other members of the ruling classes, in fact a private entrance was installed specifically for Edward VII and his guests, further fuelling rumours of their relationship.
Lewis was a fantastic host, known for her wicked humour and bubbly character, it’s little wonder she was nicknamed “the Duchess of Jermyn Street.” With her career and fortune established, she could afford to dress in the top fashion of the day, complemented by the jewellery given to her by Edward VII. But when he died in 1910 she became severely depressed, World War I meant austerity and few were in the mood to party. She withdrew from social activities and the Cavendish suffered financially. After the war she turned into something of a Robin Hood character, increasing the prices of rooms for her rich guests, while refusing to accept a penny from the poorer veterans of war.
At the age of 60 she left London for New York briefly to cook in the city’s finest hotels. She also gave interviews where she didn’t hold back unless it concerned the nature of her relationship with King Edward. She did however give detailed accounts of the favourite foods of her famous guests, which enthralled American audiences to no end.
After her return to London the Cavendish became fashionable again, with a new generation of young aristocrats propping up the bar, among them the future Duke of Windsor. She was nearly killed when a bomb destroyed the front of the building during World War II, but true to form she was more worried about the vintage champagne bottles that were lost, and business continued as usual until her death in 1952.
She might not be a household name, but a blue plaque next to the entrance of the Cavendish honours the memory of this rags to riches heroine who broke the barriers of conservative British society.
This is an updated version of the feature originally published on All In London